California Native Gardening: A Month-by-Month Guide

In recent years, California gardeners have been presented with a number of excellent books on the state’s native flora and its value for gardeners and landscape professionals. Many of them have been reviewed on these pages. All have promoted California’s native plants with text and color photographs revealing their intrinsic beauty, diversity, and utility in the designed landscape. Each author has devoted a chapter or more to designing with native plants and another to their care in the garden.

Helen Popper has chosen a different approach in her delightful California Native Gardening. As the subtitle suggests, this is a seasonal guide to the care of native plants in our gardens and landscapes. Popper emphasizes the rhythm of growth, flowering, fruiting, and rest that is inherent in our natives. She acknowledges that “spring” actually arrives in October or November in cismontane California, with the first flush of growth in response to the earliest seasonal rains, and that late summer brings a dormant period—a “siesta time”—for most native plants.

The notion that gardening tasks follow this natural rhythm is what distinguishes native plant gardening here from gardening elsewhere in the country, or from the conventional approach to gardening in the West that used plants characteristic of Northern European and British gardens—for too long the default approach, even in mediterranean California.

Popper leads the reader through the gardening year, beginning with October and the first hint of a change from the summer siesta. She presents a concise list of tasks for each month, then expands upon it in a wonderful readable prose—nurturing our understanding of the needs of native plants in the landscape, month-by-month. She concludes each monthly chapter with a discussion of the flowers that will likely be in bloom in that month.

Several maintenance tasks are key to the successful cultivation of California’s native plants, and Popper returns to them regularly. Water is, of course, critical, and Popper makes the distinction between regular irrigation to establish new plants and the occasional irrigation that supplements natural rainfall and allows well-established plants to thrive. She also points out that some native plants are accustomed to water throughout the summer, as in the redwood forests and along streamsides. Mulching helps most native plants survive the annual summer dry period, but the type of mulch differs from a moisture-retentive organic mulch for plants from the redwood zone to a thin inorganic mulch for those from chaparral zones.

Pruning is one of the least understood of gardening tasks; for California natives, it should be carefully timed according to each plant’s ability to respond to being cut back; mimicking the seasonal events of fire and grazing can help keep some woody and herbaceous plants at their peak of vigor. For those interested in propagating native plants, Popper provides a thorough discussion of the plants to work with and the means for multiplying them in different seasons; an appendix summarizes when to take cuttings of the most commonly grown native plants.

Eminently readable, California Native Gardening will reside on my bookshelf right next to those treasured books by Bornstein, Fross, and O’Brien, Smith, Keator, and Rountree. This is the book I’ve been looking for to guide me through a year’s program of maintenance of the increasing number of native plants in my own garden. The native gardener in California should not be without it.

Richard G Turner Jr, editor