Mother Earth Living

Going Native: A Palo Alto, California, Native Garden

A California gardener transforms a pedestrian front yard into a spectacular showcase for native plants.
By Gretchen Roberts
May/June 2007
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Its blooms look delicate, but the Douglas' iris (Iris douglasiana) was one of the most important sources of rope- and basket-making fibers for California native tribes.
Photography by Barbara Bourne
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Ann Krohn’s front yard started as a square patch of lawn bordered by standard suburban California landscaping—azaleas, camellias, agapanthus—and it was home to thousands of snails. “I was just itching to do something about that fast-food style of landscaping,” recalls the native plant enthusiast of her Palo Alto garden in 1997, the year her family moved in. “But with a newborn and two young sons, I had to make it a gradual process.”

One by one, Ann pulled out plants, replacing them with natives, such as varieties of fragrant, colorful California lilacs (Ceanothus spp.) and manzanita (Ehretia spp.)—shrubs with oval leaves and berry-heavy branches.

Three years later, Ann was ready to raze the lawn. She sought the help of a Berkeley landscape designer who provided a list of recommended native plants and a crew to tear out the lawn, turn over the soil, add topsoil and convert the sprinkler head irrigation system to drip lines.

A winding flagstone path was the first garden installment, followed by a semiformal arrangement of native shrubs, grasses, trees and wildflowers. Ann has always admired the look of English perennial gardens, and she realized that native plants could give her a lush garden with little effort and less water.

The cornerstone of the garden is a blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea), with its curving branches, berry clusters and textured leaves that dance daintily in the wind. “People think a blue elderberry is too unruly a shrub for a garden unless it’s chopped back nearly to the ground every fall, but I’d been curious about how one would look if allowed to grow wild,” Ann says. “Surprisingly, it’s grown into an elegant, small tree with curving branches that complement the front of the house.”

Bordered by shrubs and native  grasses, the garden’s interior is colored with delicate blue Douglas’ iris (Iris douglasiana), bright-yellow California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), pale-leafed flowering sage, and other native flowers and groundcovers.

Indigenous joys

At first, Ann watered the baby plants with drip irrigation, but by the second year, the garden was firmly established. Because native plants are naturally drought-tolerant, she’s since had to water only newer plants. Palo Alto experiences a dry season each summer with little or no rainfall, so Ann’s plants are particularly suited to survive without the water a thirsty lawn would need.

These days, maintenance in the organic garden entails merely snapping off a stray twig here or a dead flower there. Because many weeds need water to thrive, weeding is minimal. Each fall, Ann heads out with her shears to prune back shrubs that have grown particularly large. By spring (early March in Northern California), the garden is in full bloom, and Ann’s only task is to enjoy the view and the compliments from neighbors.

Through the years, the garden itself has taken the design reins. When some of the plants near the flagstone path grew large, Ann simply scooted the stones over instead of trimming shrubs she wanted to encourage. Several times she’s discovered lovely blooming wildflowers she’d forgotten she’d planted.

Two years ago, she noticed that an evergreen shrub with large shocks of tiny white flowers, called St. Catherine’s Lace (Eriogonum giganteum), had seeded itself under a Canary Island date palm that was already growing in the yard when the Krohns bought the house.

“With these great flowers blooming, it looked like I’d planted it there,” she says, “but I wouldn’t have done that, because it’s very difficult to plant under a palm. These surprises are one of the fun things about having a native garden.”

Many native plants attract birds and butterflies. “The hummingbirds have been a real treat,” she says. “Any native garden is lively—it’s as if all the flying and crawling creatures know where the best party on the block is.”

Although Ann is quick to extol the fuss-free virtues of native gardening, the pleasure goes much deeper. “Once you start to garden with native plants, you never go back,” she says. “Suddenly other gardens look so showy and out of place compared with these plants that come from the earth where we’re living—with their local lore and ancient uses.

“In the hills around Palo Alto, we see the same plants growing naturally, which contextualizes our own yard. Natives have so much more relevance to the place you live in,” Ann says. “The sense of place goes beyond pretty plants. It becomes spiritually satisfying to reconnect your own little piece of suburban earth with the natural beauty of the wild.”

The lazy garden

Ann Krohn wanted a space that would flourish no matter how little time she put into it. She offers these tips for creating a garden that will thrive under the care of passive or active gardeners:

Plan ahead. Research which plants will grow well in your area and how you plan to place them in the garden for the best design. If possible, hire an expert recommended by your local native plant society for advice.

Plant carefully. Concerned that her newly planted garden would look bare, Ann opted to plant densely. However, natives grow big quickly, so she advises cultivating fewer plants to save time and money.

Mulch well. Mulching discourages weeds, conserves moisture and allows young natives to establish themselves within a drought-tolerant garden.

Defining natural

Native plants are generally suited to your local environment, whether it’s particularly dry, hot or humid. Here’s a quick rundown on the terminology:

Native plant: a species that’s indigenous to an area

Exotic plant: one that’s been introduced to an area by design (humans) or by accident (wind, birds, flooding, other acts of nature)

Xeriscape: (pronounced “zer-i-skape”) A term coined by the Denver Water Department combining the word “landscaping” with the Greek word xeros, meaning “dry.” Xeriscaping incorporates drought-tolerant plants, both native and exotic, for water conservation purposes.

Resources

National Wildlife Federation
plant finder for each state

Native Plant Conservation Campaign
listing of native plant societies by state with local chapters

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
“Go Native U” classes in native gardening; searchable index of native plants by location, habitat and duration

How to Get Your Lawn Off Grass: A North American Guide to Turning Off the Water and Going Native by Carole Rubin (Harbour Publishing, 2002)

100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants for American Gardens in Temperate Zones by Lorraine Johnson (Firefly Books, 1999)


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