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Reaching Out Into The Wildlands

by Mary Anderson

I am becoming one tired old gardener. Gone is that early fascination with English cottage gardens, or the striving for the relentless splashy bloom featured on the cover of Sunset magazine. My well cannot support the thirst of a Japanese garden. And Bambi and his rodent cohorts have nibbled my pallet of plants down to the ranks of hardy natives and Mediterraneans.

But, surprisingly, my garden has evolved to a sense of peace, of settling nicely into my site here in the blue oak woodlands of our foothills. What now fascinates me is how my garden interfaces with the wildlands.

Through trial and error I´ve come to understand the intricacies of exposure, depth and quality of the soil and microclimates of my site. Where the soil is thin, I build up to grow plants successfully. I take advantage of the north facing shaded areas to mimic riparian areas. Rock gardens snuggle where immovable boulders poke up.

One of the major considerations is zoning for water use and fire safety. The showier and thirstier plants are focused closer to the house. My ´lawn´ of clumps of blue fescue and lavender gets watered twice a week. The next zone includes native salvias and ceanothus, watered weekly and kept groomed and mulched and somewhat tidy.

But after these closer zones, I begin to clear rather ruthlessly, trimming up the oaks, cleaning the brush to a few specimen toyon and manzanita, and really tough characters like Rhus ovata or sugarbush, Snowdrop or Styrax officinalis, Muhlenbergia rigens or deer grass, and rockrose (Cistus). I want openness here, to make Bambi feel less secure on his nighttime raids, and to minimize fuel for wildfires. The openness also creates a negative space against which the remaining plants show off well. Choice rocks are treasured in this area.

After this minimally cultivated area, I meet with true wild vegetation. Here my goal is to clear deadwood, clean out under the oaks, eliminate truly combustible plants like greasewood, trim down baccharris or coyote bush to new fresh growth, and burn the needles dropped by the grey pine. And to begin the adventure of introducing plants that I want to naturalize.

Just what is involved in getting a plant to naturalize, or be established to the point where it requires no additional care? Luck is part of the equation. To begin planting in the fall on a year that will be followed by a long, wet spring is ideal. We had a great one two years ago, where seeds that had lain dormant for decades burst forth, and many survived the summer. Lacking that, I have a portable irrigation system consisting of hauling around plastic gallon jugs of water with a toothpick poked into the base, to be removed after snuggling up to a plant-a mini dripper. One gallon of water poured out at the base of a plant goes one foot across and two inches deep. But dripped, that gallon of water goes three inches across and a foot deep, enough to supply a plant for a week. Mulching and shading the new plant helps.

Even plants that will eventually grow beyond the reach of critters benefit from protection when young. I bracket the new plant with two light 6-foot T-stakes, and a small circle of 6-foot 2″ x 4″ wire. I leave this for the two or three years it takes the plant to grow above this fence. Redbud, elderberry, wild grape, redberry (Rhamnus crocea illicifolia) appreciate this protection. Incense cedar and buckeye don´t require it.

I´ve had luck naturalizing species wild iris. The fancier Joe Ghio Pacific Coast hybrid iris gets tucked under oaks closer to the house where they can be watered occasionally through the summer. But some scraps of simpler Douglas iris planted themselves, and are now encouraged along trails. Orange flowering Dudleya, snuggled up to rocks, naturalize after one season, as do the perennial sticky orange monkeyflower or Mimulus aurantiacus. Snowberry succeeds in shady sites after just a season or two, as does Oregon grape or Mahonia, and Philadelphus lewisii or the fragrant native mock orange shrub. Some perennials that have naturalized well are the woolly sunflower or Eriophyllum lanatum, Silverbush lupine or Lupinus albifrons, and the local creeping sage Salvia sonomensis. Tree species that will naturalize are the pines, incense cedars, bigleaf maple, madrone and California bay.

Anyone interested in creating a garden using the existing native plants growing on their property is encouraged to visit Columbia College to see this done well. By thinning, pruning and eliminating excessively thick vegetation, a natural and very low maintenance landscape has been created. Showier and longer blooming plants have been settled in garden areas closer to the buildings. While Bambi wanders through this landscape, he does not destroy it.

Please visit the California Native Plant Sale on Saturday, October 11th, from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. to find out about and purchase these wonderful natives and many more. It will be held in the parking lot of WestAmerica Bank on Highway l08 east of Sonora.

Mary Anderson is a Master Gardener in Calaveras County. She is a member of the California Native Plant Society and grows, sells, and advocates the use of native plants in foothill gardens.