As I’ve been posting about our Project Lawn Be Gone, I’ve had a lot of feedback and questions on this site, and on Facebook and Nextdoor.com where I’ve cross posted. Many of those comments made clear what I didn’t make clear. Not that I ever set out to write how-to posts, but rather to make suggestions in a broad brush kind of way. Still, I feel I should take this opportunity to correct some of my worst omissions in my Project Lawn Be Gone series, which generally took me from sheet mulching, to various stages of planting (here, here and here).
So, in no particular order, things you should be aware of when planning and implementing a lawn to California Native drought-tolerant garden. (Did I really not mention these?)
1. Your schedule is not your own. It’s Mother Nature’s. The best and safest way to landscape with California natives is to work with the seasons. Yes, new plants need irrigation to get started, but it’s best to provide that irrigation when California natives would naturally expect it. That means the best time to plant would be in mid-November. Then you can water — or better yet, Mother Nature might water, through our expected rainy season which, in a normal precipitation year, would extend through March, taper down in April and be next to nothing in May. That gives your plants about four months of watering to get established.
2. After April, at the latest May, turn OFF the irrigation. California natives don’t expect water after May. In fact, one way to weaken California natives is to water them out of season. Either they languish or they shoot up in uncharacteristically leggy, yet weak ways. Imagine giving a toddler steroids. He might grow unusually tall, but he wouldn’t necessarily be healthy. Water out of season is like steroids for California natives. Don’t put your plant babies on steroids!
3. To irrigate or not to irrigate? Someone asked me if I put in irrigation before or after I sheet mulched. The answer is neither. I inherited an irrigation system that basically pops up sprinklers on each of the four corners of the four squares in my front yard. If I didn’t have this existing system, I wouldn’t put in any irrigation. Since you only will do regular irrigation during the winter and early spring months, you really only want to be filling in for any normal rainfall we don’t get. I would do it ad hoc with a hose and one of those sprinkler attachments. One thing I would NOT do would be to go to the expense of having spaghetti miles of drip line with a tiny emitter at each and every plant. In Sonoma, which is much hotter than San Jose, we followed the ad hoc watering system in the first year when we were establishing things and we haven’t watered at all in the last three years. Everything is flourishing. Now we do get some good morning dews even in the summer where we are in Sonoma. I’ve noticed we get the same in San Jose. Your plants should be fine. Okay, there have been a few times in Sonoma, when we had a full wilting week of over 100 degree temperatures that we did go out and spritz any plants that looked particularly stressed. But otherwise, no water, no irrigation, no worries.
4. Can you really have a landscape with natives? Well, that depends how you define landscape. You’ll never achieve a formal Versailles style formal garden. Natives kind of do their own thing, although they can be coaxed into a vague sort of order. In our more “landscaped” areas of Sonoma, we grow rock roses and Ceanothus (California Lilac). These shrubby plants seem the most amendable to being shaped. Other plants like bunchgrasses and Blue Eyed Grass, tend to stay in a clump. But most natives, and certainly wildflowers like Poppies and Lupines, happily march to their own drummer. You sprinkle them in one area, they only show up 50 feet away. But, to me, that’s the beauty of a native garden, it always looks a little bit wild, a little bit serendipitous.
5. How strictly do you define native? Very. When I say “native”, I mean native to your area. There are many Ceanothus or Manzanitas with each variety adapted to a specific climate in California. Try to find a variety that is native to your exact spot of California. Something that evolved in the Joshua Tree area is probably not going to like our San Jose dew point. In my experience, the closer a plant evolved to your particular ecosystem, the better candidate it is for your garden. And native birds and bees need what they have evolved to eat. A Mediterranean plant might thrive in San Jose, but it won’t necessarily provide any nourishment to your local fauna. That said, even I don’t have a strictly native garden. Before I started all this, first I turned off the water. Most of the original non-native plants languished. Except some very nice Japanese maples that actually perked up once the original owner’s overwatering stopped. So the Japanese maples got to stay. In Sonoma, a landscaper (who is no longer with us) planted Rock Roses, telling me they are native. They aren’t, but they play so nicely with everything else, working with Sonoma’s natural water schedule and not becoming invasive, that we’ve grown to love them. Apparently so do our native birds and bees who are buzzing around them and using them for shelter. So there is wiggle room.
6. Play the long game. I’ve never been a fan of the usual methodology with landscapers who bring in mature plants and try to create a landscape overnight. It’s an especially bad tactic with natives. They do best planted as babies or toddlers and allowed to grow up. That means, in the early days, you will be missing one of the beauties of a native landscape: that you eventually have plants of all shapes, sizes and heights. In the early days, as my yard is now, everything is roughly the same size. That sorts itself out over the course of three or four seasons. But you have to be willing to give up the idea of instant gratification. Or find gratification in watching your native garden fill in over time. I’ve also found that the best course of action, when starting a native garden is to plant roughly 75% of what you think you finally want. Let those plantings fill in and find their footing. Then next season fill in with a few more plants where you see holes in your landscape. That spreads the fun over several seasons and, more practically, it lets you see where the shaded areas are going to be as some of your plants sprout up tall or bush out.
7. What is my irrigation schedule? This is the bonus question, but it was one of the most asked ones. Since we are still technically in a season where my plants would naturally get rain, and since I want them to get a good start, I’m watering on a schedule I consider pretty aggressive. That’s twice a week for 15 minutes each time. In May, I’ll cut that back to once a week. In June, I’ll turn off the irrigation and give a spritz as needed. Although I don’t anticipate needing it. Even on hot days, I see a lot of early morning fog or condensation in San Jose. We get less in Sonoma, but the plants have been thriving there. If we have another dry winter, I’ll turn the irrigation back on during our winter/spring months.
I hope that helps. But don’t take my word for it. As I mentioned here, a good native-oriented garden store will be your best friend in this endeavor. Good luck and I hope I see more and more Natives taking back California!