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In the Garden

Natives That Do Their Level Best

Indigenous plants can be coaxed down from their hillsides, giving flat urban gardens a wild side.


You've been meaning to plant a few California natives in your garden--fall is the perfect time--but you've heard that our native plants demand soils with "good drainage." Flat places--including most of the Los Angeles Basin, Orange County and the inland valleys--are not exactly famous for their native vegetation because of clay soils with poor drainage. Dig a foot-deep hole in clay soil, fill it with water, and it takes a day or more to empty.

Still, a few intrepid gardeners have managed to coax natives to grow on their level lots, sometimes in lousy soil. When Scott Goldstein and Lauren Gabor dug a foot-deep test hole and filled it with water at their Windsor Square urban garden, it took a week for the water to drain. It seemed as if the yard would make a better lake than it would a native plant garden, but a garden of natives is what they wanted because they bring the sight and scent of the hills into the backyard. The plants also attract native butterflies and birds and need little water and no fertilizer.

Most California native plants prefer to grow in precipitous places, clinging to rocky hillsides or steep slopes that have "good drainage." The two big native plant gardens--Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont--are on hilly terrain. The one in Claremont has soil so pebbly and porous that it looks like it was excavated from a gravel pit.

In the undeveloped past, most level ground was essentially what it is today--grassland and savanna--only now the grasses are exotic, need mowing and must be irrigated. A few oak trees hugged the seasonal stream beds that cut across this low-lying ground and--according to early Spanish accounts--vast swampy areas near the outlets of these creeks and rivers were choked with native willows. Oaks and willows will still grow in our gardens if you have the space, but so many of the smaller, choicer natives require that "good drainage."

Goldstein and Gabor turned up a number of natives known to tolerate clay soils and level ground. "Not penstemon or woolly blue curls," Goldstein said. "Forget it." But they found enough variety to make a meadow and a little area that mimics the fragrant chaparral.

They are not alone in thinking that there are natives for these conditions. Elizabeth Schwartz of the Theodore Payne Foundation nursery in Sun Valley and Mike Evans at Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano have short lists of natives that will last more than a couple of years in a clay soil.

The Goldstein and Gabor garden is now 5 years old, which is significant because many natives will happily grow anywhere for a season or two, stringing the gardener along, then suddenly die and depart like an insulted guest. Root rots of various kinds are usually their undoing.

At the top of the list of tolerant native plants are the grasses and grasslike sedges that naturally grow on level terrain. They make up the billowy meadow in Goldstein's and Gabor's garden. Laguna Mountain sedge and Berkeley sedge grow with several kinds of native grasses, including deer grass, purple needle grass and delicate mosquito grass.

Growing in the unimproved soil around oaks, bay and other native trees are a few choice chaparral plants that can tolerate clay, like the fragrant sage Salvia clevelandii, and one named 'Dara's Choice'--as well as dramatic St. Catherine's Lace.

Several natives from the Santa Monica Mountains, including the perky yellow canyon sunflower and a little ground cover, Potentilla glandulosa, are particularly nice. A marshy buttercup, Ranunculus californicus, also thrives among the spreading hummingbird sage, native strawberry, iris and coral bells. Nurseryman Evans has noticed that the hummingbird sage, Salvia spathacea, does not like sandy soil but prefers clay and also needs shade inland.

He points out that none of these spreaders will make a solid, dense ground cover in the traditional sense but when several different kinds are combined, they will elegantly clothe a good-sized area.

Most natives bloom in the spring, but for nearly year-round color in clay soils, Evans and Schwartz suggest the tough perennial native daisy named Encelia californica. This is the daisy seen blooming on bluffs by the beach. Both recommended the sweet-smelling, butterfly-attracting coyote mint, Monardella villosa.

A favorite of Evans' for late summer color is the California goldenrod, with flower spikes that can top 3 feet. In the wild, it's found in wet places and grasslands.

Native gardens are typically quiet and subdued at this time of year, the only color coming from the intense orange-red flowers of the hummingbird-attracting California fuchsia, and the reddening berries of the native toyon. The California fuchsias are most unfuchsia-like, preferring sun, heat and drought, and despite their preferences for rocky hillsides, they seem to do fine in flat gardens--especially one named 'Armstrong,' according to Schwartz.

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