Recreational Restoration Gardening

When Ellen Holmes, botanist with Central Coast Wilds, came on a consultation visit a few weeks ago, she asked me what kind of restoration I wanted to do. She gave me a few choices:

1. Weed and wait - See what nature brings, in the form of seeds brought by wind and animals.
2. Weed and wait and plant things propagated from indigenous local plants growing right here.
3. Weed and wait and plant things propagated from indigenous plants in the same general locality.

Of those choices I have to say I am very attracted to 1 but really it's a bit late. I've already been doing 2 and 3, and now I'm focusing on 2 as much as I can. I'm propagating our indigenous toyon, hairy honeysuckle, and also sea foam (Holodiscus discolor) which grows within half a mile of here, but just not on my parcel - I count that as right here. Nature doesn't know from parcels. As I believe they might say in New York.

I'm also doing a bit of 3 because it's so interesting and gets me studying what grows in my water sheds (I'm on the boundary of two). For example, we don't have a buckeye in sight. But two miles away - lots. I'm watching them bloom right now, and await the seeds to follow.

But what about you who may live in a developed area and have a small plot of land - what kind of restoration gardener can you be? A wonderful, creative one! You can choose option 4:

4. Recreate the ecology of a habitat that once existed where you live.

I once visited the ancient town of Saint Malo, in Brittany - a Celtic region of France - with a Breton acquaintance. Ancient? Well, it was flattened during one of our less than pleasant 20th century human interactions, and what you see is a massive reconstruction job. It looks great and really conveys what that town might have looked like when it was pretty new. Some people say it is "Disneyfied" but really the locals are very proud of the work and its authenticity.

You can create your own Saint Malo garden, right where you live. But how to get started?

If you are lucky, and also have a certain amount of disposable income, you can contact landscaping companies that provide restoration services, such as Central Coast Wilds does in my area. Or you may just have a good book for your area, such as Designing with Natives, which provides good recreation habitat gardening information for California native plants. Alrie Middlebrook is a passionate advocate of this approach, and her nursery groups plants by habitat to make plant selection easier. You should also use a good local flora - contact your local native plant society to get one, or find one on the web, also via your local native plant society. There are other resources on the web. Californians can use the Las Pilitas nursery Zipcodes of California page to see what grows natively in their zip code. And similarly there is the What Grows Here resource.

With a recreation you have a bit more latitude. Where I live there are three or four native habitats: chamise chaparral, mixed evergreen forest, redwood, and maybe a bit of grassland. Around your home, within the limits of sun and slope, you can also recreate different types of habitat from your locale, just like Town Mouse has done in her garden - a shady redwood habitat, riparian habitats recreated in water features, and so on.

You can bring aesthetics into play with plant groupings, pathways and garden features too - it doesn't have to be a jungle out there. And you can still have some exotics for exterior decor and personal comfort - it's not against the law. Just not invasive ones, of course. We all have favorite garden flowers.

But here's what the recreation landscape will give you that exterior decor plants won't: Real life. The butterflies, lizards, hummingbirds, chickadees, and sundry other native creatures that will come and live and sun themselves and (most importantly!) breed in your garden are not recreations. They are the real deal. Children will love visiting your garden - it will be an adventure! Send them on a critter safari with those little collecting kits - get on the web to learn more about their captives - then of course let the critters go.

Of course where you live, the critters will be your native critters, not mine. That's what will make it so interesting for me to visit your Midwest prairie garden, your Florida wet flatlands garden - Variety! Local color!

Go visit your state native plant society web site. Wherever you go you'll read the same philosophy we Mice promote in our blog. For example, read this page from the Montana Native Plant Society website. The principle is universal: the application is very local indeed.

Readers from regions settled by agricultural and urban societies for many hundreds or even thousands of years are less fortunate in this regard than those of us who live where non-agricultural societies were more recently ousted from their homes. That's a complicated situation to contemplate. But we can do worse than make the best of it, right? It may be more difficult to know what your native habitat was once like, but I bet it's not impossible to introduce some natives. Wildflowers bloom in hedgerows - they can bloom in your garden too.

