Evolution of a California Native Plant Gardener

Karen Laing in her California native plant garden with Iris douglasiana 'Canyon Snow',
one of the first California native plants she fell in love with

I wrote this article for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, published April 7, 2017, to publicize two plant sales: one for our Santa Cruz County chapter of CNPS, and the other for the UCSC Arboretum. The article features my fellow CNPS volunteer Karen Laing. The Sentinel published only about half the words I gave them, so here is what I gave them! Minus information about the plant sale, which is over. I hope you will enjoy hearing about Karen's evolution as a native plant gardener as much as I did ~ Country Mouse.

In 1986, Karen Laing and her new husband moved to a Scotts Valley home set above a big sunny slope. Her only gardening experience to that point had been with vegetables. She had no idea what to do. By chance, she saw an ad for a native plant sale, a fundraiser for the Santa Cruz County chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

At the sale, Karen fell in love with a native monkey flower (Mimulus bifidus) and a Douglas iris cultivar, ‘Canyon Snow.’ “They knocked my socks off. I was completely enchanted. Then it occurred to me that if I did all natives, it would be really good for the environment,” Karen said.

Close up of Canyon Snow

One of many showy monkeyflower cultivars available.
All pictures in this post are of Karen's garden and taken by me
unless otherwise noted.

More monkeyflower cultivars in Karen's garden.

Karen shopped at many CNPS sales over the next few years. Over time, she terraced her steep slope and planted Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), white sage (Salvia apiana), woolly blue curls (Trichostema lanatum, California fuchsia (Epilobium canum), various monkeyflowers (Mimulus spp.) and manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.), silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica), flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum), and coffeeberry (Frangula californica – old name Rhamnus californica). She was happy to see that many were still thriving last time she drove by that property, two years ago.

In 2002, the Laings moved to a large woodland property near Rodeo Gulch. Karen, who practiced midwifery in Santa Cruz County for thirty years, was working more than full time, so she hired Elkhorn Native Plant Nursery to design and install a quarter acre garden on the slope below her house.

Karen found the pre-designed garden approach less satisfying. “To me the most fun part is having your hands in the dirt, not looking at a finished garden. It’s about enjoying an intimate involvement with natural processes. I guess as a midwife I’ve been intimately involved with natural processes for much of my life!”

I just wanted to break up the text with a picture. I don't have pictures of Karen's former gardens....
This is Karen's current small suburban garden in August 2016.

For many people, however, hiring a professional is a great way to create a low-maintenance garden that will last for years. Experienced local designers will choose plants that thrive here without much summer water, and group them attractively and according to their needs. You can ask for plenty of regionally-local native plants that benefit pollinators and other wildlife. Colorful and nectar-rich plants from other Mediterranean regions can also add a touch of the exotic to your garden and are surprisingly easy to care for.

In 2015, Karen returned to Santa Cruz after living for some years in the Puget Sound area, where she had kept on gardening—with Washington native plants. In just two years she has transformed the front yard of her Lower West Side bungalow from a chemical-dependent lawn to a vibrant and varied 100% California native garden.

"Before" -- A flat, chemical-dependent  lawn.
(Pardon my clumsy attempt to remove content from the realtor sign.)
And yes, the neighbor does have Jubata grass growing. Not recommended - invasive along our coast!
Photo provided by Karen Laing.

"After" -- Karen's 100% California native plant garden in late August, 2016
Who said a California native plant garden is a bunch of dead twigs in summer??

“The other day, my next door neighbor and I were standing out in front of our gardens,” Karen said recently. “He told me he’d been noticing all these tiny bees on his plants that he’d never seen before.” Laing told him that the native plants in her garden were attracting them. “So he said he’s decided not to spray insecticides because he likes to see all these little native pollinators.” Karen smiled happily.

Karen's garden in early spring 2017

To begin the transformation, Karen first removed the lawn. She noticed there were no earthworms. “The soil was basically dead. The previous owner used a lot of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizer.” So she set about restoring soil health.

Early days in Karen Laing's small suburban California native plant garden.
Photo provided by Karen Laing.

After deep digging to loosen up the compacted soil, Laing added mulch. She won’t dig again, allowing the soil to build structure that supports plant growth. Under each plant she’s sprinkled mycorrhizal fungus, available from nurseries. These fungi have mutually beneficial relationships with plant roots, improving plant health. She even took a small scoop of soil from under a wild native, for example, coyote bush, and spread it under the same type of plant in her garden, adding more fungus and beneficial microorganisms to bring the soil back to life.

Choosing plants was a challenge for Karen. “It’s the smallest garden I’ve ever had. But I still wanted a few of my favorite shrubs, coffeeberry, silk tassel bush, coyote bush, and Cleveland sage. I’ll have to prune them, but it’s worth it.”

The shrubs are grouped towards the rear left side of the yard, while lower growing monkey flower and California fuchsia fill in the center and front, and in spring to early summer, California poppies, Clarkias and other native annuals spill through the garden creating a wash of bright colors.

The intense color of Cleveland sage flowers.
They're intensely scented to -- mostly from the leaves.

The pleasant evergreen foliage of coffeeberry

Stunning long "tassels" of silk tassel bush

Laing has also grown some plants that provide an interesting challenge. Red-orange paintbrush plants (Castilleja spp.) are not even available in the CNPS sales—though a propagation project, inspired by Laing’s success, is in the works. Paintbrush is a hemi-parasite. It must share the roots of another plant.

A specialty grower provided Karen with Monterey paintbrush (Castilleja latifolia) in a pot with a low-growing sagebrush, Artemisia ‘Canyon Grey.’
Trichostema latifolium, woolly blue curls, in the background.

 Laing even built a narrow mound along her driveway to provide the paintbrush and its companions the fast-draining soil they need.

Last fall Laing began planting her shady back yard with California native ferns, wild ginger and western bleeding heart – and she isn’t done yet.

The end! --

But FYI here is one of the plant pictures I provided to showcase the Arboretum's Mediterranean plants. I had intended my article to be focused only on natives, in support of our CNPS sale - but the Arb didn't have a separate article this time, so I expanded the scope of mine.

Of course this is the one they featured!

You can see the article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel HERE. Until they take it down that is.