It’s Spring! It’s Spring! Or at least it feels like Spring here in Southern California. We’ve had winter rains and the weather is so deliciously warm that everywhere things are already starting to bud. I can feel that pull, almost primal in its urge, to start planting. So I treated myself to a field trip to a new Native nursery, here in the heart of Los Angeles, ‘Grow Native,’ and went to town. (Though he doesn’t know it yet, my husband bought me my Valentine’s gift yesterday. Now, isn’t that healthier and more long-lasting than chocolate and roses??)
Yes, this is definitely an optimal time of the year to plant California natives. They are about to burst out into the glory of the season. But as you consider where to plant the sweet smelling Ceanothus, or the delightful Redbud, it is critical to your success that you consider a few things about working with natives. The irony is that though they can be incredibly tough and low maintenance, they do need to be planted in a setting that is conducive to their success. So it helps if we understand their basic inherent needs.
First off, our climate is Mediterranean, which means wet winters and dry summers. Our mountains are dry, craggy, and fast draining. We get high winds and fires. And there isn’t a huge amount of leaf litter that builds up. Obviously, the specific ecosystems are much more complex and diverse than that, but it is a place to start. So, though plants will have their particular needs, here are three critical factors to consider as you pick out that sweet little Manzanita to tuck in a corner:
1. Water, water, water. This is perhaps the most critical factor in the success of a Native garden. Though nurseries are breeding varieties of plants that are more adaptable to our gardens, these plants are not meant to live in a rainforest! True, they need more regular water in the beginning to become established, but once they do, start tapering off. Many of them will eventually subsist on just seasonal rainfall.
2. Soil. Two things to consider: soil texture and fertilizers. Some natives such as the Manzanita, are very particular about their soils, specifically, they really prefer fast draining soils to thrive. Read the labels – if it says ‘fast draining,’ don’t plant them in your heavy clay soils. They also don’t want Miracle Grow or chicken manure to make them grow (actually no plant wants that). A bit of organic compost when you plant is enough.
3. Pruning – It’s bad enough to see the boxwood topiary, but you will destroy the inherent beauty of the Natives if you over-work them. And you don’t need to! If you space them properly (they grow…) the pruning you need to do is much less time consuming. There is a wonderful book, “Care & Maintenance of Southern California Native Gardens,” which goes into great detail about the topic.
The third week of April is now officially California Native Plant Week, so you can bet there will be a wide assortment of plant sales around town. But there’s nothing stopping you from going out this weekend to a nursery and checking things out. Touch the texture of the leaves, smell their pungent scent on your fingers, marvel at delicate blooms bursting forth on the branches. This Spring bring a bit of the mountains home with you – plant a Native.