After weeks of laying down the bones of our landscaping project, with time out to rebuild the mountain, we’re finally ready for the most exciting step — adding in the plants. And just in time. When planting native plants, there are a couple of rules you have to follow, rules laid down by Mother Nature. It’s best to plant younger, smaller plants. The older California Natives get, the less they like being moved around. They also — as do all transplanted plants — like a lot of frequent watering to get established. The trick with California Natives, unlike the usual plants sold in nurseries, is that Cal Natives only want that deep watering at the time they would naturally expect it. That means in a California winter. You can kill a California Native faster by watering it out of season than you can by never watering it. That explains why we haven’t planted much of anything for over three years. Sure, we could have deep watered new plants during our last three drought-striken winters. But that defeats the point of planting natives — saving water. So now that it appears we really are going to have an El Niño wet winter? We’re planting like crazy. And we’re resenting every rainstorm we “miss” by not having our plants in the ground. We missed most of our November storms while we put the “framework” and erosion control in place. But now let the planting frenzy begin.
Ranch Manager Louis had graded the area that will be next to the back patio of the house we are building. He and his crew built water dispersion features such as French drains and bioswales, brought in some decorative rocks, and started building a stepping stone path toward the “vanishing edge” of the area.
Besides wanting our water features to not waste water, we do have a slight terrier problem. Terriers can’t resist attacking water, hoses or anything that sounds like running water.
So let’s step back and see where we are. I’ll warn you, we don’t have all our plants in and what we do have in are very small. In landscaping with California Natives, you play the long game. You plant for a few years out, especially since they do much better when planted small and allowed to establish. Then, as I read in an on-line California plant forum, “for the first year they sleep, for the next year they creep, in the third year they leap.” However, I’m assuming an El Niño year breaks that mold. California plants adjust their growth based on the kind of winter watering they get. After growing barely at all during our past drought, the plants we already have in the ground are perfectly capable of throwing out three years’ of growth just his season. Still, the best policy is to plant your California Natives small, see how they expand, then fill in the open spots a year or two later.
Here’s what I’m loving about this landscaping:
- The decorative stones and gravel make the entire area a water dispersement area. As we’ve seen in the rains while we’ve been working on it, water is channeled away so there is never any standing muddy puddles.
- The garden actually looks at its best in the rain or shortly after. The colors of the rocks and stones almost glow when they are wet.
- Best of all, there is no weird line of demarkation between the “landscaping” and the surrounding California oak and chaparral. In fact, unlike those fake overwatered “Tuscan” gardens that make the surrounding California Natives look so scrubby, our garden is monastic enough to make our surrounding California look lush. Which it is, if you know how to look at it. People who don’t love California Natives — usually people who think only East Coast plants make a garden — always talk about how California Natives “die” in the summer. They don’t. They go dormant, but most of them actually keep their leaves and their color — although it’s a dustier, muted color where smoky sage greens or bluish greens predominate.
We still have work to do, plants to add, but the main idea is there. Stay tuned. We will be in a frenzy of planting as El Niño continues.
NOTE: The plant at the top of this post is Ceanothus, California Lilac. For me, it’s the backbone plant of any California garden. Its leaves are evergreen and often blooms with purple to lavender to white flowers up to twice a year. There are varieties for every micro-climate and it comes in large, nearly tree-like sizes, or as small bushy shrubs, or even as prostrate creeping versions. We say, you can’t have too much Ceanothus in a California garden.