Life stages of a native plant garden

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Gardens, like people, have life stages. In the beginning, they grow vigorously, even rampantly. Maybe the first year or two seems a bit slow for a new native plant garden. Some plants don’t do much and losses are usually higher in this very early stage. The next few years (around years two to five), however, are often filled with rapid growth. It may be a time when you wonder what you were thinking when you placed that beargrass (Nolina parryi) on the six-foot wide parkway.

Beargrass (Nolina parryi), planted in 1999, still looks small enough in 2002 for a six ft. wide parkway…
But by 2012 it requires vigilance to keep it from poking an unsuspecting passerby.
With its amazing flowering stalk, though, I can’t even think of removing this beauty.

The garden then enters its middle age during years five to ten, when things slow down. Unless there are very extreme weather changes – eg. three years of drought and subsequently imposed water rationing – most plants should have settled in. It is my opinion that a garden should look its best during this time. If it looks perfect when you are writing the final check to your landscape contractor, then it may very well be too crowded and unruly long before the plants are full-sized. A good garden design and early landscape modifications should have this mid-life period in mind.

After about ten years, the garden may need significant rejuvenation. Some shrubs may start to look “less great.” A Frosty Blue ceanothus in my parkway is a perfect example. As it aged, it remained healthy but it was less spectacular when in bloom. Furthermore, it was definitely an example of something too big for the space, and so it required ongoing pruning to keep it from attacking unsuspecting pedestrians.

Frosty Blue ceanothus is healthy, but its blooms are not as spectacular as they were a few years ago (see next picture)
and it requires a lot of pruning to contain this wide shrub within the six ft parkway.
In 2007 this plant was stunning in spring.
And so in 2012, with the help of a colleague, out it went. The neighboring coast live oak appreciates the extra room.

Although gardens are always changing, when a garden is middle-aged it is time to reassess the whole landscape to determine whether it is still fulfilling the goals you set for it. Sound familiar? Yes, we could call it a midlife crisis, and similarly it is a time to take stock of things. Interestingly, according to an article by National Association of Home Builders (2009), “… the average length of stay in a single family home is a little over 12 years for all home buyers…” . Apparently people are not only reassessing their gardens at this time, but they are doing the same for their homes.

Removing deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens) from parkway
edges and base of oaks. These plants are being divided
and replanted.

My parkway garden (planted mostly from 1999-2002) has entered this middle age period and so I have spent lots of time thinking about what is working and what is not. The oak trees, planted in 2005, are still adolescents, but with their increasing height and bulk they are now beginning to dominate the parkway. Deergrass, some crowding the oaks and others impinging on the sidewalk and street, need to be thinned out. Most should be dug out, divided, and replanted in other parts of the yard. Not only will this reduce the crowding, but the divided plants will have a younger, greener look. Overall, however, I am pleased with the parkway. Walkers enjoy the spicy aroma of the sage and sagebrush as they pass under the shade of the trees and large shrubs. Butterflies and birds can be seen flittering around. Furthermore, and maybe most importantly, the amount of time required to maintain the garden perfectly matches the amount of time I choose to devote.

Parkway in spring of 2014.

One thought on “Life stages of a native plant garden

  1. Great article. It is interesting how all stages of gardening create emotions that vary – elation, bittersweet goodbyes, etc. I love it!

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