Getting Started – Part 2 of 3

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Slow, gradual approach

Not all of us are bold and brash (Getting Started – Part 1 of 3). Some are more cautious. In fact some are very, very cautious. And what does thing mean for a garden? Can you ever get where you want to go replacing single plants here and there with more desirable ones?

Alas, the answer is: probably not. If the new plants you want to put in are better adapted to your climate than the existing garden plants, you will have a difficult incompatibility. Kind of like a married couple in which one sleeps hot and the other cold. The only solution is an electric blanket with dual controls. In the garden, you will have to adjust your irrigation to meet the needs of two very different plants that are sharing a bed. If you water for the drinker, the other plant will probably drown; in addition, you will not be conserving water. Keep it dry and the old-timers will shrivel and die. The solution may be to apply water with a hose, plant by plant – a most unacceptable practice.

Flower of wild mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), a native shrub that accepts “regular” or “moderate” summer water.

If you still want to give native plants a try but can not bring yourself to bolder action, there are California native plants that accept and need water all year long. These plants are usually found along streams and creeks. They often grow in shade since riparian or wetland areas often support lush arboreal growth. Finding plants that accept full sun, summer heat and year around water is a challenge but there are some. I have included a list of thirsty California native plants on my website, most prefer some shade, especially in southern California. The water requirements for these plants are often described as “regular” or “moderate” water. Since they are natives, some can make it through hot, dry summers without much supplemental water, though all will accept summer water and many will look better for it. Remember that some California native plants will accept summer water though they may not last as long as they would if allowed to slow down during the hot weather.

Coral bells (Heuchera species and cultivars) make lovely garden plants that do well with common horticultural species. This is ‘Wendy’, a floriferous, dependable cultivar.

‘Genevieve’ is another cultivar with a deeper pink color.

The pros for the cautious approach are:

  1. The cost to landscape is spread out over a long period of time.
  2. Mistakes are so small no one need know about them at all.
  3. You can learn as you go along, though you might not learn much about gardening with plants that require dramatically different conditions.
  4. Your neighbors won’t get nervous since they may not even know what you are up to.
  5. Since you will be working very gradually, there will never be an immature landscape that looks bare and sparse.

The cons include:

  1. And this is a big one: It is very difficult to change your garden practices when most of the existing plants remain in place. If it is a high water use garden, it will remain so.
  2. If you want to incorporate more sustainable plants that require less water, fertilizer, and maintenance, you will have to provide care for them individually so that the existing plants continue to receive the resources they are adapted to.
  3. The whole garden makeover can take a long time, in fact, forever.

Scarlet monkeyflower (Mimulus cardinalis), found along creeks in California, is a striking and showy native that requires lots of water.

Seep monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus) is growing in a bed at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden with blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum).

Although I have listed five pros and only three cons, the cons still win. If you want to conserve water, create a sustainable garden, use native plants that are adapted to our dry climate, the plant-by-plant method just won’t do it. It will help you begin to learn about an unusual group of California native plants and hopefully move in the direction of making real and significant changes to your garden, if not by being bold and tearing it all out, then at least modifying your garden section-by-section. My next post on “Getting Started” will describe this intermediate approach. It is the one used by most people and one that I have always felt most comfortable with.

My riparian woodland garden with several of the plants on the moist garden list, including Claremont currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum ‘Claremont’), wiregrass (Juncus patens), a fern, possibly Sarah Lyman polypody fern (Polypodium californicum ‘Sarah Lyman’), and more. I allow this garden to go fairly dry in summer to save water and because the currants, gooseberries and some ferns do best with some summer dormancy.

2 thoughts on “Getting Started – Part 2 of 3

  1. Anonymous

    Up here in the North Coast my Ribes sanquineum doesn't go dormant (lots of winter rain and summer fog prevent it from doing so :D) Anyway thats a great garden you have! Will definitely visit your blog from time to time.

  2. Anonymous – thanks for stopping by. I think if I watered R. sanguineum it wouldn't go completely dormant here either – must be nice to have the water naturally!

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