Benefits of native shrubs in the yard
April 26, 2013
In early April I was outside working in my garden, doing what I do a lot this time of year—grooming and weeding my native landscape in preparation for two big garden party fundraising events we host each year. The weather was unsettled, but it was warm and sunny with a nice breeze. As I picked pine needles off a large California anemone shrub, I smelled a deep, musty scent and realized I had worked my way over to the big specimen of Ceanothus "Julia Phelps" that I planted about 10 years ago. It was in full bloom, covered with intensely colored deep purple flowers and was swarming with thousands upon thousands of flies, wasps and bees—a parade of pollinators. There were so many flying insects, I could hear the hum generated by their myriad beating wings.
This experience made me think about some of the benefits of native shrubs and why I decided to create a native plant landscape in the first place: they are beautiful in flower, they attract wildlife to your garden and most are very drought tolerant, which helps you conserve water.
The color of many of California's native shrubs in bloom is nothing short of spectacular. Take the common California redbud. It is deciduous and flowers in March and April just before its spring foliage emerges. Its flower color is so amazing, I don't even know what to call it—sort of an outrageous magenta pink color. And then there are the many species and Ceanothus and their cultivars that bloom in various shades of blue, purple and white. You can see many different Ceanothus in bloom during April by visiting the University of California at Davis Arboretum, which has extensive plantings of California native plants. If yellow is your color, you won't soon forget California fremontia after seeing it in bloom. It has big, waxy 3-inch-wide flowers that can completely cover the plant. And last, but not least, there is California anemone, which has clusters of big 3-inch wide white flowers.
All of these shrubs are drought tolerant and do not need any irrigation once established. To get them established, you plant in the fall in a sunny location, just before the start of the winter rains. You will need to irrigate them with a drip system during their first summer after planting. A deep irrigation once every two weeks should do it. After their second rainy season, they should be well enough established to survive without further irrigation. Not having to irrigate in the summer is a wonderful benefit. It saves you money and uses less water so that there is more left for our local rivers and streams.
In some cases gardeners may want to keep some of their native shrubs on a reduced-frequency summer irrigation schedule after the plants are established. Many natives look better with just a little summer water now and then. And native plants are likely to be more fire resistant if the leaves and stems contain moisture, which occasional (every 3-4 weeks) irrigation will supply. This is especially important for native plants located within 30 feet of a home or other flammable structure. Be advised that some native shrubs resent any summer water, such as fremontias, but toyon and capenterias are fine with occasional added water during summer.
California native shrubs also provide food, shelter and breeding space for birds and other animals. Mahonia, coffeeberry and toyon are all evergreen shrubs that produce berries that are eaten by birds. I have observed cedar waxwings eating toyon berries in my garden and western bluebirds wolfing down big fat coffeeberry fruits. If you want to attract wildlife to your garden, you should also consider adding a water source. I constructed a pond with a bird-bath/fountain in it. My hope was that the pond would provide breeding habitat for Pacific chorus frogs, which would then attract garter snakes that eat the frogs. My neighbor, who is deathly afraid of snakes, was not happy when she heard about this! The pond ended up being used heavily by birds that bathe and drink from it, and by the frogs, which sing so loudly that I sometimes have to close the doors for a little peace and quiet. To my neighbor's relief, (and my disappointment) the garter snakes that I see occasionally have not increased significantly in number.
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I have really enjoyed building and using our native plant landscape. Most of the maintenance work gets done in the early spring when the weather is cool. Then while it is in bloom we use the garden a lot for entertaining. When the heat of summer arrives in June, I just walk away from it and go camping and fishing. And I don't have to worry about it at all because I know that the drought-tolerant native plants in my garden will take a summer siesta and resume growth again when the winter rains return—just like they do in nature.
If you would like to see our native plant garden and learn more about sustainable gardening, you can visit during two different events this spring.
The first is Art for Life, a spring garden party and art auction, from 1 to 5 p.m. May 4. This event is a fundraiser to assist people living with HIV/AIDS in Nevada County, and tickets are $50. For reservations or more information, contact Fred Hodgson (firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-272-8900).
The second event is the Art in the Garden Party, a sustainable gardening festival and garden art sale, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., June 1.
This event is free and features eight local artists selling garden art. Food and drink will be for sale, and sustainable gardening talks and garden tours are scheduled throughout the day. Twenty percent of the art sale revenues from this event will be donated to Sierra Streams Institute. For more information on this event visit http://www.sierrastreamsinstitute.org or call Lisa Frankel at 530-263-7055 or Fred Hodgson at 530-272-8900.
Brad Carter is a horticulturist in Grass Valley.