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Native Plants Feel at Home Without Fuss


Talk to gardeners who use native plants in their landscape, and they'll tell you that gardeners who don't do that make a lot more work for themselves.

Unlike exotic plants from other regions, natives require very little care. Once established, they are drought-tolerant. Most also need no fertilizing, and it's unnecessary to amend the soil before planting.

"Natives are keyed into the environment," says Jeff Bohn, co-owner of Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, a wholesale nursery that specializes in native plants.

His nursery staff will be on hand to answer questions about native plants at the Mission San Juan Capistrano Flower & Garden Festival today and Sunday.

"In general, natives don't require as much water as exotics. In the hot, dry summer they maintain themselves with deep roots and hang out until fall."

Although fall is the best time to plant most natives, there are some that can be planted now, and many flower in the summer.

Natives, easy to maintain, also attract a wide variety of birds and butterflies to the landscape. And they're attractive.

"People usually become interested in natives because they're drought-tolerant, but once they see how incredible they are--that some have beautiful flowers in the middle of summer with little or no water--then they are really hooked," says Dan Songster, co-director of the Golden West College Native Garden and a board member of the Orange County Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

"Royal penstemon (Penstemon spectabilis) has magnificent iridescent rose-violet-blue flowers on a 1- to 2-foot flower stalk," says Songster. "Salvia clevelandii, with its whirls of lilac-purple flowers, is a tremendous attraction for hummingbirds. It blooms from May through August and requires virtually no care, although occasional watering in the summer can cause the flowers to stay on the plant a little longer."

Natives haven't garnered the attention they deserve, says Violet Lawrence, a Mission Viejo landscape architect.

"Natives tend to have a bad reputation," she says. "People have the mistaken idea that all natives are the gray, dead-looking chaparral they see on a camping trip in summer. That species naturally shuts down in the heat, but there are a wide variety of other species originally from moist area microclimates that are green and add a lush look to the garden."

It may take time to get accustomed to natives in your landscape, Songster says.

"Don't get discouraged if you have a few failures, because your usual cultivation practices will clash with the care that natives need," he says.

Most gardeners tend to over-water natives at first, which can lead to root rot.

In general during summer, natives need only be watered deeply once a month along the coast and, inland, twice a month, says Bohn, adding:

"Don't water in the middle of the day because this tends to shock the plants. It's best to water in the early morning hours or, if this is impossible, at night."

Natives need no watering during the cooler months when there is rain.

It's best to plant most natives in the fall when the weather cools off, although there are a few plants that can be planted now, such as such as some salvias and ornamental grasses. If you do purchase a native plant now that can't be planted until fall, keep it under a tree and water every three days until the time is right for planting.

When choosing a plant, don't assume that larger is better, says Songster. "Smaller plants will get established more quickly than larger plants," he says.

Natives need good drainage. If you have clay soil, plant on a slight mound so that the water can drain away from the collar of the plant, Bohn says. If soil and water collects around the plant's base, it will get an infection that will lead to root rot.

Because natives require different conditions than exotic plants sold in nurseries, they're not always easy to find. Some nurseries carry a few natives, but most don't make a business of it because their maintenance requirements are much different.


The Mission San Juan Capistrano Flower & Garden festival runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., today and Sunday. In addition to more than 50 plant exhibitors, there will be artists, crafts for children, food and entertainment. Admission is $4 for children and $5 for adults. Call (714) 248-2040 for details.

* For information on the Orange County chapter of the California Native Plant Society, call (714) 278-4795.

* Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano carries a wide variety of natives and is open to the public on Fridays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. ([714] 728-0685).

* The Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley ([818] 768-1802) also carries natives.

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