Going Native: A Palo Alto, California, Native Garden

A California gardener transforms a pedestrian front yard into a spectacular showcase for native plants.

| May/June 2007

  • A California wild lilac (Ceanothus 'Ray Hartman') tumbles over Ann Krohn's front gate. The magnolia tree (upper left), one of very few non-native species in the yard, has been here for 17 years, long before Ann moved in.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • 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
  • Ann says her Channel Island tree-poppy (Dendromecon harfordii) blooms almost nonstop year-round.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Though Ann dries purple sage (Salvia leucophylla) and brings it indoors for its pleasant aroma, it seems to repel cats from her garden.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Looking at its unique flowers, it's easy to see how bird's-eyes gilia (Gilia tricolor) got its name.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Ann's blue elderberry tree (sambucus Cerulea) complements the front of the house, while native flowers and grasses form a beautifully wild front yard.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Bird's-eyes gilia and California poppies reach toward the sky. Ann's many varieties of poppies cross-pollinate on their own, producing surprising new colors every year.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • The tall, neutral blooms of island alumroot (Heuchera maxima) add interesting texture to the bold purple of the Douglas' iris and bright yellow accents of California poppy.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Ann's front walk is flanked by a variety of California poppies, Douglas' iris, California native bunchgrass (Festuca californica) and more.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne

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.

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