Planting season for California native gardens

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Long time since I checked in with you all. It has been a super, busy fall – wedding, plant sale, autumn foliage trip, another trip to Pacific NW, along with the more mundane activities of playing with grandkids, working at the nature park, and even doing the laundry once in a while. All of this is to say, sorry that it has been so long.

Planting season

It is planting season and I couldn’t be happier. For the first time in twenty years of gardening in my Southern California wild suburbia, I feel like I won’t be making significant changes to the yard. All of the lawn is gone (YAY!!), and newly installed flagstone paths and patios provide places to walk and sit. The irrigation is functional and seems to work even with our frequent absences. Now comes the fun of adding new plants that will be enjoyed by birds, insects, lizards and people.


When I give talks on native plant gardening I always remind participants that I am not a designer. I have had lots of experience growing native plants and can provide plenty of tips on how to keep them alive … and how to kill them. Many plants have suffered from my care or lack of it, although I think my track record is pretty good. Design is another matter.

I took a landscape design class while studying horticulture, and have looked at many, many gardens. I know what type of garden I like and have been working towards it for years. However, I have a serious weakness: I love plants, especially local ones. So rather than creating a complete plan, I often buy on impulse, and then have to find a spot.

My plant selection is not totally random. I know which plants are likely to thrive in my garden, and will play well with the existing flora. Nonetheless, when attending a plant sale or visiting a nursery, plants call out to me and I can’t resist.

Getting to know you

When I worked at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden I sometimes bought plants simply because I had trouble distinguishing one from another. For example, I purchased alkali dropseed only because I couldn’t tell it from deergrass when neither was in bloom. So I planted them next to each other to see how they differed. Although they are different in several ways, I still can’t really tell a non-blooming deergrass from a dropseed. The point, however, is that there is no design reason to put a deergrass next to an alkali dropseed! I bought other plants to see how quickly they grow and what they look like throughout the year. Again, not a design inspired selection process.

Lt photo: deergrass (above), alkali dropseed (below), 2003; Rt photo: deergrass (l), alkali dropseed (r), 2012


For the past seven years I have been plant sale chair for the San Gabriel Mountains Chapter of the California Plant Society. This is like having a child work in a candy store. It is usually at the end of the one-day, annual sale that my self-control leaves me. Unclaimed plants look sad; they implore me to take them home, and I am powerless to resist.

When I first started working at this sale there were three five-gallon flannel bush plants left over at the end of the day. Who, I ask, could resist taking these gems home, especially at a bargain-basement price? Certainly not me! Yet when I got home, I was faced with the dilemma of where to put them. They get big (15 feet tall and wide), they like full sun, and the stellate hairs on their leaves are irritating to the skin. The only place I could find was in the back yard along the fence. Two out of the three survived and are now twelve years old. They have given us years of enjoyment, especially when they burst into bloom each spring.

Lt photo: Flannelbush, 2008, 1 year after planting; Rt photo: 2014 during TPF Garden Tour

My grandkids are less enamored of these beauties, but have learned to wear shoes in the backyard, and stay clear of the “nasty plants.” Some may think this is bad. I, however, believe it is very important for children to learn to avoid certain things, especially ones that can inflict pain. In fact, it reminds me of the holly bush in my childhood front yard. We ran around bare foot most of the summer and stepping on the sharp prickles of the dried leaves hurt! Nevertheless, we lived; the soles of our feet toughened, and our eyes sharpened to keep us from a painful encounter.

Planting like a game of tetris

Each year I am tempted at the plant sale and each year I succumb. This year I adopted mountain mahogany, La Luna globemallow and a Santa Cruz Island buckwheat, along with the deergrass and hummingbird sage I planned on getting (see complete list below). I have spent quite some time figuring out how this assortment will fit in with the current inhabitants of my garden. Each is a special plant, but where should it go? Just like a game of tetris, I spot holes here and there and visualize how these plants will look when they are several years old.

Did you get anything unexpected at this year’s plant sales?

List of new plants for wild suburbia:

  • Compact white sage (Salvia apiana var. compacta)
  • David’s Choice sandhill sagebrush (Artemisia pycnocephala ‘David’s Choice’)
  • mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides)
  • St. Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum)
  • chaparral currant (Ribes malvaceum)
  • La Luna globemallow (Sphaeralcea fulva ‘La Luna’)
  • deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens)
  • creeping snowberry (Symphoricarpos mollis)
  • hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea)