California Native Plants & Landscaping

Here at the House of Pain, we are in the midst of a multi-year project to make our little piece of the East Bay hillsides look something like it did 300 years ago, when it was probably a Coastal Oak Woodland. So far we've torn out major amounts of ivy, mulched to keep the hillside from relocating to our back bedrooms, started native grass seeds, and transplanted some of them, although this winters rains, and more pressing household tasks (update: like having a baby ) have slowed these efforts to a crawl. Tune in every 6 months or so for more of the Complete Idiot's Guide to Habitat Restoration, with apologies to John Muir and John Muir, and a special emphasis on the East Bay. Read about the confusing world of Plant Communities. Ponder the many ways to fail. Thrill to the magic of germination. Be bored to tears by endless weeding of ivy and annual grasses. And so much more...

August 98 Update

We started grass seeds late last summer, a number of different varieties from Larner Seeds, P.O. Box 407, Bolinas, CA .94924-0407, (415) 868-9407. Most were put directly into special grass plug plastic cell paks we bought from Vernon C. McQueen and Company in Berkeley, (510)-841-2782. Germination of Brominus Carinitis, California Brome, was excellent, Festuca Californicus, California Fescue, was fair, Mellicus Californicus California Melic, was zero, and Stipa Pulchra, Purple Needlegrass, was one seedling out of maybe 100 starts. The Brome that I got into the ground before El Nino really went to town, too bad I hate the way it looks. I didn't get much of the Brome or any of the Fescue in until much later, and it's pretty labor-intensive to start seedlings, then plant them.

Hand weeding is keeping the remaining ivy pretty well suppressed. Sometime last year I took out a flowering plum that was interfering with our Coastal Live Oak, and I am SO happy. I drilled holes in the stump and poured salt in them to make sure the damn thing was dead. Oh, and I girdled it last fall.

The front yard got a Romnyea Coulteri, Matilla Poppy, which has a piece of galvanized steel sunk into the ground next to it to keep it from invading the rest of the bed. It shot off like a rocket, and is blooming still. Under the cherry tree, we put some Ascarum Caudautum and Oxalis Oregonalis, Redwood Sorrel. The Ascarum has a little higher form, and bigger leaves than the sorrel, and it has shaded it out, but now that the ground has dried out, the ascarum is getting pretty droopy, and the Oxalis is coming back.

Hopefully soon, I'll have information on how we mulched, and some pictures at various stages of the project.

Update: How we mulched

Short version: 6 inches of STRAW, which was damn hard to find in Oakland (the place I got it is now gone...2001 update). It comes off the bale in "flakes", and it resprouts oats when it is rained on, but it forms nice, tight mats, it has little of the natural herbicides that cedar bark has, and it's relatively cheap. Since we had pretty steep slopes to protect, I covered it with jute netting to hold it in place, anchored in place with "hairpins" bent out of wire clothes hanges. After 2 years, it was all gone - straw, jute, wire, everything. But "Ryan's Prarie" was going pretty good by then, so no worries - until the Brominus all died.

September 98 Update

Woo Hoo! Just got back from the Native Here Nursery with $160 worth of new plants. It has already started raining, a bit early for this climatic zone, and we hope to get all this stuff in the ground soon. Grasses: Festuca Californicus, F. Rubra, Mellicus Californicus, M. Imperfecta, Stipa Pulchra, S. Lepida, Danthonius Californicus. A couple of Ribus. Some Clarkia. Iris douglasiana. And More....

Considering what a hotbed of native plant activity this area is, the selection of native plants available at local nurseries really sucks. Most have nothing. A few have some, and the best (Berkeley Horticultural) has about 20 species, with some major gaps. I've heard that East Bay Nursery is pretty good, and if you live in the West or South Bay, Yerba Buena nursery in Woodside is reportedly awesome.

But the all volunteer, only open on Friday mornings Native Here Nursery has at least 100 species, most with multiple ecovars (seed sources). And they are cheap, cheap, cheap. The only comparable selection is available at the episodic native plant sales held by the various chapters of the California Native Plant Society, which are major, major mob scenes.

I had a nice conversation with David Amme, one of the World's Foremost Authorities on California Native Grasses. He gave me many helpful tips over the phone while we juggled our respective infants. One of the great things about getting involved in any fringe subculture (see also my pages on Homebuilt Airplanes, and Recumbent Bicycles) is meeting the people and interacting with them. People who feel passionate about a subject you also feel passionate about tend to be very free with their time and information. And chances are they'll like you - you've got something in common (then again, the letters to the editor in Fremontia sometimes suggest maybe we don't all like each other....). These shared interests have been the basis of many nice interactions for me. Just be polite and appreciative to keep the exchange going.