And once your native plants take hold and live and die and reproduce in your garden, they'll become the real deal too, part of the habitat, and you'll have such an expanded pleasure in your garden, such a deep joy and satisfaction and endless fascination with nature's processes unfolding right there, you'll be so glad you rebuilt Saint Malo - right in your own back yard.


Christine said…
Beautifully written, Country Mouse! I'd like to re-emphasize your point about not having to resign yourself to a jungle if you go native. Natives are as varied as any other plants at the garden center- lush/dry, colorful/gray foliage, formal/messy.
Also, California Native Plants for the Garden is a wonderful reference book for a new (California) gardener as well.
Country mouse and Christine - both your blogs are a tremendous help for people like me starting from scratch! Thanks guys...l
Elephant's Eye said…
My Oxalis pes-caprae says hi! When I do tug out a thuggish handful, which is smothering something I planted, out tumble a few caterpillars. Which will have to climb back on the next bunch.
Excellent post Country Mouse, I really need a consult with Ellen. I admit, thus far, to being primarily number 2. However, I have to admit to a weakness, and lack of discipline, at least thus far. I feel like Alice some days...the plants, at the nurseries, calling to me. Like the named cultivar of Salvia Clevelandii, that's now sitting in a pot, that I bought on a whim. We've cleared a lot of invasives, and this salvia promises to grow 6x6'. I'm rather desperate to fill in some bald spots in the orchard, but now I feel guilty for buying it, as it doesn't really belong here. It's relegated to a pot on the deck for now. On the other hand, I just harvested Iris fernaldii seed this morning, along with some Calochortus that grows here, so I'll try my hand at propagating this fall. Being true to my watershed is going to be a challenge, but one I'm going to try to muster the courage to rise to it, as were already seeing a difference here.
Country Mouse said…
I should indeed have mentioned California Native Plants for the Garden, Christine - a beautiful and informative book.
Thanks for the encouragement Byddi, good to know we're of some help here.
There's a twinkle in that Elephant's Eye for sure - I wonder what next year's crop of Oxalis pes-caprae around here will be like. Will I have made a dent in it?

CVF good luck with the Iris fernaldii - I'm not sure what I got but it grew from seed gathered locally. Probably Iris f. And I have plenty of whimsies which I somewhat regret, too, collected before I stumbled upon my current path. I think it's exciting that you are heading on a similar path - it'll be fun to compare notes about what we find growing among us. Are you in the San Lorenzo watershed? It is a large one that covers much of our area. I'm half in it.

Thanks all, for reading our blog and for your interesting observations.
Photos? St Malo is similar to Mont St Michel or am I mixing things up? Sounds wonderful, anyway.
ebw-pete said…
great post! one other resource which can be found in many communities throughout the country are our watershed or creek groups. one of the largest, most active is in my neighborhood 'friends of sausal creek'. volunteering w/ them, you can learn a LOT about restoration landscaping, plus have a great source for locally native plant material.
Elephant's Eye said…
'Twinkle' has much enjoyed visiting all your commenters. You have an interesting circle going here ;-))
Ginny said…
Excellent post. We are fortunate that our local ag extension service and master gardeners are strongly promoting "going native" - selling native plant seedlings at their plants aales and providing resources for novice gardeners. My focus has been on encouraging the bees, butterflies, and birds.
Country Mouse said…
St. Malo is a medieval walled city - you can click the link to see pics.

BTW Elephant's eye - I did take note of your most telling point, that in South Africa where the Oxalis pes-caprae belongs, it hosts caterpillars - which reinforces my point that native critters breed on their co-evolved native plants. Here nothing much seems to like it - except the gophers, who spread the darned nutlets that make this such an invasive weed here.

Ginny, glad to hear that the wonderful Master Gardeners are on the bandwagon! When I have more time I'd like to take the training and join in that support system for gardeners.

Likewise, Pete - I'd love to work with our local watershed and CNPS restoration groups and do my bit - but I need to get rid of this pesky job before I'll have time. Oh wait, without the pesky job I don't get to live here. Um.... Well I do plan on an active retirement, if the old body and mind hold themselves together.
Noelle said…
I enjoyed this post very much. It provides great guidelines in restoring native habitat even for those who may not be able to afford a consultant. I look forward to hearing about your progress over time :-)