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GOING WILD WITH NATIVES: Native Hedges for San Diego Gardens

By Clayton Tschudy.

The amazing diversity of California native plants provides a treasure chest of incredible horticultural opportunities for every aspect of gardening. Even the parts of our gardens, like our privacy hedges, that are primarily practical in nature, can be transformed and uplifted when natives are exchanged for the standard non-native choices. Native hedges can dramatically increase aesthetic range, are always superior for habitat value, and often prove to be even more practical than their non-native counterparts.

Remember, the critical characteristic of hedging plants is the ability to produce new growth from old wood, as most hedges are clipped to the same shapes over many years. This makes hedge management more akin to agriculture than sustainable horticulture. You must feed your hedge to compensate for constantly removing its new growth. However, using natives adapted to our poor soil conditions means that simply maintaining a good layer of organic mulch underneath the hedge will supply all the nutrients the plants need for years of good performance. Most of these selections can be coppiced when old to refresh and start the hedge over.

There is a beautiful native for every possible hedging need! The selection below is just a start.

Small Hedges

Punta Banda’ Snapdragon (Gambelia juncea)

This selection of the well-known Bush Snapdragon plant comes from Baja. Punta Banda has soft, semi-succulent stems, and a natural form that is a lovely mound. However, it can also take regular shaping and makes an interesting, medium green, alternative to small box hedges. Subtle red flowers are hummingbird pollinated. Punta Banda works in many soils, but does best on the coast as it is not frost tolerant.

Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens)

Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat.  Credit

This classic California native gardening selection is a woody perennial, which you can shape while young to form a solid linear hedge. A natural form of hedge is best as older specimens will not tolerate shaping. Adorned with Victorian pink flowers, and providing excellent butterfly habitat in the summer, Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat will become a little patchy over time, revealing a bonzai-like inner woody structure. Unique, beautiful and classically Californian.

Montara’ Sagebrush (Artemisia californica x A. pycnocephala)

This little known woody perennial shares characteristics of both its parents, size and color from the California Sagebrush, and a stable, mounded character from the Dune Sagebrush. Usually grown as a silver ground cover, with time and pruning it makes a three-foot tall silver hedge of great character. I discovered this ability by accident when this plant was used as a substitute for rosemary in an herb garden. Totally unique.

Medium Hedges

Coffee Berry (Frangula californica)

Grey Hairstreak Butterfly on Coffee Berry.  Credit: Clayton Tschudy.

You need to nail the conditions right for Coffee Berry: good drainage plus high shade/afternoon shade. However, when you do, it is a workhorse that can take serious abuse. Coffee Berry is a woody evergreen that can be kept as a medium, shaped, hedge for many years. It is also the larval host plant for the gray hairstreak butterfly. Flowering and production of the berries will be diminished with regular pruning.

Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis)

You might think of this as a desert species, but actually it occurs along the coast of San Diego and down into Baja as well. Grey foliage with bifacial leaves that look the same on both sides, similar to manzanitas, give this shrub a clean neat appearance when regularly pruned. It can be small or large, and takes the absolute worst soil conditions imaginable, even heavy clay and caliche. If it gets out of hand or woody, cut it all the way to the ground and watch it come back with gusto. Young plants often take a few years to establish and pick up speed.

‘Purisima’ Mallow (Lavatera assurgentiflora )

Credit: bri weldon [CC BY 2.0]

A spreading version of the better-known Island Tree Mallow, Purisima (at left) is rambunctious and can get to massive sizes, but it can also be trained to nearly any condition and will sport its big purple blooms in spite of heavy pruning. A wild looking espalier, or exuberant privacy hedge, it will usually looks best in a naturalistic space. Maintain a thick layer of organic mulch for best results and drought tolerance.

Large Hedges

Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia)

Lemonade Berry is big semi-succulent shrub indigenous throughout coastal San Diego. Usually it is used to cover open slopes, but it makes an excellent, tight, path hedge that can be anywhere from three to ten feet in height. Takes hard, regular pruning, and needs no special care. However, remember heavy pruning means that even local plants may need mulch and additional irrigation to perform well.

Quail Bush (Atriplex lentiformis)

Want a tall silver hedge that attracts butterflies? Did you even know that was possible? Well, we have one. This shrub grows well anywhere along the coast, can take difficult salty soils and water, and gets big over time. Do not try to keep this one small. And if you want a flat wall of a hedge, be sure to prune regularly as the shrub develops wood quickly. Coppicing every 5-7 years may be necessary to keep it green (um, silver).

Wall Hedges

Catalina Cherry (Prunus illicifolia ssp. lyonii)

This fantastic native cherry tree grows tall and thin when young, looking for all the world like a privet, and produces massive sprays of spring flowers and summer cherries. The cherries are 90% pit, so truly for the birds, which love them by the way. With judicious pruning, you can make a neat wall of green with the Catalina Cherry. Minimal irrigation is best to control growth and minimize maintenance.

Tecate Cypress (Hesperocyparis forbesii)

Tecate Cypress Hedgerow.  Credit: Las

This one is special, and deserves a place in your garden. It can make an excellent small specimen tree, but when planted closely together, it can also be a wall hedge in the style of the cypress hedges of Europe. If you desire a sustainable pleach, a hedge on feet (a tall hedge of closely planted trees with trunks showing), this is the one. Tecate Cypress has beautiful peeling, multi-colored bark, lemon-scented scaly leaves, and serious drought tolerance. This is a garden winner. It is also locally native, endangered, and the larval host plant of an endangered butterfly, the Thorne's hairstreak. Really, this is almost as important to plant as our local oaks.

Clayton Tschudy is a local botanist and owner of CJT Ecologics. He frequently leads educational hikes and gives presentations on native flora and habitat gardening.

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