Releaf and Reflection- Carmel Street Native Plantings

Mr Wood Rat and I took a three day trip down Highway 1 to Cambria and back home (to the Santa Cruz area) in early September, and spent the first night in the charming and wealthy village of Carmel by the sea. After we settled into our room, we enjoyed an early evening stroll along the beach and up around the older neighborhoods, famous for their unique cottage style homes in a beautiful coastal woodland setting.

A certain type of oak is ubiquitous in Carmel. I don't know if it's native or introduced. Its bark is pale and plump looking, as you can see above left. That one was almost on the beach. These oaks create airy high shade for the gardens and homes.

Many gardens feature amazing succulents too, as on the right.

But we didn't see much in the way of California natives in the gardens.

Then we turned a corner found ourselves walking up a long public path that ran along a culvert (dry at the moment). It turned out to be a major native plant project, in a narrow band along the culvert and path. I think it was a hundred percent natives and it ran for - well it felt like a quarter of a mile but maybe it wasn't quite that long.

The plantings were mostly riparian, with juncus, carex of some sort I think - I'm not sure how to identify the different ones, Western Chain Fern (Woodwardia fimbriata) and Western Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum), and grasses, probably Purple Needle Grass (Nasella pulchra), and Festuca californica, and Douglas iris, and woodland strawberry (Fragraria californica).

And trees! Many young trees that will be wonderful to revisit in years to come. Sycamores and others I didn't take time to note. I'm not that great at identifying a lot of trees as yet, but we have sycamores along the river near us that look lovely in early fall, with luminous pale yellow leaves.

I believe this is Festuca californica, waving its wonderful airy seedheads:

I do hope those responsible for this park maintain the plantings and don't suffer from the myth that native plants need no care! (That's Myth #3 in Town Mouses' most excellent Myth Buster blog entry.) Here is a sign that lets you know who to thank for this lovely roadside park:

I deeply admire this riparian habitat planting, and hope it inspires the residents of Carmel to use more natives in their gardens.

Yet I'm starting to recognize the same set of "usual suspects" that appear over and over in native gardens, dotted across the same mulched berms, and I hope we don't begin to suffer the same kind of gardener's "plant fatigue" that other plants - junipers come to mine - have suffered in California garden landscapes.

I'm talking of the ceanothus, manzanita, bunch grasses, sages and sedges that are coming to predominate in the corporate plantings in Palo Alto where I work, and also in many suburban gardens that are "losing their lawns." It's great - really great - but after a while you feel a certain cookie-cutter sameness in the approach.

I think it's partly because they are mostly new plantings, and we haven't had a chance to see how they develop over time.

Town Mouse's back garden has a wide range of wonderful plants that fill in small nooks here and habitat corners there . It's profuse and wonderful.

Yes, it started out as it should with a lot of space between plantings, as right now her new front yard looks, but Ms Town follows up with enriching accents and lovely touches that make her garden a rich and fragrant place to linger.

I hope that all of us gardeners new to working with the native plant materials learn how to go beyond the basic "starter garden" - and that takes education and time and experience.

It also requires more native plants to come into the mainstream nursery trade. Thank goodness for people such as Nevin Smith, who constantly seeks out and develops new natives that enrich the gardener's palette.

But I'm also coming to realize that country mice like me can't use the same approach to native gardening as the town mice.

Unlike a suburban plot, my property grows lots and lots of natives all by itself, as it has done for countless years before I showed up. I have a responsibility to care for this ecology, this gene pool.

I can't have anything here that will either hybridize or escape into the wild and take over habitat.

But as I've been learning about gardening with natives I have planted many nursery stock plants that might hybridize with locally indigenous ones. Ceanothus "Dark Star," lovely spreading Ceanothus "Joyce Coulter," Arctostaphylos "Doctor Hurd," Monkey flowers like Mimulus "Eleanor," and so on.

It's too late in a sense because some plantings have been here for five years. But it's not too late to take out those that will keep on hybridizing. That's hard. Transplanting native plants is not easy because their root systems go wide and/or deep to take advantage of all the water they can get their little rootlets on. And they are so pretty, it will be hard to wrest them from the soil where they are thriving. I'll certainly try transplanting them, if I can find them a nice suburban home, but my hopes are not high.

So I'm seeking advice right now about which of my planted natives can stay, and which have to be removed, and will no doubt blog about this again in the near future.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for raising the issue of hybridization between cultivars of native species and the natives themselves. It's something most people don't think about, and you're right that it can be a huge issue genetically. (Heck, most people don't even think about the non-native plants in their gardens escaping and over-running native plant communities!) Kudos to you!

I loved the photo of the riparian restoration in Carmel too. It's true that planting natives does not mean they'll just fend for themselves, especially given all of the invasive weeds we'd saddled them with. What often helps the natives though, is that they "know" how to form a community, and their evolutionary relationships with the soil microbes, insects, birds and other species make the whole assemblage stronger and better able to thrive.
What an excellent post. Such a nice discovery on your walk to see a native habitat project in the works. Those projects keep me inspired and looking around for what I can do to help in my own area. I wonder, too, as I look around town at the gardens of people planting native plants. Some are seen in almost every yard (esperanza and cenizo), and some are actually hybrids that are being spread by the nurseries (that lantana New Gold, for example). I honestly don't blame the average gardener -- they probably just don't realize that they're buying a hybrid or the impact it might have. I'm glad to see people making an effort to plant native, even though a little more education on species would help them widen their selection and avoid the hybrids. But I think education is a major part of the problem -- there needs to be a better way to identify the true natives for the average consumer, and the nurseries need to do a better job of stocking them. I'm no expert and have a lot to learn myself, but when I locate a true native I want, I go out of my way to find it.

