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Hints on Growing Native Plants

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Mother Nature is once again pulling out the stops this spring, clothing the fields and woodlands in blooms. It looks so easy, but trying to duplicate her show in the garden is often challenging. With a little understanding of the special requirements of natives, we can have more success.

The secret to getting natives from dry environments-like ceanothus, flannel bush, toyon, and silverbush lupine-established is to ensure that they have excellent drainage in the native soil. Planting on a slope, or creating a mound helps, as does adding fine to medium gravel to the planting hole (soil amendments are not recommended for most native plants). While we need to water the young plants at first, if the roots are in soggy, heavy soil in the heat of summer, they often rot. A cooling mulch is also beneficial.

On the other hand, plants from riparian settings like snowberry, redtwig dogwood, western azalea and wild mock orange, and woodland perennials like columbine, fringecups, and leopard lily are much more tolerant of garden conditions. They appreciate soils amended with compost or humus and regular summer water. They also require some protection from the heat of long summer days. Plant them on a north or east exposure or where they will get afternoon shade.

A great way to get a patch of wildflowers like Chinese houses, California poppy or bush lupine to naturalize is to start with a ‘mother plant’. Allow her to go to seed and the seeds will germinate at the correct time next fall. By eliminating competition and crowding by weeds, your favorite wildflowers will have a better chance of getting started.

I’ve had excellent success getting a large patch of soaproot, a tall dry-land lily, growing outside my kitchen window by declaring it off limits to the weedeater and doing a little hand weeding around it. Pulling some weeds from a patch of shooting stars has allowed them to spread, along with their buttercup friends!

Some of my favorite spring treasures are the pacific Coast Hybrid Iris. They are perfect for dry shade situations and under oaks. Deer proof and extremely showy, they have tidy evergreen foliage and large blooms in an amazing range of colors. Plant them high; don’t cover their crowns with soil or mulch. They hate lime. I feed them lightly in the late winter with a citrus or azalea fertilizer (another reason why they are so comfortable in the acidic soil under oaks). Water them infrequently in the heat of the summer and divide them in the fall, just before the rains return.

Two native succulents, lewisia and dudleya, thrive in rock gardens, rock walls or clay pots with very porous soil. (A packaged cactus soil works well for plants in pots.) They appreciate shade. A trick to getting them ‘planted’ in a dry stacked wall is to save seed from a ‘mother plant,’ then gently blow the seed into cracks and crannies in the wall.

California Native Plant Sale and Foothill-Friendly Gardening Workshop – are April 17 for more info visit the events calendar here.

Mary Anderson, a Calaveras County gardener, has spent the last 30 years getting to know California native plants on her 10-acre property and propagates many native plants from the seeds of her ‘mother plants’.