A Native Garden Can Taste Good Too

September 2009

The East Garden, inside the side gate of my yard, is ugly. It is neither a passage way nor a defined garden. Located next to the back porch and a wooden deck, this highly visible space has been neglected far too long. Two years ago the 36 by 16 foot rectangle was covered with lawn. In an ongoing quest to make the garden more interesting and less thirsty, I decided the lawn had to go. For a while the area was covered with cardboard sheets and leaves, allowing nature to do the hard work of killing and decomposing the grass. Now, as the fall planting season approaches, I am anxious to create a plan for this new garden.

G090821_8224_1000pxThe East Garden gets quite a bit of sun during the summer and is not far from the kitchen. It is a transitional space between a small secluded shade garden and an oval of lawn. The shade garden has a rustic path defined by flagstones. The oval lawn, looking like a small green pond, is one of few remaining grassy spaces. I plan to extend the path from the shade garden through the East Garden to provide continuity and flow in the yard, while directing eyes and feet to the green pond in the back.

Deciding what the rest of the East Garden will become has been a long process but an interesting one. Initially I visualized a coastal sage scrub native garden featuring wild sage (Salvia species), buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens) and California fuchsia (Epilobium canum). Although gardening with local natives is a passion of mine, I was not sold on this idea. I asked family and friends for their opinions. And finally, I posted pictures of the space on my blog and asked readers for comments. One reader made many excellent suggestions and ended her comment with the following:

Or, from a totally different perspective, you could use that space for veggies! It looks like it gets a decent amount of sun, especially near the walk...

For years I have grown tomatoes, lettuce and herbs in the few small spots with enough sun for these vegetables, but I have never been a big vegetable gardener. Growing vegetables has increased in popularity recently, and with a family of aspiring chefs, I too have been bitten by the Farmer Jane bug. And so I am now considering a kitchen garden featuring native and traditional herbs, vegetables, and fruit trees.

030415_1125_1000px Once I settled on this, it occurred to me that the garden had been moving in this direction for years. A mature Fuerte avocado tree emerges from the center of the deck. A young orange tree was planted next to the deck a couple of years ago. The gate is flanked by two wild grapes (Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’) that have produced small but delicious fruit. Near the porch is a native currant (Ribes aureum) that I have been nibbling on all summer. Wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca ssp. californica) creep through the shade garden. And an old rosemary bush, five tall and wide, stands next to the deck. Along the fence are several wild sages that often flavor my tea and cooking. And on the porch traditional herbs like thyme, parsley, chives, and tarragon grow in containers ready to be added to a cooking pot at a moments notice.

In a rather unplanned, serendipitous manner, G090507_6269_1000px food plants, both native and exotic, have been infiltrating this garden. How could it be otherwise? It is near the kitchen and it gets sun. With excitement I realize there are so many more native plants that I can grow along with the traditional garden fruits, herbs and vegetables: Wild mint (Pycnanthemum californicum), yerba buena (Satureja douglasii), redskin onion (Allium haematochiton), sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia), California blackberry (Rubus ursinus), California bay (Umbellularia californica) would all be excellent additions. Check my website for a plant list of edible native plants.

Barbara Eisenstein is a native plant garden writer, speaker, and consultant. She cut her teeth running the Garden Hotline at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and is now an RSABG Research Associate. You can find more of her writing on native plant gardening on her website: Weeding Wild Suburbia. Email her with questions and suggestions at barbara.eisenstein@gmail.com.