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GARDENING : NO NEED TO FEEL RESTLESS ABOUT GROWING NATIVE PLANTS.

Byline: Joshua Siskin

The idea of landscaping with native plants is, to some people, like that fairy tale about the emperor's new clothes. As the emperor's retinue passes through the streets, everyone ooohs and aahs even though the emperor is naked, no one daring to reveal the truth until a child exclaims, ``Why doesn't the emperor have any clothes on?'' When looking at a landscape of natives, some folks ooh and ahh while others wonder, ``What's the big deal? Where's the beauty and the splendor that a garden is supposed to give?''

In ``Grow Wild!'' (Fulcrum Publishing, 1998), Lorraine Johnson seeks to dispel the notion that gardens of natives are inevitably bland and boring. There are dozens of photographs in this book that make the case for natives, including a picture of a front-yard meadow garden in British Columbia, 20 years in the making, that blooms with hundreds of blue camas lilies each spring. The garden is located in a quiet residential area, off the beaten track, yet hundreds of visitors appear every year just to see the lilies.

In Southern California, there are a number of native lilies we could grow and naturalize in the back yard. There is the orange-red, maroon-spotted lily (Lilium pardalinum) and the clear yellow lemon lily (Lilium Parryi); both carry generous clusters of 4-inch flowers. Several varieties of the Humboldt lily (Lilium Humboldtii), orange-yellow in color, are also native to our area.

Nature's way

A change of values or, at least, a kind of rethinking is sure to accompany an introduction of natives into the garden. A desire to learn all that nature has to teach is a prerequisite to full employment of native plants. Only after you plant natives will the enormous variety of local birds and insects make themselves known to you and your family. These flying species are partial to flowers they have been feeding on and pollinating for several thousand years, yet you will never see them if you do not plant natives. Aren't you curious to see what's really going on out there?

Once you start planting natives, there's no telling what might happen. Seven years ago, that brilliant shrub called Ceanothus ``Dark Star'' - it has glowing, dark royal blue flowers - was planted in Woodland Hills. Two years ago, it was unwisely pruned during the growing season and died soon afterward. This spring, thanks to the heavy rains, several dozen Ceanothus seedlings are coming up where ``Dark Star'' once twinkled. It will be another year or two before these new Ceanothus bloom, and since they all come from seedlings - each one different form the rest - there's no telling what their flowers will look like. It is this sort of expectation that gives gardeners a kind of excitement that even moviemakers cannot create.

Don't overwater

Watering practices demand rethinking in a garden where natives grow. Setting the automatic sprinkler system to come on five or 10 minutes many times a week will be deadly to native plants unless they are growing in soil with perfect drainage. It is much better to water with a hose, install soaker hoses, or turn the sprinklers on manually when the soil around your natives goes bone dry.

The word ``xeriscape'' (xeri=dry; scape=landscape) was first used by horticulturists in Colorado in 1981. ``Xeriscape Plant Guide'' (Fulcrum, 1998) was composed by Denver Water - a utility company - and is an excellent book for those seeking to save water in their gardens but not necessarily with natives. Many plants suitable for Colorado will also grow well in Los Angeles. The drawings and photos that accompany each species are outstanding.

One of the features of each plant listed in this book is ``disadvantages.'' Too often, plant books give us nothing but glowing, Pollyanna pictures of the species described. It's nice to see a realistic appraisal, for a change, of recommended plants. For example, under red valerian (Centranthus ruber), that perennial bloomer seen growing out of the rocky embankments along our canyon roads (e.g. Malibu or Coldwater canyons), we are told that ``numerous seeds are produced and requires deadheading to impede spread.'' I have seen red valerian - its flowers may also be lavender-pink - take up most of some people's front yards. Still, better to be invaded by red valerian than some weeds you might know - such as oxalis, field bindweed or yellow nut sedge. As a companion to this volume, ``Xeriscape Color Guide'' is also available, indicating the flower, stem and leaf color - by season - of more than 100 plants.

Tip of the week: Try to avoid planting during a period of extreme heat. If you must plant in hot weather, put dark plastic containers over your new garden specimens for a few hours each day. These sun hats will protect your plants until more moderate weather returns.
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 25, 1998
Words:801
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