I am from California, but my plants are not | Way of life

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Growing up in California has been great in so many ways, including horticulture, for me. As you travel through the state, you will see beautiful desert and tropical regions, the Mediterranean climate of our region, and mountainous beauties like Yosemite and snow-capped Mount Shasta. It’s truly amazing how the climate changes with plant life when you drive north and south on Highway 101 or Interstate-5.

Growing up in the nursery business, I saw the use of various plants native to California come and go. The following is my personal research which has been gathered from many years of nursery experience and learning. This should be helpful and save you money at the nursery if you are planting a drought tolerant garden.

Yes, I was born in San Diego and am originally from California, but I have very few native shrubs in my garden. I have sold thousands of manzanita, ceanothus, toyon, matilija poppy and others touted as the greatest landscape plants. You would think that we should plant natives of the state, since they grow here, right? Sounds like a good thought, but here’s the reason to avoid a strict native garden.

Native California shrubs are grown in specific, natural locations without human intervention. Many depend on location-specific microorganisms to thrive.

And as a group in general, native California shrubs are susceptible to many cultural conditions. They tend to be sensitive to watering, soil and transplanting tendencies. In the native California environment, the only water these plants receive is that Mother Nature provides them. So, unfortunately, that’s the problem in a nutshell.

Many California natives are not as adaptable as many plants in other parts of the world. And as a designer, if anyone wants drought tolerant garden landscaping, I would draw from the wonderful palette of beautifully water conserving resistant plants from around the world.

As an example, there are 17 species of Salvia (sage) native to California. Yet around the world there are around 1,000, with thousands of named cultivars that have been genetically cultivated. With a comparison between Californian varieties and those native elsewhere, one would rarely plant Californian natives for lack of color, comparatively. And that’s another point we come to. Perennials should be a minor part of the drought tolerant garden. If the idea is to save water in the long run, then you will need proven plants that will live long and take root deep, providing a garden that can save water when needed. Perennials are often short-lived plants that will need to be reestablished and will eventually require more water.

I’ve found that California natives don’t thrive on drip systems, and that’s usually what kills them quickly. The drip emitter is placed near the stem to establish the plant at the time of planting. Many California natives are extremely susceptible to crown rot fungi, especially manzanita and ceanothus. So if you are planting them I suggest you make sure that the emitter does not deposit water directly on the crown or stem of the plant. After a year of watering, move the transmitter further away from the center of the plant. Camellias and azaleas are also prone to crown rot, but many natives are ten times more susceptible.

So in conclusion, we don’t need to think “Native of California” when we are heading into a drought. The reality and the best plan for saving water is to choose from water efficient plants from around the world. With so many new varieties and colors of barberry, dwarf pine, blue weeping cedar and spruce, bamboo fargesia, palms, macrozamias, boxwood, hawthorns, grasses, shrubs, purple smoke, crepe myrtles, cacti and succulents, your drought garden awaits.

One final thought: When looking for a potential plant for the garden with flowers, remember that flowers are fleeting – many only last a few weeks. Better foliage colors that last a whole season.

Rod Whitlow is an ISA Cert. Arborist, Cert. Nurseryman, Licensed Landscape Contractor and Plant Science Editor of the Sunset Western Garden Book.



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