Is this a California Native garden?

The Santa Clara Valley Going Native Garden Tour is again accepting applications for next year's tour, which will be in April 2014. You can submit your garden on the tour website.

In October - December, the garden selection committee will make the rounds and preview the gardens before accepting them. We take this task seriously, and w usually have 3 people on each garden visit, one of them a landscape professional. We've also prepared a document that explains to garden owners what we expect.

But how do we really decide which gardens we accept? Let me tell you some stories...

1. No invasive exotics

When I first submitted my garden to the tour, proud of all the additions of native plants to my garden, I was surprised to get a rejection email. Your garden includes cotoneaster and purple fountain grass and we can't include it on the tour because they're considered invasive. See Don't Plant a Pest!

Really? I'd never found even the smallest seedling of cotoneaster or of the grass - the only plants that reseeded readily were the neighbor's redwood trees. I was pulling baby redwoods all the time. But after some research, I realized that it wasn't unlikely that the cotoneaster berries were carried into wild areas by birds, and I replaced that plant with Sambucus Mexicana (blue elderberry). The garden was accepted on the tour, and I'm getting a lot more birds than I ever did with the cotoneaster (photo below from Las Pilitas).

2. Good design

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and one person's weed might be another person's treasure. But the tour is for the general public, and is meant to create a favorable impression of gardens that rely on natives. Here's where our landscaping professionals come in - they usually have a pretty good idea what people like and what they don't like. The amateurs on the committee are usually willing to let the professionals take the lead when the design is in question.

We like to have a mix of professionally designed and installed gardens and gardens designed and installed by the homeowner on tour to encourage people who don't have a big budget. That said, in a few cases, the "bones of the garden" just weren't there. Garden visitors expect paths, benches, fountains, hardscaping - a natural look is fine, but a weedy look is not.

We also like to see the plants well spaced, though having some areas where the plants are close together, offering shelter for birds and other critters, can also be beautiful.

Sometimes we encourage the garden owner to hire a garden designer on an hourly basis, or to work with some books. One of my favorites is Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach.

I'm also looking forward to the new book from Rebecca Sweet. While that book does not have a focus on California Natives, good design is good design, and I'm really looking forward to getting a copy as soon as it's out (October 20).

3. California Native plant focus

In the guidelines for submission, different garden tours seem to come up with different numbers. Going Native Garden Tour suggests at least 50% natives. Other tours have higher numbers. I always wondered what that meant. Biomass? Number of plant species?

In the end, it's really impossible to put a number on when a garden is a CA Native garden. Instead, we're looking for a feeling the garden invokes. The showstoppers in the garden should be natives - or at least mostly natives. Colorful annuals and bulbs in spring,  insect-attracting buckwheats in summer,  berries in fall, and in late winter the first of the manzanitas. We're looking for a variety of native plants annuals, perennials, shrubs, ferns. If non-native or even invasive grasses steal the show - I've seen a garden with a focus on Mexican feathergrass - we can't accept that garden.

Sometimes, a garden is designed with California natives, and the installer decides to change the design. Lambs ear instead of Salvia spatacea. Non-native sages instead of native sages. Kangeroo paws instead of Epilobium. In many cases, the home owner is not told, and the difficult task of explaining that the garden is primarily using Mediterranean and Australian plants falls to the garden selection committee. In two cases, the owners actually took out the non-native plants and replaced them. For other garden owners, we've recommended the Bay Friendly Garden Tour (which regrettably is only in select cities).

In general, we like to give the gardens the benefit of the doubt, and most garden owners who apply know their plants. And really, even my own garden has camelias, several non-native sages,  some non-native dwarf conifers, and (gasp) agapanthus. But the feeling of the garden is native, because of the ceanothus, native grasses, redwood sorrel and native ginger, and over 100 other species of native plants.

4. Here's what I think

With all the careful discussion of the rules, I still think that this is a bit of a gut feeling case. When the committee goes on garden visits, we usually get back in the car, and most of the time we agree that we'd love to have the garden on tour. Sometimes, we don't completely understand who the home owner submitted the garden (One time, we almost sent a letter back "Thank You for showing us your native plant". There was, literally, only one native plant in the garden.). In such cases, we sent a polite refusal. And in a few cases, we talk to the garden owners and make suggestions. Maybe some annuals would improve the "native" feeling in spring? Maybe if the invasive plants were removed we could accept the garden? And often, we visit the garden again a few months later, and it's perfect for the tour.

Please apply, it's fun!



rebecca sweet said…
I'm so honored that you've mentioned my upcoming book - thank you! And you're right, while the focus isn't necessarily on CA native plants it is about design (using natives or non) making it easier to choose the ideal native plant for your garden (whichever state you live in). As you know, I love your garden - the wild and natural feel, the 'bones' helping to make it beautiful year-round, and the wildlife that has made it their home. I can't wait to see what other gardens are on the tour this year. It'll be interesting with the crazy weather we've had, won't it? Thanks again, my friend. :)
ryan said…
This is a good description of what makes a native garden in general, not just for your tour. You guys do a good job, I was impressed by the gardens I saw this year. I'll probably go down again to see some gardens next year, and hopefully get a recommendation or two from you. Enjoy your garden visits.
Country Mouse said…
What a wonderful post - you really give a sense of what makes a native garden. I'm increasingly reassuring people they don't have to give up old garden favorites if they go in for natives - for one thing time is usually required to transition a space, and for another - we all have old favorites that warm our hearts and as long as they are non-invasive and as you say don't unbalance the feeling of the wildlife-friendly native garden that brings to your home that sense of where you exist on the planet, well that's fine with me. And - it is fun to enjoy beautiful gardens.
Diana Studer said…
today I found a detailed list of the invasive plants for Cape Town. Now I can ID the ones beyond the obvious Australian wattles and hakea. You leave me musing whether my garden would pass your test, but I'd have to say indigenous (native is not a happy word here)