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California Natives and Drought-Tolerant Plants Create a Low-Maintenance Masterpiece in a Malibu Garden

May 18, 2003|Susan Heeger

G ardening in fertile California provides the opportunity to create beds using solely native plants. While purists favor the strictly home-grown look, plants from similar climates, especially those near the Mediterranean, can be added to the mix. Venice garden designers Barry Campion and Nicholas Walker took this approach on a Malibu hill, where their clients' wish for a year-round show ruled out natives-only.

"An all-California garden wouldn't have been flowery and colorful long enough," says Campion, explaining that there are "periods when the plants aren't looking their best." On the other hand, he says, native plants are very useful for those transitional areas--common in Southern California gardens--between cultivated and wild landscapes. By using natives in these spots, you blur the lines of demarcation, making the scene seem all of a piece and not a patchwork of parts.

Here, the owners wanted the hill--a garden link between their ranch-style house above and their swimming pool below--to connect visually with the nearby mountains' chaparral, and they wanted it to thrive with little water and care. Natives, besides being tough enough, have a casual, unfussy look that suited the owners' home and harmonized with the boulders they chose as landscape accents. They also loved the native grass meadow that Campion and Walker proposed--a soft, naturalistic swath that would offer a walking route around and through the garden.

After stabilizing the hill with concrete block retaining walls and terraces, the designers drew up a list of California plants that are especially tolerant of garden conditions: sprawling silver coastal sagebrush, fragrant white and Cleveland sage, ground cover manzanita, lilac verbena, showy penstemon, ceanothus, coyote mint and monkey flower--all from Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano.

They added robust Mediterraneans, many with later or longer blooms, including white and pink rockrose, yellow Jerusalem sage, purple echium and a slew of different salvias. For sculptural drama, they tucked in succulent dudleya from Baja and our local foothill yucca, along with the flashy Mexican and Texan look-alikes, dasylirions. On either edge, where the terraces give way to the hill's natural slope again, they concentrated more natives--buckwheat, ceanothus, tree mallow and matilija poppy. Grasses such as deergrass and Berkeley sedge sprout among these too.

Another California sedge, Carex pansa, is the star of the meadow, forming an inviting, walkable path along the bottom of the slope beside a row of pepper trees. The grass was enhanced with an edge of rustling vetiver--from India and Asia--along with a wildflower sprinkle of sisyrinchium and Ursina anethoides 'Solar Fire,' an orange South African perennial.

Although none of these plants require much water, the designers have many of the natives on their own irrigation cycle, ensuring that touchy types like Fremontodendron 'California Glory' get no more than they need. (A layer of shredded redwood mulch also cuts down on surface evaporation.) At planting time, Campion and Walker worked organic compost into the clay soil but skipped the fertilizer, which can cause natives to grow quickly but die early.

Local deer have been one of the few challenges, sampling the many types of ceanothus like freeloaders at a salad bar. Still, Campion says that most plants have grown lustily, draping the block walls in one year and creating a rich and varied plant community on a lot once ruled by weeds.

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Resource Guide

Campion Walker Garden Design, Venice, (310) 392-3535; Greenlee Nursery, Pomona, (909) 629-9045.

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