Thursday, February 21, 2008
Instead of grass, Carol LeNeve’s front yard is mostly covered in ankle-high Carmel creeper, a shrub with dark-green, oval leaves. LeNeve, dressed in a purple turtleneck and jeans, walks down her stone path toward Camino Real in Carmel. Oak leaves crackle under her sneakers. LeNeve points out the shrub’s light-blue flowers. They smell like ripe berries.
Underneath the shade-bearing branches of her yard’s giant oaks, LeNeve has planted Catalina perfume, coffeeberry and wild iris, among other species. Virtually every plant in the ground here is native to California, LeNeve says. Other than a little bit of pruning, LeNeve’s native garden requires little maintenance.
“I don’t water any of this,” LeNeve says. “Nothing.”
LeNeve used to have a lawn but switched to natives during the 1977 California drought.
“I decided to start growing natives because once they are in the ground, after about two years,” she says, “you really never have to water them again.”
Water conversation is just one benefit to a native home garden. And with the state pushing California American Water to dramatically curtail its water use, leaving the sprinklers on soon may not be an option for Peninsula residents.
Although fall is the best time to plant, recent sunny days are ideal for playing in the dirt. And Jane Atkins offers some convincing reasons why native is the way to go.
Atkins is president of Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society and the nursery and restoration manager at Hilton Bialek Biological Sciences Habitat at Carmel Middle School. The 10 acres includes a native plant nursery and an organic garden used to educate children about such topics as sustainability and food systems.
Atkins hoses down a few Monterey Pine trees in pots. She says the nursery grows about 30,000 plants annually for native restoration.
Since indigenous plants have adapted to the Central Coast’s Mediterranean climate, Atkins says, they don’t really need fertilizer. “They are used to going through the hot and dry periods,” she says. Natives also require little to no pesticides, she adds.
Rob De Bree, general manager at Elkhorn Native Plant Nursery in Moss Landing, adds that natives don’t attract as much disease or pests. People “don’t need to go out with their spray bottles, pesticides and fungicides to combat a lot of critters that people don’t want out in the yard,” De Bree says.
With plant habitats paved over by houses and businesses, Atkins says native gardens can help supply food for animals and insects. “By gardening with native plants you are providing habitat for migrating birds, for small mammals, for insects,” she says. The Habitat, which is a former Christmas tree lot, has attracted close to 180 different species of birds, Atkins says. Several nectar-producing natives, including hummingbird sage and sticky monkey flower, attract hummingbirds.
Atkins points to the damage that invasive species like pampas grass and ice plant have done by swallowing large habitat patches along the county’s coast.
Natives may be good for the environment, but what about aesthetics? Natives do dry up in the summer, Atkins admits. You can water them, she says, but they won’t live as long.
Walking over to a demonstration garden, Atkins grabs a few green iris shoots she recently cut back. Now they are shooting up again. Next to the irises are some dormant seaside daisies and bees bliss sage, which like the name implies attracts plenty of pollinators.
Even though many California natives bloom in the spring, several species are showing their flowers at the Habitat, like chaparral currant, which has pink, sweet-smelling flowers. “If you have a well-planned garden you can have flowers throughout the year,” Atkins says.
De Bree says nurseries also carry native selections that bear larger fruit and have prettier flowers and longer bloom times than usual for the species. Elkhorn also recommends native plants, such as succulents like stonecrop, that won’t burn as quickly during a fire and can help provide defensible space.
Nursery owners encourage gardeners to plan according to the soil type and amount of sun or shade in their yard. “If you choose the right native plants then they will grow on a consistent basis,” De Bree says.
But there is another way to go.
Drought Resistant Nurseries, with locations in Monterey and Carmel Valley, carries water-wise plants. “The lush English garden is simply not agreeable to the Mediterranean climate,” owner Thom Crow says while walking through rows of potted plants at his Carmel Valley nursery.
Crow wears a straw hat and shorts. His thin, braided pony tail droops over his shoulder. Crow opened his business during the beginning of a multi-year statewide drought that started in 1987. “We don’t do turf,” Crow says. “Stretching your water budget is a big part of it.”
Some of Crow’s plants are deep-rooted and store water in the soil. His succulents, like aloe, hold water in their leaves. “A lot of the native coastal plants take their moisture right from the air,” Crow says.
Still, Crow’s plants come from across the world, including Australia, Tasmania and South Africa. Even LeNeve doesn’t have a totally native garden. The Carmel resident and Native Plant Society member has non-native potted flowers all around her house. The pretty white and red petals offer a stark contrast to her native plants that look like foliage on the side of a hiking trail.
“I think with natives you have to kind of get an eye for the different shades of green,” LeNeve says. “You have to able to appreciate the color of foliage.” And LeNeve admits growing natives takes a bit of research.
But she says it’s worth it. The red petals of her island snapdragon attract hummingbirds. She has few problems with pests, other than some whiteflies and scale. She doesn’t have to hire a landscaping crew to keep up with her garden, and she saves money on her water bill.