How to Convert Your Yard to a Native Paradise
By Barbara Eisenstein
There is always work to do in my garden but the work at hand is removing turf from a 6 foot wide, 90 foot long strip between the sidewalk and the street. The days of watering, mowing and edging the parkway are coming to an end. I would like to remove every piece of turf from my entire yard, but family and concern for the large, old trees that have existed in our landscape for probably 50 or more years, stop me. Rather than abruptly changing the watering and maintenance regime, I have chosen an incremental approach to converting my yard into a more easily sustainable landscape, one that is peaceful, environmentally sound and welcoming to native plants and animals.
There are as many ways to create a new landscape as there are gardeners. In the following article I will present three major approaches to converting a traditional turf-dominated yard into a native plant garden paradise: 1) the clean-slate approach, 2) the bit-by-bit approach, and 3) the substitution approach. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
The Clean-Slate Approach
The clean-slate approach, described above, involves the complete or nearly complete removal of the original landscape to make way for a whole new garden of native plants. This is the most radical and daring approach. You are free to reinvent the garden without regard for the needs of existing plants. Results are immediate and may be quite impressive. On the other hand, failures may be big and obvious. This approach may make your neighbors particularly nervous as they wonder whether their neighborhood will begin to resemble an abandoned, urban wasteland. If your knowledge of gardening and native plants is limited, it would be wise to consult experts before embarking on such a large project. Landscape designers and landscape architects who specialize in natural gardens and California native plants can help you avoid problems and costly mistakes. As noted in the description above, the clean-slate approach is most likely to arouse both the interest and concern of your neighbors. You will need to work closely with them and your city officials to avoid misunderstandings that may lead to poor relationships and even legal action. Consult with city officials on local ordinances to preempt these kinds of problems. Hardscape, like benches, paths and signs, also inform others that you are creating a space that will be maintained and cared for. A confirmation letter, an updated program and directions will be mailed upon receipt of registration.
The Bit-by-Bit Approach
This less radical approach involves identifying portions of your yard that you will convert to native, habitat gardens. This may be a side yard, a corner of a larger garden, or, as in my case, a parkway between the street and sidewalk. (Be sure to check with your city regarding ordinances regulating how this land may be used and whether there are any restrictions on the size or types of parkway shrubs.) It is important that the section of the yard that you select can be watered according to the needs of your new plants. If you are going to use an automatic irrigation system, it should be on a zone of its own. Now that you have selected a small garden in your yard, you can experiment without risking the loss of your complete landscape. As you gain knowledge about which plants do well in your area with your maintenance practices, and which plants you like best, you can expand into other portions of the yard. Although you are limited by existing conditions dictated by trees and other plants in nearby spaces, you can modify your garden incrementally, learning and experimenting as you go.
A third approach to native gardening is to substitute individual plants in your yard with native alternatives. The advantage to this approach is that you can do it with the least disruption to your existing landscape. The disadvantage is that each substitution must be compatible with existing conditions. Since most common exotic garden plants require more water than many natives, and they require the water to be distributed throughout the year, you may be limited to native plants with high irrigation needs, such as those commonly found near rivers, streams or other regular sources of water. This may not reduce your reliance on irrigation or significantly change your other maintenance practices.
Considerations for all gardens
Physical Conditions Regardless of the approach you use, it is essential that you know the physical conditions of your garden. You must know how much sunlight falls in the garden through all the seasons of the year. Buildings and trees cast larger shadows in the winter, and so some gardens will have full sun in the heat of the summer, and full shade in the winter. Dips and other variations in the landscape can result in microclimates – areas with different climatic conditions than those around them. Water availability, soil type and drainage are also important factors in selecting appropriate plants. Selecting plants that are well adapted to your natural conditions not only increases your chances of success, it can reduce costly maintenance for years to come.
Nature As a Guide
Look around your local area for remnants of the natural environment. For example, are there native shrubs growing in vacant lots or natural spaces nearby? Get to know the plant associations that may have occupied the land prior to development. Remnant, large, old oak trees may indicate that the land was once an oak woodland. Consult books or ask professionals to determine which other plants commonly grow in such a plant community. Coastal sage scrub and chaparral are two other plant communities that were once common in our region. Visit parks and join environmental organizations to learn more about Southern California plant communities.
Although it is possible to plant your garden throughout much of the year here in Southern California, planting from late fall through early spring is likely to be more successful. The scorching heat of July through September is particularly stressful to new plants that have disturbed root systems. Additional water may help, but if you must plant at this time of the year, you may have to erect small shades to further protect the new plants. Planting your garden in the late fall allows you to make use of the winter rains. During dry years when there is little precipitation, you will have to water your new plants through the winter and until they are established and have developed significant root systems.
For those who are accustomed to common exotic garden plants, it must be remembered that California natives are adapted to our soil conditions, which is often less fertile than other temperate areas. It is usually best to limit your use of soil amendments and fertilizers, especially in heavy soils.
Adding mulch to your garden helps control weeds, reduces water loss, moderates temperature fluctuations, enhances water penetration into the soil, and cushions the surface reducing soil compaction. Organic mulches break down quickly in our hot climate and increase the soil fertility. For this reason it is best to use inorganic mulches such as gravel for desert or chaparral plants. If you do use organic mulches make sure to keep them away from the crown of the plant.
If winter rains are scarce, water deeply and frequently until your plants are established. As the root system develops, reduce supplemental watering. Be sure to check the soil near the root ball before watering. Sometimes the surface is dry while the soil near the root is moist. Do not water unless the soil at root level is dry. Deep, occasional watering encourages the development of a strong root system.
Spirit of Adventure
It is discouraging, not to mention expensive, to plant a garden and lose some or many of the new plants, yet each plant that fails provides you with new information that should help in your future efforts. If a plant dies in my yard, I usually replace it with something new, unless I am fairly sure about the reasons for its demise, and I believe I can easily correct them. It is my goal to find beautiful and interesting plants that grow easily in my garden, rather than spending lots of money and time nursing along plants that are not well adapted to their home. As such, I experiment with different plants and when I find ones that do well, I increase their numbers. Over time my garden evolves. All Gardens Require Upkeep A common misconception is that native gardens require little or no maintenance since they are comprised of plants that naturally occur in the area. But like all gardens, even a well-planned native plant garden will require upkeep. Remove spent flowers, dead branches, and dead or dying plants. Renew mulch as needed. For some plants it is helpful to pinch back buds to promote fuller and denser growth. With less water in your native garden, weeds may be less of a problem, but all gardens grow weeds and of course, it is best to keep on top of this problem.
Two years after the scene described above, my parkway garden is full of pungent, spicy and sweet aromas. A green lynx spider clutches her egg sac as she sways on the flowers of a tall bunch grass. Butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and lizards flitter and scurry through the garden. In the spring, the garden is full of dizzying color, while through the long, hot summer it is soft gray and tan, with occasional deep greens. I water it about once a month in the summer, and know that when I return from vacation, it will look as good as when I left.