California fuchsia with a photo-bombing hummingbird. Photos by Suzanne Guldimann
California buckwheat, is a favorite nectar source for bees and other pollinators.
White sage flowers thrive in the garden in full sun.
Chinese houses. Everything is from my garden except the Chinese houses.
The autumn equinox marks the arrival of the harvest and the end of the growing season in much of the northern hemisphere, but not in coastal Southern California where the promise of winter rain means growing season will soon begin for most native plants.
For native plant gardeners, autumn is the season for planning and preparing and it’s met with the same excitement that the spring seed catalog might bring to East Coast garden enthusiasts.
While there are fantastic botanic gardens for inspiration—the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is justly famous for its native plant demonstration gardens and well worth the drive, and the Theodore Payne Foundation’s nursery offers inspiration, classes and plants for sale in Sun Valley—the best inspiration can sometimes be found much closer to home.
In her book, “Gardening with a Wild Heart: Restoring California’s Native Landscapes at Home,” author Judith Larner Lowry suggests looking around the neighborhood for signs of what may have grown before development.
For residents of areas like Topanga where native vegetation still thrives, clues abound, but in more developed areas, piecing together the local ecology requires detective skills. Visits to local parkland and undeveloped lots can help fill in the blanks but, sometimes, unexpected wild plants still survive among the weeds at the bottom of a garden or alongside a road; they are clues to a lost ecology.
Larner Lowry describes making neighborhood flora charts for clients. “It will tell the names of the survivors,” she writes. “Those species, possibly the easiest to bring back, can provide clues to the land’s natural history.”
Planting truly local species in the garden may help reestablish a location-specific biome of plants, wildlife, insects, and even soil organisms, she argues.
Local gardeners have a lot of options for a colorful, fragrant, site-specific native plant garden.
California fuchsia is one of the easiest native plants to spot in the wild this time of year. Its brilliant red flowers catch the eye along Topanga Canyon Blvd. but are equally at home in the backyard as they are on a hillside. California fuchsias aren’t always easy to find at the nursery but cuttings can be rooted in ordinary potting soil. The soft gray foliage transforms in late summer and early fall into a blaze of brilliant flowers that are a favorite with hummingbirds.
Black and purple sages grow on hillsides all over the Santa Monica Mountains. They are also easy to grow from cuttings and add fragrance as well as attractive foliage to the garden. White sage, a sacred plant for the Chumash and Tongva peoples, is hard to start from cuttings but grows readily from seed in a sunny garden. It is one native that is often available at local nurseries.
California sagebrush, the plant that gives coastal sage scrub its name, isn’t really a sage, but with its cousin mugwort, are also easy to grow from cuttings and thrive in a garden setting.
Add some California buckwheat for a miniature wilderness almost guaranteed to attract butterflies and bees. Its cream and dusty rose-colored flower clusters followed by rusty seeds are the dominant colors of the local hillsides in September.
Nursery plants do best if planted out after the first rains of the season. Most cuttings should be gathered in winter, when plants are growing again and started in pots. The key to successfully growing a cutting is making sure the soil remains consistently moist. It’s illegal to take cuttings on park property, but friends and neighbors with native plants are often willing to share, and propagating plants from existing backyard populations can help keep local genetic variations from vanishing.
The Las Pilitas Nursery, which has specialized in native plants for years, cautions that all new plantings require regular water. “You have to water once a week or so to a depth of at least a foot, preferably 18 inches, and then let the top half inch dry between waterings,” the website cautions. “If we have another year like 2013, you have to water the newer plantings once a week all year.”
Late autumn/early winter is also the best time to sow wildflower seeds. Poppies, clarkia, gilia, phacelia, lupine, and native sunflowers all grow well from seeds. Some perennials can also be started from seed, including western columbine and narrow-leafed milkweed, the native host for the monarch butterfly.
Specialty seed suppliers offer some hard-to-find treasures like miner’s lettuce—edible, beautiful and shade tolerant—and Chinese houses, a shade-tolerant flower loved by native bees.
Doing some research and taking a look at which plants already grow and thrive in the area before planting can help prevent disappointment. Not everything is suited to the Santa Monica Mountains unique set of microclimates.
Gardeners with limited space or those just starting to explore native plant gardening can start small, planting a handful of wildflower seeds or a sage plant in a pot on the patio, or sowing miner’s lettuce in a shady corner of the garden.
Gardening with native plants is always an adventure. One that can reward the gardener with unexpected joys, like the scent of black sage after a rain, or the musical drone of hummingbirds among the fuchsia flowers.
To help protect bees and other key pollinators, always check to make sure the supplier does not use pesticides on their plants.
Native Plant Resources
In addition to having written numerous books on gardening with native plants, Larner Lowry runs a native plant seed company: larnerseeds.com.
For more information on Las Pilitas Nursery, including an extensive online encyclopedia of native plants and a wide variety of hard-to-find native plant species: http://www.laspilitas.com.
The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is arguably one of the best places in the world to learn about gardening with California native plants and to find gardening inspiration. A limited number of plants are offered for sale at http://www.sbbg.org.
The Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley offers plants, classes, and expert advice: theodorepayne.org.
Matillija Nursery in Moorpark is worth the trek for native plants and expert advice on Santa Monica Mountain species from longtime former resident and nursery owner Bob Sussman: http://www.matilijanursery.com.
Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org