Design and Maintenance of Native Plant Gardens - 1: Jim Martin, Garden Designer

A landscape in Capitola, coastal Central California, by Plant Landscape Design.
For a partial plant list, scroll to end of this post. Photo: Matt Ross.

I recently wrote an article for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, which they titled Lawn's gone - so now what. I wrote it mostly for people who might want to replace their lawn but are afraid to get started, because they don't know how to maintain a low-water use garden of mostly shrubs. I also wrote it to publicize our CNPS Santa Cruz County chapter native plant sale, on April 9th. Which, despite some rain, was a great success.

I learned a lot in researching the article that obviously couldn't fit into a 900 word article, and I'm going to share some of the interesting info on a few posts in the upcoming weeks.

First I'd like to present landscape designer Jim Martin's thoughtful email answer to my question about maintaining a newly installed garden. He's one of two owners of Plant Landscape Design, based in Soquel California.

Me: I'm interested in how to maintain a new low water use mostly natives landscape --- the type that might replace a lawn --- and how that will change over time. I'd like to present maintenance tasks in a seasonal way in the article.

Jim Martin co-owner of Plant Landscape Design: A “Zero Maintenance” landscape is a myth.
Every garden will require some attention—usually more in the first couple of seasons until plants reach maturity.  Of the hottest topics in this category will be water use.  Even a “Drought tolerant native planting” requires water in its first few establishment seasons.  We always encourage a drip system for a new planting to provide regular and consistent watering during this establishment time.

Over time, plants will grow their own “skirts” to shield the soil from letting go of too much moisture.  Mature plants also will have more developed root systems to seek out and more efficiently use available water without so much supplemental irrigation.

Mulch is key to new plantings in conserving water until plant maturity is reached.  Mulch provides a blanket for the soil to retain its moisture, suppresses herby weeds from growing, regulates soil temperatures from excessive extremes, and provides a base nutritive bank (most native plants will require only this as fertilization, top dressed once a year thereafter to keep a steady feed*).

Our typical ongoing maintenance regime after a new planting consists of alternating week visits (usually two to three visits per month, every other week) to monitor plant growth/prune where necessary (although proper plant choice and spacing here will limit the need for any undue pruning), and mainly keeping up on weeds.  While weeds are largely controlled by mulching, wind and birds may import weed seeds during the year and must be managed. 
Again as every yard is different, so is its varying degree of maintenance needs.  A comprehensive landscape design, aimed at informed plant choices should see a general decrease in general maintenance needs, as well as water consumption.  All yards will require at least seasonal attention, but we do aim for a maintenance plateau after several seasons.
*In the article I added that top dressing with compost and then mulch on top to maintain a depth of 4 inches is recommended (based on further info obtained).

Plant List for the Capitola Garden (with a few notes I found in researching)

Another view of the landscape in Capitola. Photo: Matt Ross
This garden, designed, installed, and maintained by Plant Landscape Design, is in the small coastal city of Capitola, in the Monterey Bay area. Many people visit to enjoy Capitola's village atmosphere, quaint architecture, tourist shops and eateries right on the beach and mouth of Soquel Creek. State beaches nearby offer wonderful ocean, beach, and bluff experiences as well as nature centers and native plants too.

Here's a partial plant list for this coastal garden. BTW these are natives but not local natives. Low water use was one of the main considerations - as well as the open, attractive appearance and and low maintenance.

  • Rosy Buckwheat, Eriogonum grande var. rubescens
  • Deer grass, Muhlenbergia rigens
  • Coyote mint, Monardella villosa
  • Bush anemone, Carpenteria californica
  • Wheeler Canyon Ceanothus, Ceanothus papillosus var. roweanus hybrid 'Wheeler Canyon'. I read in a Santa Barbara Botanic Garden publication Branching Out: "Propagated from cuttings by Horticulturist Dara Emery from a plant found roadside in Wheeler Gorge, Ventura County" 4-6’ tall, 4-8’ wide.
  • Shagbark Manzanita, Arctostaphylos rudis ‘Vandenberg'. I read this interesting story on the Native Revival nursery web site: "Several years ago at Vandenburg Air Force Base, Nevin Smith saved this plant from a mile-wide swath that was being stripped of all vegetation." 7' tall and 10' wide. 


Cynthia Nicole said…
Interesting article.
I live in Bonny Doon and wish i could find someone who could help us work with our landscape. We live in sandhill habitat with many local varieties of manzanita, ponderosas, plus oaks that seem to be taking over. How do we steward the land? Is it okay to take out many of the hundreds of small oaks (squirrel & bird planted, I'm sure)? What should stay, what should be culled? etc. We have small landscaped areas, but the soil is mainly sand.

Anyway, I appreciate your blog! I do find some relevant answers here. Thanks!
Country Mouse said…
Hi Cynthia - some one who helped me greatly with my article - a landscape contractor and coach too - has a great appreciation for natives is Sheryl McEwan - 831-212-5861. I also had a great experience when I hired a botanist to come up from Central Coast Wilds to survey and advise me on my property. That's pricey but worth it. They may also have other services.
Yes, it's OK to take out the small oaks. If I have time I could come up and tell you what's naughty and nice! but for gardening I recommend hiring a professional. Good luck!
Diana Studer said…
Mulch ticks all the boxes, and it makes a newly planted area look as if it almost a garden already.
Norberto said…
What you talk about is so very true. I wanted to create a natural garden with native plants and shrubs, and so sought the advice of my friendly garddening and landscaping company. They helped me to design my outside space and suggested the native plants that would thrive well in my garden. They even planted them for me.

Norberto @ Thorburn Landscapes