We live in a coastal desert and part of the appeal is its beautiful native plants that thrive in this environment of light airy spaciousness with a lot of sun and crisp dry air to breathe in deeply. The locally native plants are beautiful, attracting butterflies and birds everywhere.
Right now, native landscaping is making a revival in the yards of homeowners not only for their natural beauty but for their water saving ability and their capacity to override the need for harmful pesticides and fertilizers. These virtuous plants are very low maintenance. With more than 806 species (and counting) of native plants in Orange County (5,000 overall in California) choices are almost endless for that “specific look” homeowners seek.
Back to Natives Restoration (BTN) encourages the use of our own locally native species since many of the other California natives grow only in a very small range within California. BTN designs landscapes and has a contractor license and through these services (check out their YouTube video, http://youtu.be/qSTjRJCJ8Fs), raises awareness of native plants and funds for their many habitat restoration and environmental education projects. All funds gained through design and contracting and sales of native plants go directly to supporting their mission: “To encourage and actively participate in the restoration and conservation of Orange County and California wildlands through education and restoration programs featuring native plants and biodiversity as a centralizing theme.”
Reginald I. Durant, director of restoration, took some time away from his busy schedule to share his passion and knowledge of California native plants and their benefits for you and the environment.
Q: I didn’t realize we had that many native plants. What are the top five for our specific area?
A: For coverage, flowers (nectar for pollinators) and host species to encourage locally native butterflies, I would suggest California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) which is a host plant for twelve different species of native butterflies; Woolly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum) great nectar plant in the mint family that smells just like Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum when the leaves are crushed; Blue Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) a miniature Iris not a grass at all, that does well as a border plant, a small herb specimen, and as a houseplant in a pot.
Q: Any of them provide decorative foliage so the landscape doesn’t look so bleak?
A: In Orange County when you look at the hills people point and say, ‘there, that is why I don’t like native plants, they all die and look brown.’ However what they are pointing at are fields and hills covered in non-native invasive species such as Black Mustard (Brassica nigra) an annual that dies after only a few weeks leaving a dead brown fire tinder landscape. That and many other types of non-native annual grasses increase the ambient temperature contributing to the heat island effect even in open space areas preventing native plants from re-colonizing. If you look past the hills to the Santa Ana Mountains, or to the Coastal Reserves such as Crystal Cove, Laguna Coast Wilderness and parts of the Aliso and Woods Canyon Wilderness Parks, you see native plants for the most part stay green or grey all year long with very little water or care, though some do go dormant. Any plant that is prevented from having water will go dormant to some degree to prevent from dying outright.
Q: Can my yard become a self-sustaining eco-system?
A: Over the course of time, if you planted appropriately with plants from the same plant community that are associated with your soil type around your home, you can have a healthy, happy and beautiful micro-system right in your landscape. Don’t forget the importance of annual wildflowers. They provide much needed nutrients for many of our native plants. And as for mulch, your trees and shrubs make their own that is specifically required for that plant! So keep things tidy and neat, but don’t remove essential nutrients and weed barriers like leaf litter that also provide much needed habitat for our Native Bumble Bees to make their solitary homes with their life-long mates.
Q: Do I still need to water my landscape if I use native plants?
A: Locally native plants in California have existed here for millennia without the assistance of humans to prune, shape, maintain or water them to keep them alive. Having said that, 10,000 years ago maybe the local community did not have an HOA (Homeowners Association) with strict guidelines of what is dormant when, and what is an eyesore etc. so to keep you natives green or gray and flowering through most of the year, a little watering throughout the year will appease your neighbors and HOA and help them appreciate the finer points of native gardening. Irrigation systems can be turned off through much of the rainy season, and then set for once a month for a few minutes, or once per week for 3-5 minutes during the summer heat. The best time to water is from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., before the heat of the day, just as the plants are starting to uptake water in anticipation of photosynthesizing.
Q: Is there a specific irrigation system needed?
A: Native plants do not like overhead watering. BTN encourages the modification of current systems by attaching flex hose and micro-emitters, one for each shrub, that have a flow rate of 0-30 GPH (gallons per hour). This greatly reduces water loss through evaporation from overhead spray, and overspray which can cause or lead to non-point source pollution. Drip does not really work effectively and because it keeps the surface soil moist, not penetrating down to the roots, it can lead to unhealthy and shallow root growth and possibly root crown rot. Micro-emitters, which are essentially micro-bubblers, are the best option to apply water where it is needed, when it is needed.
Q: Does native landscaping lower the amount of pests in my garden?
A: This is a loaded question, as no two people necessarily agree what is a pest. Many think that anything that eats plants is bad. But what about butterflies? They lay eggs on native plants that then hatch and eat the leaves and some flowers during their life cycles, before forming a chrysalis and then emerging to the adult butterfly. Many think that we must spray chemicals on all flying or creeping things in our gardens. But this harms the birds we wish to see using our garden to forage for insects and seeds by poisoning their food source and eventually poisoning them, and ourselves in the bargain. Eventually a balance will be found once native plants are installed and chemicals are removed. There may be a small invasion of aphids and scale with any new planting, but if we remove the chemicals applied to commercial landscapes, beneficial insects and gleaning (insect eating) birds will find your new garden and help to remove these pests or keep them in check for you. A population of what we as humans have come to see as harmful insects/bugs, must be allowed to exist in order to support the life cycle of the many insects and bugs that we have come to associate as beneficial. Numerous native birds are gleaners, which is to say they eat small insects off of our native shrubs and trees, protecting them and providing for their own fledglings. Norwegian rats do NOT like native landscapes!
Q: What environmental benefits are there?
A: Native plants are adapted to our poor California soils around our homes. Using locally native species associated with the soil types around our homes we reduce the use of water, and reduce the use of chemicals in our gardens such as petroleum based plant foods, fertilizers and growth hormones. All of which are detrimental to our health, as well as the life of many of our native species of butterflies and birds. Removing the use of pesticides decreases our environmental exposure to many chemicals known or suspected to cause cancers and other harmful health ailments and prevents non-point source pollution in our water ways. Landscape chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides are harmful to us, to the environment and cause algal blooms in our local water ways that absorb all oxygen in the water as it decomposes which can cause mass fish kills or destroy sensitive aquatic habitats that support our great fisheries which we rely on for our food sources! Native landscapes use less than ten percent of the water of a commercial landscape or lawn, which greatly decreases the water use here in Southern California. Water which is so precious is pumped in from Northern California just to spray all over our lawns and watch as it runs down the sidewalk and into the flood channel. With Native landscapes, the irrigation is modified to prevent runoff, eliminate overspray and prevent non-point source pollution saving over 90% of the water that would otherwise be used to keep our non-native lawns unnaturally green!
Q: Financial benefits?
A: Over the course of its life, native landscape uses less than ten percent of water as commercial landscape or lawn. There are added savings for eliminating the use of expensive chemicals that kill many native butterflies and birds we want in our garden. Also not having to use added soil that can harm the native plants which do not appreciate rich soils as the commercial nursery plants require. Maintenance is normally the training of vines to the trellis and removal of spent flower/seed stalks and the raking of the native bunch grasses. No trimming is necessary. Time saved on maintenance can then be spent enjoying the garden, including the plethora of butterflies and seed and insect eating native birds that will eventually call your native landscape home!
Reginald I. Durant
Back to Natives Restoration
PO BOX 6539
Irvine, CA 92612-6539