Between nurseries selling hybrids by the masses and many still selling exotic invasives, it's no wonder native habitats are at such risk. But here in Austin we're seeing an effort to supply native plants, and hopefully that's a trend other areas are seeing, too.

You mentioned that you work in the Palo Alto area -- I lived in Mountain View and Palo Alto for a little over four years. I miss California.
Anonymous said…
Well, I wonder how Tilden Regional Park does it. They have so very many species of Arctostaphylos and Ceanothus, and in the middle of a natural area. I'd be curious whether they are worried about hybridizing.
Country Mouse said…
Good point. I think I will get in touch with the Tilden folk, and see what they have to say on that head. As I said in the post - it's a topic I'm investigating but have not yet come to a good understanding of. I've heard different things from different folk, like prostrate varieties won't hybridize with uprights.
Town Mouse said…
Oh, that sounds like a great trip. I'll have to see that restoration next time I go to Carmel. Lovely tree photos as well...

As for the gene pool question, I'll be curious what you find out.
Gail said…
I don't know all your California natives, but I sure resonate with your excitement at finding this garden! Looking forward to what your conversations with the Tilden folk reveal about hybridizing, etc. gail
ryan said…
It's always nice to see restoration plantings. I know what you mean about the bermed manzanita ceanothus bunch grass gardens, even as I sometimes install those kinds of gardens myself. Hopefully the bunchgrass and manzanita look will become a classic like the English cottage garden. The California bunchgrass garden?
I wonder about the impact of cultivars. They revert to the characteristics of the species, so I wonder whether the cultivars and selections exert that much influence on the gene pool. I suppose it would be a question of numbers, a ton of genetic clones might have an impact on a small subspecies of the plant, and then in many cases the gene pool is really big.
Yesterday I was looking at seedlings that came up under a Dark Star. They look like the parent (C. Impressus?) and you'd have to do a lot of intentional breeding to get anything resembling a Dark Star. Have you seen any research that suggests that ceanothus hybrids could over run native populations? Dark Star is selected for its bloom and relative tolerance of garden water, not things which would lead it to thrive in the wild. It's hard to imagine its progeny having an advantage over other wild ceanothus stock. Maybe some hybrid with the one local to your area would result and eventually supplant the local population, but I would do research on each species before I pulled anything. But maybe I just like Dark Star and Dr. Hurd and don't want to give them up.
California poppies are an example of a plant that has been affected by the sowing of the inland form among populations of the coastal form, but that involved the intentional sowing of millions or billions of seeds in wild areas over decades from a species that hybridizes readily. They're probably a worst case scenario and could be researched to see what that worst case scenario entails.
You're unlikely to successfully transplant Dark Star or Dr. Hurd or the other plants if they're established, though Mimulus "Eleanor" cuttings are probably pretty easy. A fresh one gallon will do better than transplanted ceanothus or manzanita any day.
My partner's a docent at Tilden, and she's never heard them mention any concern about hybrids escaping. I think that any hybrid that occurs is going to promptly get named "Tilden Park" and get put out into the trade.
I think this is my longest blog comment ever. My apologies.
Country Mouse said…
Ryan I appreciate your thoughtful comment - no need to apologize indeed. I am trying to do a little research - I need to do more. With UC Santa Cruz just up the road - though the Arboretum staff has just been decimated due to budget cuts - I'm sure I can get good informed opinions and maybe even pointers to actual data.

Meredith - I would also miss CA. We sometimes think about moving somewhere less expensive than the wider Bay Area so we could retire sooner etc - but there is so much beauty here of so many kinds that it is difficult to give up. Of course there is beauty in many places! But one gets fond for sure.
Chari + Matt said…
I've been thinking about your "starter garden" lament both before and after your post. I still consider myself as starting a garden, even though I am largely taking over my predecessor's. There is a bit of familiarity (and the flip side - sameness) if I am looking at native garden after native garden. I don't feel too hemmed in yet, though, not when I have so far to go (making mine the aforementioned starter garden!). It helps that there are no native gardens in my neighborhood, but I see the same repetition in non-native gardens everywhere: purple fountain grass (got that), breath of heaven (yup), flax (check) and boxwoods (phew, not that). I also find it hard to complain about manzanitas and ceanothus when there are a billion varieties of each, from ground cover to what many would call trees!

Your hybridizing concern is an interesting one. I suppose it ties in with the poppy hybridiizing that Larner laments. I haven't been over to Tilden in a few weeks. When I get back there, I'll see if I can find my favorite two gardeners and ask them.
Country Mouse said…
Hi Matt -- Oh I agree there is no need to be cookie cutter with all the glorious manzanitas available - and I also agree that the other garden cliches of fountain grass etc can also be seen everywhere. I'll bet you are bringing a lot of imagination to your groupings and so on. Unlike Town Mouse, I'm really lousy at all that (so far anyway) and am glad that Mother Nature has done most of my landscape work for me! I was more thinking of a certain landscaping company - I forget which now - that provides a low-cost cookie cutter "starter garden" approach for people wanting to get out of their lawn-based gardens. Which is laudable but also made me pause to reflect on garden cliches and realize that native gardens do have their cliches - One cliche held by non-native-garden enthusiasts is that native gardens are all dried up and scraggy looking! And actually my little "front beds" don't dispel that cliche at the moment. I'm thinking hard about how to make those little beds more appealing next year in late summer and fall than they are right now!