In our great conversion from thirsty Bluegrass lawn to appropriate drought-tolerant California native garden, it’s all over but the tweaking. That’s not an insignificant thing.
But first allow me to let you in on a little secret: the whole process isn’t that hard. Now I may be oversimplifying out of ignorance, because of the people involved in this project, I know the least. Well, I did research sheet mulching which ended up being more successful than I dreamed it could be. Otherwise, I know not much more than you can glean by casual Googling and buying a few California native plant books. Luckily, the people doing the real heavy lifting: my Ranch Guys and the lovely ladies at our favorite native plant source, Buckeye Nursery, know everything. It’s no coincidence that they are all natives.
That’s my basic advice: Always trust natives. Do this one thing and you can’t go wrong. I’ll expand on this — at least as regards plants and those who love them. Always trust natives who are real natives. Be wary of hybrids. Be forewarned against neonicotinoid-laced, GMO imposters lurking in big box retailers. In fact, step one should be to find a good, preferably locally-owned nursery with a commitment to native plants. In my experience, these people don’t just sell plants. They are evangelists. They are true believers. If anyone can, they will probably save the planet. Once you find your native Jedi Master, be loyal. Buy all your plants from that source, sing their praises far and wide. No matter how much you do to support their business, it will pale in comparison to the amount of time, teaching, customer service and love they will lavish on you and your native plant project. And every penny you spend on them — it probably won’t go into somebody’s trust fund. These dreamers will probably put every cent they don’t spend on food and rent back into supporting businesses that foster plants untouched by Monsanto that succor our increasingly stressed beneficial insects and animals.
Here’s the thing about native versus just drought-tolerant. Sure a plant from the Mediterranean or the Azores will probably thrive in California conditions. But, aside from the imported European honeybee, how many hungry Mediterranean or Azorean insects, birds and animals are running around your neighborhood? California has several native bees — who have nothing to do with honey — but are twice as efficient at pollinating California natives. Plant more Californian natives and you help them thrive. A California native, by virtue of millions of years of Evolution, is uniquely qualified to enrich and thrive in our particular soil, feed our specific and increasingly endangered native species, and survive in our unique ecosystem. Sure, we style ourselves “a Mediterranean climate”, but when was the last time you were in Italy? Every time I’ve been there, I experienced a thunder and rain storm in summer. You won’t get that in California. So, you see, not quite the same thing. Another important fact about natives: they’ve evolved with their natural enemies who keep them in check. Plant something from somewhere else — even someplace with a similar climate — and that’s when you get invasive species. Just check the hills of the Oregon Coast and see how Pampas Grass is choking out everything else or drive through Larkspur and see a hillside with nothing but Pride of Madeira. A healthy ecology is a balanced ecology where no plant can get too big for its floral britches.
Follow this advice and you will have amazing success. Even if you know nothing. In my experience with landscaping projects, you have to expect a certain amount of attrition. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. Replanting is extremely stressful on a plant, no matter how careful or knowledgeable you are. Most honest landscapers will tell you to expect up to ten percent or more plants will fail or have to be replaced. With natives, your odds beat the house. Of all the dozens of plants we put in the former lawn, we lost two. And that was after some pretty extreme conditions. They were driven down from Sonoma in the back of a pick-up, we had a sudden freeze after we planted them, and, two weeks later, the temperatures soared to over 90. We lost two! Given that we planted very young plants — which are more easily adaptable — that’s a loss of about ten or fifteen dollars.
Hence the tweaking. At this point, with the bulk of the planting done and summer upon us — thanks to Climate Change that isn’t happening — a full three months early, we’ll spend our time nurturing the plants we have in the ground. I expect the vast majority of them will thrive. On the cusp of our next rainy season — God willing! — we’ll fill in any gaps with some new plants. For now, we have enough natives to repopulate their old stomping grounds.
So that’s it. That’s all my wisdom on this subject. Except for this: Pots suck. Don’t do plantings in pots. They create a false environment where the area all around the roots of the plant are exposed to heat instead of being protected in the cooling ground. I foolishly bought pots thinking I’d have the Ranch Guys put something very hardy in them. Ranch Manager Louis put one hand on the empty pot, which was as hot as an oven in today’s 80 degree heat, and said, “No pots.” Pots normally require at least three times the water as something planted in the ground. So, if you are planting a drought-tolerant plant in a pot, you are being completely counter-intuitive. Pots are out. Make a note: pots suck.
That’s my story. That’s my advice. Trust natives. Imagine if we’d trusted the Natives from whom we took the land under which we found the Bakken Oil Fields. I bet those Natives would have been much greater stewards of that land. But that’s a whole different topic. Except, it’s the same. Trust natives.
Water note: The first year of native plantings is the most crucial. We have our watering set to 15 minutes of watering, twice a week. We might reevaluate that as summer hits, or, for this first year, we may have to keep to this schedule. Once established, the watering will be cut back. Perhaps next year, we will water only once a week during normal “wet season”. After that, judging by what we are doing in Sonoma, we will turn off irrigation altogether. Our similar plantings in Sonoma have not been watered for over three years. There may have been two or three weeks in that time, when the heat was so blistering, that we gave them a sip from the hose for a few days, but otherwise, just what Nature has provided.