Gardening with natives |

Gardening with natives

Wandering the back roads of Nevada County recently, I was treated to the breathtaking sight of our western native redbud (Cercis occidentalis) in full glory, with its magenta-pink blooms glowing in contrast to the surrounding bright greens of new spring growth in our native landscape.

First to open were the redbud flowers at the lower elevations where temperatures warm sooner. Because I was out and about for a few weeks during this spring show, I have been able to enjoy an extended season of bloom, ending with those growing in cooler canyons or higher elevations. This is a perfect way to examine the effect of microclimates and elevation.

Even on my own property, the native Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) is just beginning its growth in the coolest area of my land, while on the warmer eastern slope the same plant is already over a foot tall.

California natives include many exciting plants to add to our gardens. Every spring and fall the California Native Plant Society holds a native plant sale at Sierra College.

In the spring it’s held in Rocklin, and in the fall it takes place on the Grass Valley campus. Much more than an opportunity to purchase locally grown natives, this event offers a wealth of information for both the beginning and experienced gardener.

It’s the perfect opportunity to talk to the grower about what each plant needs to succeed, take a wildflower walk, or meet other native garden enthusiasts.

If you cannot make it to the plant sale, plan to visit Blue Oak Nursery near Nevada City, where there is a good selection of locally grown plants and good planting advice.

Choosing natives for your own landscape requires awareness of your land. Learn where each plant grows best in its native habitat to ensure success as you introduce the coveted treasure to your own garden.

Does this plant like shade or full sun? Rocky clay soils or deep woodsy humus? Will it tolerate no irrigation (or fog!) in summer once it establishes? Where does it grow in California? Is it a hot climate in summer?

And perhaps most importantly, is this plant “deer-resistant?” The Matilija poppy is, the redbud is not. Many of the redbuds we see in the native landscape have grown up from little seedlings to mature specimens in the protection of other plants. The deer simply did not see them, or perhaps minimal damage was done, and the plant was able to continue growth in spite of deer browsing.

One of my favorite natives is the Western bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia). While its growth is very lush in the coastal climates, in most foothill springs its lacy foliage and pink heart-shaped flowers are delightful.

I’ve seen some beautiful stands on Nevada County back roads. This native perennial likes some shade, and no summer water. It actually disappears in the summer heat, but it will be back the following year. The deer never eat Dicentra!

The Matilija poppy is native to the coastal ranges and valleys of Southern California. However, huge stands of this striking white poppy (also called fried egg plant) are found in sunny areas of the foothills.

One local patch grows near the Litton Trail, a remnant of the much larger stand that grew in the vicinity before road and land development altered the scene.

Romneya is difficult to get started. Plants are usually available at the native plant sale. Irrigate when you plant, then be very careful not to overwater, even in the first year. I planted my first plant midsummer 15 years ago, watered once, and never watered it again. When a single plant establishes, it spreads its roots over a large area, and more plants will emerge each year. Give this outstanding native plenty of room. It is invasive, but so lovely!

Oregon grape holly (Mahonia aquifolium) grows natively from British Columbia into Northern California. A tough but attractive evergreen, Mahonia is deer-resistant, tolerant of both sun and shade, and requires no water once established, even in the hot foothill summers. The taller species is an excellent screening shrub at 6-foot height and 5-foot spread. Mahonia ‘Compacta’ is a cultivar that is lower and spreading to 5 feet, a perfect groundcover at 2 to 3 foot height. Mahonia repens is even lower. Bright yellow flowers open in early April, followed by attractive blue-black berries that many birds love.

Native ornamental grasses should be in every foothill garden. My favorite is deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), which begins its growth cycle with bright green foliage, moving gracefully with the slightest breeze. By late summer, the dense foliage is accented by long flower stems. The soft golden-brown color in fall is a perfect contrast to the autumn red of the Cercis, the blue-gray foliage of the Romneya, and the rich green of the Mahonia. And best of all, none of them need summer irrigation.

Explore your rural county. The native landscape is inspiring.

Carolyn Singer has gardened in Nevada County for 28 years. She is the owner of Foothill Cottage Gardens ( Her book on deer-resistant perennials and subshrubs will be released nest month. Send your garden questions and comments to

Saturday, April 28, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Sierra College Rocklin Campus, 5000 Rocklin Road, Rocklin, CA 95677

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User


See more