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GARDENING

When You Get the Urge to Just Go Native . . .

March 14, 1998|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

El Nino, that mysterious weather-warping roughneck, has thrown off all bets. With the string of storms hitting Southern California, we've become an unlikely wet zone.

But don't forget that we live in an environmental oddity--a desert abutting an ocean. El Nino aside, these parts are predictably dry, with big rains almost freakish.

Gardeners have studied our weather for decades, with many learning to live accordingly. That means filling their yards with native plants that drink little, handle hot summers, complement the natural habitat and thrive. But how do you find the best natives?

A new magazine called Wild Garden can help. It's published in Eugene, Ore., and emphasizes gardening with local varieties from regions across the country, including Orange County. Articles include "The Joy of Wild Gardening," "Connecting Gardens to Our Lives" and "Building Inside Nature's Envelope."

Then there are books, such as "Native Gardens for Dry Climates" (Clarkson Potter Publishers, $35, 1997),"Heat-Zone Gardening" (Time-Life Books, $24.95, 1998) and "Xeriscape Plant Guide" (Fulcrum Publishing, $34.95, 1997).

They all have one thing in common: advice on how to use both native (varieties brought here years ago that have assimilated) and indigenous (true local types) plants and flowers, either alone or in tandem with more needy imports to beautify your surroundings.

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These resources came as good news to Elizabeth Newman, who for years has filled her garden in Irvine with a combination of home-grown shrubs and flowers and more distant varieties. She enjoys the colorful look of her backyard but has fretted over the watering needs of each plant.

"I really do worry about watering [the natives] too much while I take care of the others that I know need more moisture," she said. "If I had all-native, I could just relax."

Newman's husband, William, also takes a hand in the garden. He's most interested in water conservation.

"We've had some bad years water-wise," he said. "I remember [when] everyone was told to not use water as much. . . You just want to save water any way you can when it's like a drought around here."

All the publications go into the need for water-rationing and how natives can help. They also point out that native foliage survives with little or no pesticides because of its hardiness and, in general, requires less maintenance than imports.

As for aesthetics, Sally Wasowski, one of the authors of "Native Gardens for Dry Climates," writes that you don't sacrifice anything when going native. "Healthy natives are also a feast for the eye--sometimes delicately pretty, sometimes magnificently beautiful," she said. "Native landscapes . . . are environmentally friendly."

With an average of only 8 to 10 inches of rainfall on the coast and 12 to 14 farther inland, the need for the less thirsty is clear. There's even an official name for planting with water-thrifty species: xeriscaping, which comes from the Greek xeros, meaning "dry."

That's the central focus of "Xeriscape Plant Guide." The book lists hundreds of flowers, shrubs and other plants and details which regions they can live easily in. It also goes beyond native and indigenous types--for example, the book points out that most irises can survive local drought conditions even though they originated from wetter Mediterranean areas.

Learning more about native flowers attracted Lara Simms, a Newport Beach gardener. She liked "the symmetry" of using flowers around her house that she might encounter while hiking in nearby foothills and elsewhere.

"I'm sure I walk right by many [native varieties] when I shop for flowers," Simms said. "If I knew which was which, I'd plant them."

Among sections on trees, shrubs and ground covering, "Native Gardens for Dry Climates" has chapters on perennial flowers. Some recommendations for climates like Orange County's are the Coast sunflower, Zauschneria (otherwise known as California fuchsia), Corethrogyne (California aster) and the orangish Monkey flower.

When it comes to evergreen shrubs, the book suggests Chaparral whitehorn with its blue, pink or white flowers, San Diego summer holly and Sugarbush with its red and cream-colored flowers.

As for Wild Garden magazine, one of the more useful features is a section called Regional Wildscaping, where Southern California is highlighted. In the premiere issue, the authors discuss early blooming native species, such as the white-flowered, red-flowered and golden currants, and the fuchsia-flowered gooseberry.

Finding native plants in the county shouldn't be too hard. Most nurseries carry several varieties and one, the Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, specializes in them.

"Wild gardening offers terrific benefits to people as well as the ecosystem," said Mike Evans, one of the nursery's owners. "Native plants look like they belong in the environment because they do. And they encourage birds and other wildlife to visit your garden."

Another good place to get info is the Orange County chapter of the California Native Plant Society at (714) 278-4795.

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