By Donna Mallen.
Photos by Janet Ward.
Every naturally occurring plant is native to somewhere. But of the nearly 8,000 California native plants, on average, only about 700 reside in any particular square mile. Each of these plants has its own comfort zone, depending on the precipitation, summer and winter temperatures and humidity, soil composition and other unique factors. A successful native plant gardener must take each plant’s specific needs into consideration.
Dennis Mudd has learned this lesson through extensive hands-on experience in creating a successful mini eco-system for native plants, animals and the underground microbiome in his own yard.
Mountain biking through the hills and canyons of his new neighborhood after he moved to Poway 15 years ago, Dennis discovered and fell in love with the native plants surrounding his home. He began to dream of converting his existing tropical landscaping into a native plant habitat, where the birds, butterflies and other insects and fauna he had observed in the wild would be welcomed.
He proceeded to massively renovate his yard, progressing through a series of iterations, starting with plants primarily originating in Australian and African zones, discarding those and moving to cultivars of California native plants, which turned out to be less resilient than local natives, and finally zeroing in on his ultimately successful plan for a thriving, beautiful, and virtually no maintenance landscape by applying a strategy of Biomimicry: Mimic nature by choosing plants that naturally belong in the place where you are planting them, and then following nature’s lead in maintaining the garden.
One of his most rewarding accomplishments was the conversion of his swimming pool into a plant-filtered pond, which draws herons, egrets and other large and small waterfowl to its clear running water.
He learned that to maintain a native plant garden in our region, some special rules and techniques are needed. Just reading the label on the nursery pot is not enough to enable you to select a native plant that will thrive (or even survive) in your own garden.
Consult the CalScape.org database for the details you really need before you purchase a plant that is destined for the compost bin, or instead will be aptly placed in your yard. It includes a plant range map for the 7,988 plants listed. It can be used to identify plants likely to be successful for you, based on the plant’s normal range and its critical requirements.
He offered the following tips for achieving a successful native plant garden:
Water: Irrigation mistakes made by gardeners are the most common cause of killing their native plants. Summer watering leads to wet, warm conditions that are unnatural for California natives. It can unbalance the microbiome and rot the mycorrhizal fungi in the soil, disturbing the healthy microbiome by interfering with the mycorrhizae’s functions of controlling weeds and soil pathogens and boosting the plants’ ability to store water and obtain nutrients.
As to most areas in our region, native plants will be expecting very minimal, if any, summer water, and an average of 10” to 12” or so in the winter. In the first year after planting, expect that the plants will need irrigation for 5 or 6 minutes, twice a week. After three months, reduce this to once a month, for 2 minutes. For successful native landscaping, you would normally have no need to supplement the rainfall once the plant becomes established. Our native plants have adapted to natural rainfall with deep and/or wide-spreading roots to reach the water that is available.
For riparian plants, which you might place at the bottom of a canyon slope, Dennis mimics nature’s streambed irrigation by using bubblers, not sprinklers, and uses catch basins to concentrate areas of water that plants’ roots will spread to reach.
Mulch: For native plants, mulch naturally. Use rocks, which allow water to penetrate to the soil. Let plants create their own organic mulch with leaf litter. A light layer of natural leaf litter, which is brittle and not absorptive, allows rain to penetrate and the soil to breathe, feeding the mycorrhiza, yet protecting the soil from the sun. The commonly used thick layer of commercial mulch soaks up the water instead and prevents penetration to the plant roots and soil.
Weeds: Control weeds naturally by keeping the ground dry in the summer, except for riparian areas. Plant natives closely together, allowing the mycorrhiza to kill the weeds. Do not use Roundup, which he believes kills the mycorrhiza.
Pest Control: Fortunately, rodents seldom destroy native plants. They do serve a beneficial purpose in providing natural fertilizer. Rats and mice also provide the primary food of the owls and hawks that now visit his garden, each able to eat 100 lbs. of rodents per year.
Insects: Don’t use poison. Let the spiders, birds, bats and other insect predators establish a natural balance. When plants are under stress from insect herbivores, they send out chemical signals to attract insect predators. If you plant a broad range of native plants, you will attract a broad range of insect predators to keep the plant predators under control.
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