The California native section of my garden began in 1990, after my husband and I moved into the McKay-designed house in an area of Palo Alto known for its collection of one-story, mid-50s modernist homes. Located on a corner lot, we have a broad sweep of property facing the street. The entire lot is a mere 6,500 square feet, and the area devoted to natives is a 1,350 square foot section between the fence and the sidewalk. The inner garden includes a mix of California natives and mediterranean-climate plants. Nineteen years ago, I knew little about such plants, but that changed when I enrolled in nearby Foothill College’s horticulture program, launched my garden maintenance business, and began to work on my own garden.
The garden we acquired came with a lawn, diseased firethorns (Pyracantha), Algerian ivy (Hedera canariensis), brick-bordered beds, and the sterile, overly tidy look of a garden tended by mow-and-blow gardeners. Much of the land outside the fence was shaded by three street trees, all Modesto ash (Fraxinus velutina). I decided to keep the saucer magnolia (Magnolia soulangeana) and the lemon bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus), which I transformed from a rectangular hedge into a small tree with careful pruning. We installed a new fence twenty-one feet from the sidewalk; this clearly defined a planting area that would receive minimal irrigation for the natives.
My first priority was to kill the lawn by withholding water, then removing the dead sod. The Algerian ivy was tougher, so I resorted to using glyphosate (Round-Up) to get the stragglers, after digging up as much of the vines as I could. The brick borders and old pyracantha had to go. I had truckloads of planting soil brought in to amend the hard-packed soil of the old lawn area. I began to plant what I liked and what I wanted to experiment with. One of the first was a flannel bush (Fremontadendron californica), which still spectacularly lights up our cul-de-sac every spring. Winter currant (Ribes sanguineum), chaparral currant (R. malvaceum), California buckeye (Aesculus californica) and two California lilacs (Ceanothus ‘Concha’) were the earliest “bones” to be established. Perennials and annuals sown from seed packets, gave me three good years of color before I began to develop a more coherent plan for the garden.
At first there was absolutely no irrigation installed in this area. My attitude was strict: whatever did not survive on natural rainfall did not belong there. Over the years, however, I have added a little bit of drip irrigation to the California fuchsias or zauschneria (Epilobium spp.) and a few other plants that perform better with some moisture in the summer. We soon learned that, without irrigation around the Modesto ashes, their roots probe other parts of the garden where I do irrigate. I usually turn all the irrigation clocks off in November or December and on again in March or April, depending upon the weather patterns (which have changed over the past several years).
Eighteen years of leaf drop and additional mulching have enhanced the native adobe clay soil. I plant in the fall after the first rains, when the soil is friable and ready to receive. This is the most efficient time to plant—and my back appreciates it, too. As the weather cools and the autumn rains soak the soil, plants root easily and are less stressed than if they were planted in the middle of summer. Summer and even spring planting demands that the new plants be carefully watered and monitored throughout the first couple of summers. In contrast, planting in the fall increases the plants’ chances of survival, and reduces the use of our precious water. I attend both spring and fall native plant sales, but I keep the newly purchased plants in a small holding area that has drip irrigation. When the weather is perfect for planting, the plants and I are ready.
Evolution of the Wildflower Meadow
Two years ago, the two Ceanothus ‘Concha’ reached the end of their natural life span. When I removed them, other plants that had struggled in their shade began to flourish. Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora) was one; its pink blossoms appear in March, providing a welcome display of color in early spring, and then continue into July. I had already planted many native bulbs, which had begun to naturalize, along with wildflowers such as California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), tansy phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), tidy tips (Layia platyglossa), dune gilia (Gilia capitata), and birdseye gilia (G. tricolor), which reseed every year. I save some of the seeds from these plants just in case I need to supplement. Last year I was glad I did, as the tidy tips reseeded only in the path alongside the driveway, ignoring the beds where they had spent the previous spring. Annuals do like to seek out the optimal spots for themselves.
California poppies (Eschscholzia californica, E. californica subsp. maritima, and the cultivars ‘Mahogany Red’ and ‘Moonglow’) are the dominant plants in spring, but it is amazing how many other species carve out niches for themselves. After last spring’s overabundance of poppies, I will now be more ruthless in weeding out poppy seedlings that crowd around perennials, bulbs, and other annuals. (Even gardens have bullies that need to be taken in hand.) After the first rains, seeds begin to germinate, covering the ground with a soft green presence. When they get their first set of true leaves is a good time to start culling. There are so many seedlings now that I no longer worry about birds or snails eating a few. If we have a dry spell, I hand water the seedlings to avert an early die off. Mostly, I need to remove some of the poppies so there is a balance with the other species. Two years ago, one plant of ‘Mahogany Red’ appeared out of nowhere. I tied some twine on it, so I could identify it later, harvest its seeds, and spread them around. The following year, I had three more ‘Mahogany Red’ plants. I’d like to say that I can leave everything to Mother Nature, but, as the gardener, I intervene in many ways in order to have a more beautiful display.
After the height of the floral display, when the plants begin to go to seed, I leave them in place so they will drop their seed for next year. This takes significant self-restraint; I have an urge to deadhead them or pull them up to make things look neater. By mid-June and July, however, the early bloomers have released their seeds and I can pull them out. Brightly colored farewell-to-spring (Clarkia unguiculata and C. amoena) puts on a display that lasts into July. The months between June and November, when the rains usually start, are the most challenging to provide interest in this part of the garden, but grasses and perennials offer a solution. One deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens) has a place of honor and thrives without water. Purple needlegrass (Nassella pulchra) also does well without water, and its graceful stalks last for months. Foothill sedge (Carex tumulicola) is an excellent performer and reseeder. I have not had luck with some of the native fescues, which seem to be short-lived in my garden. I’m hoping that two recently planted California fescues (Festuca californica) will last longer.
Besides the grasses, there are the perennials and shrubs. I can’t have too many of these, or there will be little room for the annual wildflowers. It is a balancing act to keep all the species happy. The best performing shrubs here are coast silk tassel (Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’), which provides long, dramatic tassels in winter, and pink winter currant (Ribes sanguineum ‘Claremont’), an early bloomer, followed by the flannel bush, which has now become a tree.
A long-blooming selection of foothill penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Margarita BOP’), hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea), Cleveland sage (S. clevelandii ‘Betsy Clebsch’), several kinds of buckwheat (Eriogonum), woolly blue curls (Trichostema lanatum), and zauschneria (Epilobium)—these are some of the perennials that have proven their worth in my garden, flowering when the annuals have faded, and often extending the season through the end of summer.
I have learned much about garden design and plant compatibility since 1990, when I started this garden and became a professional gardener. As I write this in September, the space that was so colorful in the spring now has its typical “at rest” look of a California garden in late summer. A large mound of St Catherine’s lace (Erioganum giganteum) surrounded by zauschneria provides a wonderful end-of-summer splash. The buds on the silk tassel are setting for winter’s display. There are even a few blossoms on the woolly blue curls. The look of this garden continually evolves through the year, and will continue to do so in future years, as maturing plants affect the microclimates in the garden—and as I try to keep up with the broader changes becoming apparent in our climate.