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A Coastal Garden Inspires Mother Lode Planting

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By Mary Anderson, Master Gardener

Late last summer, when the heat got to me, I escaped for a few days of hiking at Point Reyes National Seashore. One foggy morning, I took the trail along Elk Ridge to the Tomales headlands. Bull elk emerged hauntingly out of the mist, keeping between the trail I was on and their harems.

Never one to stay trailbound, I was drawn to explore the rocky high points appearing above me when the mists parted. And there I found some special little gardens. Although rocky outcrops provided the structure of these gardens, I´d hesitate to call them true ‘rock gardens.´ There was too much soil and greater vegetation cover. But a glory of wonderful plants, many still blooming late in the season, nestled against these rocks.

Large clumps of the evergreen bunchgrass Calamagrostis nutkaensis dominated the planting, with broad blades of bright green and flowering culms reaching to about three feet. They displayed the grass virtue of motion, leaning landward in the prevailing ocean breeze. Snuggled against the rocks were clumps of the seaside daisy, Erigeron glaucus, still lightly in bloom, and a very low dense woolly sunflower or Erioplyllum lanatum. The rocks were painted with various lichens, their orange and chartreuse contrasting with the blue-green tones of dudleya clinging like terrestrial starfish. Occasionally there would even be a California poppy nodding in the misty breeze.

Below the rocks, the vegetation was a cover of low ceanothus and a type of very prostrate mahonia, or Oregon grape. These shrubs were low, wind-sculpted and very dense. Patches of white yarrow and lupine formed random clumps.

While we couldn´t exactly duplicate this meadow garden of the high coastal bluffs here in the foothills, there are some elements we can copy. First of all, we can approximate the coastal mist with high open or afternoon shade and occasional watering. And the grounding element—the rocky outcroppings—is a design element to be utilized anywhere. Rocks shelter the plants tucked against them, shielding them from excessive drying out from wind or sun. Succulents can be nestled in the crevices, while perennials can be planted at the base where their roots will enjoy the moisture retained under the rocks.

The ceanothus from the Point Reyes area do well in our foothill gardens, actually tolerating some summer water, as long as good drainage is ensured. C. gloriosus ‘Anchor Bay´ is a variety keeping to a low 12-to-18 inches, with a good six-to-eight foot spread. The even smaller-leaved cultivar called ‘Heart´s Desire´ is actually from an area above Heart´s Beach on Tomales Bay. The use of mahonia and the Calamagrostis would duplicate this headlands groundcover vegetation. Other perennials that would work well in this setting are white yarrow, the graceful cinquefoil Potentilla gracillis, blue bedder penstemon and the buckwheats or Eriogonums. Annual poppies and lupines could fill in any spaces.

These plants share the headlands with tule elk, a browser with habits similar to our foothill deer. Most of the plants described are resistant, especially if allowed to harden off in the summer, with minimal supplemental water.

The spring California Native Plant Society (CNPS) sale will feature many of these interesting natives, as well as advice on their planting and maintenance here in our foothill gardens. Please join us on Saturday, April 15th, from 9:00 until 2:00 at the WestAmerica Bank parking lot on Highway 108 in East Sonora. Arrive early for best selection.

See you at the native plant sale and in the garden.

Mary Anderson, a Calaveras County Master Gardener and owner of Lost Hills Nursery, has spent the last 25 years getting to know California native plants on her 10-acre property and propagates many native plants from the seeds of her ‘mother plants´. As one of the original members of the Sierra Foothills Chapter of the California Native Plant Society she shares her wonderful knowledge of native plants at the twice-yearly Native Plant Sale. Come meet Mary on Saturday, April 15th and let her inspire you to plant natives in your garden.