Native Plant Gardening: A ‘Growing’ Trend
By Jason Tilley
As the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, so famously noted, “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”
Unfortunately, the years bring a decline in hormone levels (all the commercials say so!), forcing middle-aged folks to pursue other springtime diversions. For many of us, that means gardening. Not only does spring bring more pleasant weather, the days get longer, and you arrive home from work while it’s still light outside and warm enough to go dig some weeds. Though you may know this magical pull of the soil, you might not be familiar with special virtues of native plant gardening.
It’s ironic that landscaping with California natives is something one needs to discuss. I mean, these plants were already here when our ancestors arrived, right? But we see few of them in Bay Area gardens. It’s not that there aren’t natives well-suited for landscaping; the reasons are more historic and economic.
California is a place that’s been colonized - more than once. First came the Spanish, then the forty-niners, then a series of twentieth century influxes, such as the flood of African-Americans from the south who came to work in the wartime ship-building industry. Each group brought their own plants and style of landscaping with them (those shipworkers carried with them the wonderful purple tree collard, now the official vegetable of the city of Richmond). Whenever there’s a drought, water officials urge residents to remove their thirsty lawns, but why do we have lawns at all? It’s because lawns were a sensible type of landscaping in parts of the country where it rains in the summer. George Washington, for instance, had a big lawn on his Mount Vernon estate. People were used to having lawns, and expected to see them when they moved out west, even if they’re deeply impractical for arid California. They also wanted roses, rhododendrons, petunias, etc. - all the other plants they were used to - and an industry sprung up to provide those things. Today, the nursery business in California is dominated by large wholesale growers selling the same stuff to big-box stores all over the state. Because this business model is based on economies of scale, what they’re selling usually isn’t specific to where you live. And with rare exceptions, it isn’t native.
That’s a pity, because there are some good reasons to landscape with natives. Most obviously, these plants evolved to deal with frequent drought and a lack of summer rainfall, so they don’t need as much water. Many of them co-evolved with local fauna (such as our native milkweeds, which are host for monarch butterfly larvae), so planting natives helps protect wildlife. If you grow vegetables, natives will attract beneficial insects to both pollinate and protect your veggies. (I have many fewer aphids since I planted native goldenrod, which attracts predatory soldier beetles.) To this I’ll add my own observation: it’s cheaper. I’m a dedicated tightwad, and I’ve found that native plants are much less likely to die on me, which means than I don’t have to spend money replacing them.
About a decade ago, I heeded those water managers and removed my large front lawn, replacing it with shrubs and perennials. I had some gorgeous (non-native) verbenas, which produced scads of pink blossoms for two years – until they were claimed by a January cold-snap. Indeed, winter has claimed a lot of victims, even among plants that were supposedly cold-hardy. Natives are not only drought tolerant, they’re tolerant of the 20 degree nighttime temperatures my neighborhood gets occasionally.
Even if the big box stores don’t stock natives, it seems like you should be able to just pull over to the side of the road and grab a shovel out of the trunk. I discourage this, and not just because the police might drive by and think you’re disposing of a body. Mostly, it’s because any roadside plants you dig up probably won’t be natives. Just as indigenous plants are missing from our gardens, they’re largely missing from our wilderness areas, too – at least the smaller species.
Aside from the notorious eucalyptus, most of the trees you find growing in our parks and protected watersheds – live oaks, bay laurels, and buckeyes – belong here. The same is true of large shrubs like manzanita, sticky monkeyflower and coyote brush. However, most of the grasses that cover the east bay hillsides are introduced Mediterranean species. The same is true of smaller flowering plants (what botanists term herbaceous annuals and perennials). Native lupines and our beloved state flower, the California golden poppy, are plentiful, but most other common spring wildflowers - yellow mustard, purple vetch, and white radish – are invaders. Other natives are out there, but they’re few and hard to find.
Where, then, does one acquire native plants? There are basically two sources: specialized native plant nurseries, and plant sales by local nonprofits. We’re fortunate enough to have several of each in or convenient to west Contra Costa.
The first nursery that must be mentioned is Annie’s Annuals and Perennials, located at 740 Market Avenue in Richmond (anniesannuals.com). The place covers a couple of acres, and you can literally spend hours wandering around looking at their amazing selection. The sense of wonder I felt visiting Annie’s the first time is rivaled only by the awe I felt when, as a ten-year-old boy, I walked into my first comic book store. They carry more than just California natives, but even if you ignore the non-natives, their variety probably exceeds any other nursery I’ve visited. Just two small caveats: Virtually all of Annie’s inventory is in 4” pots, so if you’re looking for shrubs or anything large, you’ll need to be patient, and even annuals may not be ready for transplant. Also, Annie’s Annuals is at the higher end, price-wise. It costs nothing to go and look, though – assuming you can leave without seeing something you absolutely have to buy.
An alternative, which carries exclusively native plants, is the Watershed Nursery at 601-A Canal Blvd. in Point Richmond (watershednursery.com). Their selection is less impressive than Annie’s, but your money will go further. The only negative is that the place is bit hard to find. They have a signboard on the street, and I’ve been there many times, yet I still manage to drive past the entrance every single time.
