Carolyn Singer: A fall opportunity
October 13, 2017
Today is the day of the local native plant sale the Redbud chapter of California Native Plant Society sponsors each fall. Early this morning, enthusiastic volunteers went to work to unload native plants and set up the information and book tables in an area at the North Star House.
Those customers arriving when the sale begins at 9:30 a.m., armed with boxes, will be members (or about to join), taking advantage of the quiet of the morning to shop and ask questions of the many volunteers available to help both the beginner and the experienced native plant gardener.
When the sale opens to the public at 10:30 a.m. vendors and volunteers will be busy until the sale winds down at 2 p.m.
Get to know your plants
Once home with your purchases, there are many cultural requirements to consider before you plant. This is the reason for asking lots of questions during the sale. Native plant expertise available in one location for a day is a gift to our community.
Hopefully you have selected natives suitable to your site. Simply because a plant is a California native will not qualify it for any location. Narrowing the choice to a native already growing in the Sierra foothills is a step in the right direction.
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Know your site. Elevation is one factor, simply answered. Exposure is far more complex, and includes not only the number of hours a plant will be in sun or shade, but also the slope of the land.
Southern and western exposures are far different than northern exposures in the flora they will support. Shade from nearby native trees may also be a strong factor in exposure to both sun and wind.
Native soils can determine the success of a particular plant as it transitions from container stock to landscape. Nursery planting mixes vary considerably and most often reflect not what the plant needs as it matures, but the least expensive mix available to the grower.
I have often washed a sandy mix off the root system before planting.
The soil for a native may be improved with compost, although blends (your own or commercial) should not be high in nitrogen. One part aged compost to four parts native soil is a good planting mix for a native.
The addition of a natural form of phosphorus, colloidal phosphate or rock phosphate, will stimulate root growth. Our native soils are deficient in this essential element.
Rocky clay soil is a challenge to dig into when it is dry, but Sierra natives may thrive in the nutrients it offers. I have a very large stand of Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) that began its spread through unimproved rocky soil from a single plant.
The parent plant was encouraged with a little compost and some colloidal phosphate. It established during years of higher winter rainfall, then survived and spread with no irrigation during the drought years.
Tips after planting
Mulch right after planting. My preference is for decomposed straw. New straw usually sprouts, or it may even blow away in winter winds. Wood chips will also work to retain the surface moisture and prevent damage from heavy rains.
Another approach might be to spread new straw then secure it with wood chips.
Native soils are now dry, and will remain so until repeated heavy rains. Irrigate the new plant and the soil adjacent to it at planting time. Repeat this deep and broad watering each week for the next several weeks.
Future irrigation requirements are specific to each plant. The designation of "drought tolerant" leaves the gardener with insufficient information. We have witnessed many of our lovely natives damaged and even killed by years of drought.
In your own garden, to establish a given native, providing some irrigation during the first few years may determine success. Only the most "water efficient" will do without the precious water if planting is followed by a dry winter.
What about the deer watching you plant? Some protection may be in order. The most secure is rebar securing vinyl deer fencing in a cylinder around the native.
I do not recommend wildlife netting if it is close to the ground. I have witnessed valuable gopher snakes caught (and dying) in the trap it creates.
Try to complete your planting while the native clay soils remain warm. In most locations this will give you until mid-November. Shaded areas cool earlier. Avoid holding nursery stock through the winter. Natives may not survive in a container.
Celebrate the perfect planting season by adding native plants to your landscape in the coming weeks.
Carolyn has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning "The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom", and two volumes of "Deer in My Garden" (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to email@example.com. Check out her website at carolynsingergardens.com.