October 98 Update

Remember the "mob scene" described in the previous paragraph? Well, we dove in again last weekend, and brought back another $120 worth of plants from the East Bay chapter of the CNPS Fall plant sale. More Festuca Californicus, Mellicus Imperfecta, some low growing Arctostapholus, a couple more Romnyea Coulteri, etc. I really, really, dislike going to this sale, mainly because we always buy more plants than we can carry, and that's really our problem, not the fault of the CNPS, who goes out of their way to make this event work. Lots of helpful volunteers, a "plant check" area, good signage, and lots of plants, if you get there right at 0900 on Saturday. Don't even bother coming Sunday, if it's plants you want. Even though it's a two day sale, the pickings will be slim indeed on Sunday, although the helpful volunteers will still be there, the CNPS will be selling books, Louise Lacey will be selling back issues and subscriptions to Growing Native Newsletter, and Judith Larner will be selling seeds. All worth a trip if you're in the neighborhood. Oh and Spring plant sales are for suckers - California natives should be planted well before the usual spring sale dates. Plant freaks only put on Spring sales for the ignorant masses who demand them, the Fall sales are the place to be.

February 2001 update

Lots of failure. The bromus is mostly dead (I don't miss it much), and the festuca isn't looking too good. The irises are doing fine, as is the Stipa.. Most of the plantings back in the shadiest way back (Arctostapholus, Bearberry, Ribus) are dead, the mulch is gone, and annual weeds rule once more. The front is doing better. The Ribus is blooming for the first time in 3 years. The sorrel got pretty much overwhelmed by the Ascarum Caudautum under our cherry tree. The shade tolerant mimulus got stomped by my 2 year old almost immediately, but I noticed the other day it's coming back a bit. Just planted a native shield fern up front, we'll so how it does. The Matillia Poppy in the front is a smash hit, the ones on the side of the house are slowly warming up, and the California Poppies, also on the south side, just reseed themselves and keep on going, figting with the Oxalis for space.

August 2001 update

Well the mimulus survived the stomping, and bloomed nicely last month, and the shield fern survived my attempts to kill it. I pronounced death on the Bearberry too soon, it's making a nice comeback. This fall, I need to replant most of Ryan's Prarie, as the Bromus that was keeping the hillside in place is now really, truly, dead. Rather than starting from seed, I'm going to buy plants from the Native Here Nursery. Mostly festuca, danthonia, maybe some more stipa. Plus some meadow flowers to round it out. And the Cotoneaster (read: pervasive weed tree) is getting the same treatment the prunus got, I.E. I girdled it.The really good news is that the Sudden Oak Death hasn't hit my querecus yet, or anyone else in the county, in spite of devastating effects in the surrounding counties.

I guess it's time I scanned the original pictures, plus the "as-is" condition, eh?


Plant Communities The first cut at your California plant community, what ZONE you live in. A semi-clear introduction to plant communities. An understanding of this subject is crucial to restoration work, and I believe will help create gardens that fit better with you soil and climate, but then I'm a rank beginner. Here is the author's somewhat controversial book on the subject : - sawyer Not everyone appreciates the way they have broken down and grouped the communities, but their scholarship is un-assailable, impressive and their plant lists accurate and comprehensive.

Growing Native Newsletter

Louise Lacey published an interesting review of Sawyer's book in Growing Native Newsletter where she cross-references Sawyer's communities to Munz' better known and simpler (but widely assailed) system. She also published Todd Sawyer's and other's responsa to her review. And in a later issue, there is a plea from an Old School botanist to return to the soil-vegetation maps, painstakingly compiled over a roughly 30 year period starting in the Thirties, and forget about the human construct of Plant Communities. A good example of the fascinating information and dialogue Growing Native Newsletter provides, at a very accessible level. Here are some excerpts from past issues, with her address. Back issues are available, the special issue she sends to new subscribers is a real gem, and the issue on grasses is my favorite reference on my favorite native plants. The last couple issues (before I dropped my subscription in '98) have been a little thin in my view, it's almost as if she's written out, but the upcoming issue on Oaks should be a whopper.

Flora (in the sense of books describing all plants in a region, field guides) - Jepson Manual describes 5,862 native species, plus 1,023 naturalized alien species. Not for beginners (some reviews suggest it has serious flaws even for the specialist), but an indispensable reference. Or maybe it is for beginners - the indentification keys are excellent. For non-specialists, A California Flora by Phillip Munz is probably easier to deal with, and is available in most of the larger libraries in the state.

California Native Plants Society

Many of these links are to the California Native Plant Society bookstore, here is their home page: The Santa Clara County chapter of the CNPS has a particularly nice web page with a lot of introductory information.

Other Useful Links - stevens Where on Earth: A Guide to Specialty Nurseries and other Resources for California Gardeners, Barbara Stevens and Nancy Conner. "This is the only guide to California's well-known and hidden specialty plant nurseries, leading gardeners directly to the source for the greatest varieties of plants, often at considerable savings." Blurbsource: CNPS web page. - Growing The classic and essential guide to actually using native plants in the landscape. It needs to be about 4 times as big as it is, and it's weak on grasses, which are one of my big interests, but it's a very good starting point for the beginner. Another hot book for beginners is - per, Glen Keator has several other books that are worth seeking out. And Glen provides all most all of the photos, and I suspect much of the underlying, hard-core botanical nitty-gritty for the Growing Native Newsletter.

I am personally most interested in native oaks and grasses, so here are the grass fanatics, and oak nuts (acorns, I suppose). Here is a paper on how to grow oaks. Go forth, and do thus.