That’s the message of the new California Native Plant Week, which runs next week and encourages people to conserve, restore and appreciate our native plants.
Sponsored by the California Native Plant Society, the measure was adopted by the California State Assembly and Senate, and proclaims the third week of April each year to be California Native Plant Week.
“California native plant gardening and landscaping have tremendous positive impacts to our watersheds, to habitat recovery, and to curbing catastrophic wildfires,” according to a CNPS statement. “In particular, the resolution recognizes that home landscaping and gardening with native plants can cut residential water use from 60 percent to 90 percent over conventional gardening.”
Why Natives Are Worth It
Even more, many natives are not fussy or difficult. They require less attention than a lawn or a bed of annuals. They are simple to plant. Yes, they are easy on irrigation. And there’s little pruning, other than to shape them on occasion, or whack them back once a year.
Fall is often noted as the best time to plant natives. Temperatures are not so warm as to stress new plants, and the top growth can take a rest while newly emerging roots appreciate the still-warm soil and upcoming winter rains.
However, spring is excellent, too. You’ll just have to pay attention to watering early on, because there won’t be rain to help you out.
“April is a great time to plant,” said Diane Griffin, who owns Manzanita Nursery in Solvang with her husband Ron.
“All your winter plants are blooming. Your Ribes, most of your manzanitas, you’ve got your California native irises coming out. The sages are going to start booming, and the ceanothus. The monkey flowers will be blooming soon. So you have a lot of color this time of year. I think it’s almost in your DNA to want to plant. And the soil is soft (from the rain) this year.”
The only natives to avoid planting now are any big trees that have begun to leaf out, such as sycamores and live oaks, Griffin said.
“Sometimes if they’re too far into the leaf, they lose their leaves and that puts them back into dormancy,” she said. “They don’t die, necessarily, they just drop their leaves to survive.”
Planting Your Natives
Once you’ve chosen your plants, Griffin advises setting them out, but not digging the holes quite yet.
“Look the next day. Ask yourself, ‘Does this look good? Am I giving them enough space?’ All of that has to be thought out.”
Once you’re satisfied, dig each hole as deep as its corresponding container, but two to three times as wide. For a one-gallon plant, this means the hole should be 6 to 7 inches deep and at least 12 to 18 inches wide; for a five gallon plant, the hole should be 10 to 11 inches deep and at least 2 to 3 feet wide.
If gophers are a problem, line the hole with flexible wire mesh or a pre-made gopher cage.
There’s some debate about whether to use poultry wire, which has larger holes, or aviary wire, which has smaller holes. Larger holes allow the plant’s larger roots to easily move beyond the cage, rather than getting stuck and circling around within a limited space. However, smaller holes are more effective in preventing gophers from breaching the wire and eating the primary roots inside.
Fill the hole with water, then let it drain. This is to make sure that the surrounding soil is damp when you plant. If it’s dry, it can wick away moisture when you water in your new plant.
However, this year only, you can skip that step if your adjacent soil is still wet. Or you can drench the heck out of the plant after you put it in the ground, to the tune of 15 to 30 gallons. But if your goal is to conserve water, that’s hardly an alternative.
After the water has drained, carefully slide your plant out of its pot.
“Most of the natives, they don’t want their roots messed with,” Griffin said. “Manzanita, gently put it in. Be careful with the tiny feeder roots. That’s what makes the plant so healthy and adaptable to our very lean soil. If you start breaking those, which you really can’t see, sometimes it will be the end of the plant.”
Place the plant in the hole and check its height. The crown — the point where the stem connects to the roots — should end up 1 1/2 inches higher than the surrounding soil line. This allows for settling and helps water drain away from the crown, since most natives do not like their crowns to stay wet.
Build a wide basin around the plant. Fill the basin with up to 2 1/2 inches of mulch — keeping the mulch a few inches away from the crown. Then soak the plant.
“Water at least half an hour. Start with twice a week under normal conditions. Then cut it back to once a week,” Griffin said. “Pay attention to the weather. If it’s warm for a week, be sure you keep those root balls watered, but not drowning.
“I tell people to water deeply, to think how deep that pot is,” she added. “If they’re going to do overhead watering, I tell them to put out a cat food can, catch some of the water to get a visual… Check the soil. Push something, your finger or a chopstick, into it. It’s like checking a cake for doneness. You can tell. If it’s really dry, nothing is sticking to it.”
In fall, stop watering and wait for winter rains to take over. By next year, most natives will need a deep soak only every 3 to 4 weeks. If you selected especially dry types, such as ceanothus and flannel bush, you can stop irrigating altogether.
Drip or Overhead?
Conventional advice has been to install a drip irrigation system, which applies water directly and efficiently to your natives’ root zones. Because the emitters are beneath mulch, you’ll lose next to no water to evaporation.
However, it’s difficult to see if an emitter gets clogged and rodents can chew through the lines. You’ll need to move the emitters further away from the crowns over time to adapt to widening roots. And some critics say drip creates a “pond” beneath each plant, keeping the roots too wet for too long.
Overhead spray mimics rain, so can be perceived as a more “natural” experience. It cleans dust off plants, which allow their pores to breathe more easily.
But overhead spray can leave hard water deposits on the leaves. It can blow around and evaporate in the wind. And when a landscape fills in, larger plants can block the spray, leading to unbalanced irrigation patterns.
By then, however, it may be time to wean your natives off irrigation entirely.
Natives to Plant in Spring
Bush anemone (Carpinteria californica)
California lilac (Ceanothus)
St. Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum)
San Miguel Island buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens)
Flannel bush (Fremontia)
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
Coral bells (Heuchera)
Iris (Iris PCH hybrids)
Elk Blue California gray rush (Juncus patens ‘Elk Blue’)
Blue wild rye (Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’)
Monkey flower (Mimulus)
Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens)
Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica)
Lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia)
Sugar bush (Rhus ovata)
Evergreen currant (Ribes viburnifolium)
Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri)
California fuchsia (Zauschneria or Epilobium)
California Native Plant Resources
Manzanita Nursery is the largest native plant retail and wholesale nursery in Santa Barbara County. It is open Fridays and Saturdays, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., or by appointment, at 880 Chalk Hill Road, Solvang, 93464, 688-9692, www.manzanitanursery.com.
Las Pilitas Nursery in San Luis Obispo County sells only native plants as well, through retail, wholesale and mail-order. It also has an extensive website that describes characteristics of several hundred natives. The nursery is open Saturdays, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., at 3232 Las Pilitas Rd, Santa Margarita, 93453, 438-5992, www.laspilitas.com.
The following wholesale-only nurseries host websites that offer excellent information about native plants.
Native Sons, Arroyo Grande: www.nativeson.com.
San Marcos Growers, Santa Barbara: www.smgrowers.com.
Suncrest Nurseries, Watsonville: www.suncrestnurseries.com.
Tree of Life Nursery, San Juan Capistrano: www.treeoflifenursery.com.
Seeds of Wisdom
If a native plant seems especially large in relation to the size of its nursery container, gently slide the plant out of the can to inspect its roots. If they are circling the inside of the container or have pushed out most of the potting soil, take a pass and try another plant.
Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.