The front half of our yard — since it’s a yard of an acre, I can say the front half-acre — was stripped of its native vegetation when we moved in. That has always irritated me, particularly because next to nothing replaced it. There was a single orange tree and 20,000 square feet of weeds. If you’re going to decimate the native vegetation on a section of land, you have to do something more valuable in its place (like farm) and restore the native vegetation as best as possible when you’re done. Those tasks are left to me now.
I grow our food on a chunk of the front half-acre, and I’m working to restore a semblance of the native vegetation on the rest.
Our house faces east, below it are the vegetables and fruit trees and vines and berries, below them is a fence, and below the fence is a strip about 20 feet wide and 215 feet long that abuts the road. This roadside strip was a wasteland when we moved in, covered with filaree, bermuda grass, and wretched tumble weeds — totally laid bare and then abandoned. It is this strip that I’m trying to bring back to life with native plants.
My goal is to restore the native plants that were growing there originally, as far as that’s possible. It is impossible. I have no way of knowing for sure what had been there before it was bulldozed. But I do know what native plants are growing nearby. That’s all I have to go on. So I’m planting species that are growing naturally in other parts of my yard, in neighbors’ yards, and in natural areas within a couple miles. I’m also taking into account things like aspect (lightly sloped east), soil type, amount of sun, amount of rainfall available.
Backing up, why natives? Or even before that, what is a native? I’m using the adjective to describe plants that grow without human help and have not been introduced by humans. Coast live oak is a native tree; California pepper (Schinus molle) is not, it is a naturalized tree — although it grows without human help in my yard, it was introduced to the area by humans a couple hundred years ago; it is native to South America.
And why natives then? Briefly, I’m planting natives along the roadside strip because they will grow without my help. Yes, I’ll have to help them get started, but after a year at the longest they’ll take care of themselves. That means they’ll be free in every way (water, labor, fertilizer).
Also, natives will get along with one another. The problem with some naturalized plants is that they’re bullies. Take bermuda grass. It doesn’t need my help to grow, but plants nearby need my help to prevent the bermuda grass from overtaking their space. Native plants, on the other hand, generally work together and come to a balance without one plant choking any others out if the right ones are planted together (in other words, the ones you find growing together in natural areas).
Equally as important, native vegetation gives me a feeling of being on this very spot on planet Earth. I’ve got vegetables and fruit trees growing in other parts of the yard that give me no sense of location. Someone in Missouri could be growing these heads of cabbage and peach trees. But the native vegetation makes my yard unique to my address. In Missouri you won’t find coast live oak trees and laurel sumac and chamise and buckwheat and wild cucumber and yellow bush penstemon and purple nightshade. These native plants only grow right here, and when I see them all in a community I have a sense of being only at 33 degrees north and 117 degrees west.
I started the project last winter. I transplanted some scrub oaks and coast live oaks, and I bought some seedlings of white sage and sugar bush and ceanothus and monkeyflower. They grew fairly well. The scrub oaks have grown more than a foot, the white sage has exploded to five times its original size and is sure to bloom this spring, and the monkeyflower bloomed all summer. I only watered these plants once a month through the summer. I will never water them again. The coast live oak saplings, however, died. And the ceanothus was eaten by a rabbit. So, fair success.
This winter, I’m planting only acorns of coast live oaks so they can sink their tap roots right from the start and never be disturbed by transplanting. The acorns are from a coast live oak tree in the yard.
I’ve also planted two more ceanothus and placed cages around them. They should grow well without the rabbit assaults.
Among these I’ve planted more monkeyflower, manzanita, mallow, black sage, coffeeberry, and toyon, and more scrub oaks. Most of them I’ve had to purchase at the nursery as seedlings in one-gallon pots. For some of them, I’ve had to purchase cultivars because that’s all I can find, and I’ve had to compromise my goal of restoration and settle for a much broader definition of “native” plants. For example, I’ve settled for buying a ceanothus cultivar called ‘Ray Hartman’ which comes from Northern California even though my neighbor has a wonderful, wild ceanothus (leucodermis) growing on the edge of his yard. But I’m as yet unable to propagate it successfully (I’ve failed at cuttings as well as seeds). So I’m stuck with what I can buy. My hope is to ultimately get better at propagating the true natives of my yard and neighborhood and replace all “natives” like the ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’. At least this cultivar will help me get the general plant community started and it will begin to shade out weeds, at which point I can cull it and leave true natives to replace it. A cultivar of a ceanothus from Northern California is still leaps and bounds better to have growing on the roadside than tumble weeds.
As mentioned at the top, the yard is about an acre in size and we’ve cultivated part of the front half-acre. My long term vision is to have this cultivated section of vegetables, fruit trees, vines, and berries entirely bounded by native vegetation. In essence, we’ll have a rectangle of exotic food plants inset among a bold ring of Southern California chaparral and oak woodland plants. The benefits of this for my rectangle of food plants should be better pollination and pest control, as I noted in this previous post, “Hedgerow of native plants brings all kinds of benefits”. I also just like the idea of providing more habitat and food for birds and native bees and other native insects.