Similar to the Watershed Nursery is the Oaktown Native Plant Nursery at 702 Channing Way in Berkeley (oaktownnursery.com). Prices are about the same and there’s a lot of overlap in their inventory, though each usually has a few plants the other doesn’t. Oaktown is only open Thursday-Sunday, but unless you’re in the neighborhood on other business, I’d plan to visit on a Saturday or Sunday. There’s only street parking and it’s in high demand during the work week. Not a problem on weekends.
(I’m omitting, incidentally, the several fine independent nurseries in the east bay which stock a selection of California natives. For brevity, I decided to restrict this list to those enterprises which focus primarily on natives and which do their own plant propagation, instead of buying from wholesalers.)
The last nursery that must be recognized is the Native Here Nursery, operated by the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society and located at 101 Golf Course Drive in Tilden Park (nativeherenursery.org). And now we must digress a bit, for one can’t discuss Native Here without confronting the quasi-theological question of “What exactly is a native?”.
California is a big place, with more than two dozen recognized plant “communities”.
Species that grow in the cold mountain valleys of the high sierra, the rainy redwood forest of Humboldt county, and the desert of Death Valley could all be accurately described as California natives, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good choices for the east bay. (Interestingly, a few plants achieve the paradox of being simultaneously native and invasive. They’ve been introduced to a part of the state outside their natural range, and become a pest.) Some species, like the aforementioned golden poppy, grow naturally in almost all of California’s 58 counties, but there are subtle genetic differences between local populations, as the plants have adapted to their specific environmental conditions (e.g., soil type, rainfall, temperature).
Native Here operates on the premise that the best plants for your garden are ones that evolved close by. When you visit this nursery, you’ll actually find the plants organized geographically, with designations like “Point Molate”, “Mt. Diablo”, “Livermore”, etc. You may see the same species in multiple areas, depending upon where the seeds or cuttings originated. Native Here is only open limited hours, currently on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.
Then there are the annual plant sales. These are held by a variety of nonprofits, usually as both a fundraiser and because it advances their core mission. The Native Plant Society chapter that operates Native Here sells plants year-round, but most groups settle for one day (or half-day) events. Typically, though not always, they do one in the spring and another in the fall. (Full disclosure: I run one of the sales listed below.)
The “big daddy” of these events is the one at the Regional Parks Botanical Garden in Tilden Park (nativeplants.org). Besides the large selection of native plants you’d anticipate, they have another feature you won’t find elsewhere: a wide variety of native seeds. Their 2019 spring sale is Saturday, April 20, with a fall sale in October. If you visit the garden, be sure to stop by Native Here. It’s just the other side of the golf course; a hop, skip, and a jump up the road.
The Friends of Sausal Creek has a very good sale, usually with a few things I haven’t seen elsewhere (sausalcreek.org). It’s held at Joaquin Miller Park in the Oakland hills. They only seem to do one sale a year, though, in the autumn.
The Markham Arboretum, at 1202 La Vista Ave in Concord (markhamarboretum.org), holds sales in the spring and fall, but dates haven’t yet been announced as I write this. However, they also do smaller weekly sales on Tuesday mornings. They sell both natives and some unusual non-natives.
Another excellent plant sale I’ve patronized is the one at The Gardens at Heather Farm in Walnut Creek (gardenshf.org). They were dormant last year as their greenhouse was being rebuilt, but were hoping to be back in business in 2019. Check their website for updates.
The Pinole Garden Club (californiagardenclubs.com/content/pinole-garden-club) usually holds a sale one Saturday in May at the Pinole farmers market, featuring both natives and non-natives. Not the biggest, but prices are quite reasonable, and you can do some grocery shopping while you’re there.
A bit further afield, the Marin County chapter and the Willis Linn Jepson (i.e., Solano County) chapter of the Native Plant Society hold sales in San Rafael and Benicia, respectively. Depending on where you live, it could be worth a trip over a bridge to check them out. Consult their websites (cnpsmarin.org and jepson.cnps.org) for dates and locations.
Last but not least (well, okay, it’s probably least, too) is the sale held by Citizens for a Greener El Sobrante (C4AGES). It’s the one I’m in charge of. We’ve only been doing it a few years, so our selection is comparatively limited, but we add new varieties each time around. We also compensate for our modest inventory with low prices and being early on the calendar. Our sale also includes a lot of succulents and some other plants which, though non-native, are well suited for this area. If you live in the El Sobrante area, please drop by on Saturday, April 13. See greenerelsobrante.org for time and location. We hold another sale in September.
Two other resources deserves mention, though they don’t sell plants or seeds. One is Bringing Back the Natives (bringingbackthenatives.net), which holds garden tours to give folks a look at what their neighbors have done with native plant landscaping. This year’s tour is on May 5 (prior registration required).
The other resource is Calflora, which maintains a comprehensive online database of native plants. It’s the easiest way to determine whether a plant is native and, if so, to which parts of the state. their website also has an interactive planting guide, to help you choose the best species for your area. If you develop an interest in native plant gardening, you’ll find it invaluable. (calflora.org)
Jason Tilley is an El Sobrante homeowner and chairs the plant sale committee of Citizens for a Greener El Sobrante. As you might have guessed, he likes gardening.