Carolyn Singer: Healing the land: Native plants provide the answer |

Carolyn Singer: Healing the land: Native plants provide the answer

Carolyn Singer

This morning at the North Star property off Old Auburn Road, a very special event is taking place. Concurrent with the weekly Growers’ Market, the local Redbud chapter of the California Native Plant Society is holding their annual native plant sale.

The gathering has a serious note this year, as members decided to respond to the local fires of a year ago with the theme of “healing the land with natives.”

Whether it is the unanticipated ravages of wildfire when we are personally affected, or the losses from extended drought, adding natives, from grasses to trees, will nurture us and our foothill landscape. Construction activity, too, takes its toll on the land, often jeopardizing existing natives.

The native plant sale is far more than an opportunity to purchase a broad assortment of native plants. The collective wisdom of the many enthusiastic volunteers is a rare opportunity to educate yourself about these plants.

How much water does this plant need to establish its roots? Will the deer eat it? Is mulching a benefit? Will it grow in shade? In full hot sun? Does it attract birds?

Choosing the right native plant

When we choose to grow natives in our landscapes, we are conserving water, perhaps our most precious resource. Any newly introduced plant needs irrigation to establish, but if your selection is with attention to natural growing environment, the plant will establish and adapt to our climate. Ask questions about where the native plant grows.

When land has been damaged, grasses are often the first choice for restoration. Roots extend deeply into the soil, adding to its vitality. Wildlife reappears with beetles, lizards and our beloved quail.

A native grass as large as a mature basket grass, also known as deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) may even shelter a young fawn. As lower foliage decomposes, earthworms reappear.

Native forbs add to soil and habitat restoration. These are the broadleaf natives mingling with the grasses, or growing in separate areas. Natural meadows usually have a mix, but large stands of a single species often claims its own territory, spreading from seeds and roots. The forbs provide food and shelter for wildlife.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a forb perfect for disturbed soil. Roots are strong. Its feathery leaves are delicate but have powerful antiseptic value. Deer occasionally browse on the white flowers but I have never observed damage to the foliage. This yarrow is an excellent lawn substitute.

Native trees and shrubs are another level of healing the land, providing more food and shelter for wildlife. While you may not want to plant a Ceanothus that the deer will favor, there are so many plants that the deer will not browse upon. The native plant sale today is an opportunity to ask the grower.

Select a plant appropriate for the exposure. “Trees and Shrubs of Nevada & Placer Counties” is an indispensable guide. This book will be for sale at today’s event.

The plant you select will add leaves to the soil surface, in time building a healthier soil. Roots also add to the soil.

Don’t forget the mulch

In the beginning, right after planting, spread two to three inches of organic material. Chips are available locally. This will conserve moisture and protect the soil surface from erosion caused by wind and heavy rain. Mulches begin to rebuild soil microbial activity as the organic material decomposes.

Mulch all your plants, from the native grasses to the tallest trees. Check mulches on a regular basis and add more as needed. The strongest and healthiest natives are growing where soil has been rebuilt following a fire or construction activity.

Join in celebrating our local California Native Plant Society chapter’s commitment to healing the land by attending their native plant event today.

Carolyn Singer 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 Check out her website at

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