Natives Can Weather Their Share of Neglect

Eliza Earle was born and raised out of state, but she is passionate about California natives--plants that is.

"I love these plants for their symbolic and historical ties to the real Southern California," she said, over an early morning bird chorus in her Studio City hillside garden.

Indigenous flowering shrubs, trees and bushes seem right at home with hovering bees and butterflies in this imaginative profusion of color, shape and fragrance.

The drought-tolerant garden's low-maintenance requirements during the dry summer months blend well into the lives of Earle, a part-time landscape designer, her husband and two young daughters. Like many Valley residents, the Earles are a working family who cherish their garden, but can't stay home all day to tend it.

Situated on a steep, narrow winding road, the home's landscape area is uneven, and it is often tough to figure out the needs of the unpredictable hillside sun and shade. With some forethought and a lot of trial runs, Earle has managed to create a private idyll, marked by a thriving mix of natives and non-native flowering plants, shrubs, trees and bushes.

"Chaparral, oaks and California lilacs are beautifully adapted to this environment," she said. "We have a full native berry bush outside the window that blooms during Christmas. When we go away for the summer and rent out the house, I don't worry too much about the plants. They weather just about any kind of neglect."

Benign neglect may be a more accurate description.

According to Earle, the unwatered plants looked just fine after the family returned home after the weekend sizzler earlier this month.

The front of the house features railroad-tie steps with ivy and manzanita alongside to hold the soil. Plants with names like spiderwort, buckthorn, monkey flower and buckwheat either flower or retain unusual leaves. Day lilies, daffodils and a buckwheat species called "blue-eyed star" form a replica of an English country garden.

When starting a water-conserving garden, Earle recommends focusing on something that already exists and taking off from there. Many of her plant beds relate to a Catalina cherry tree. A strip consisting of small stones reduces watering on the side of the house. The garden is augmented by terraced plant beds shaded by a grapevine draped over an arbor.

For residents of the hotter, drier flatlands of the West and northwest Valley, Earle suggests immediately planting oak or other shade trees, perennial beds and low growing, non-thirsty ground cover such as yarrow, a popular lawn substitute, as a foil for plants.

"You don't always have to go for the drought-tolerant choice," she added, "but long-action fertilizer decreases instant growth, and you can cut the lawn taller. All this helps to reduce watering by at least 50%."

This kind of experimentation combined with environmental awareness serve to highlight Earle's motto: If it grows, looks good and needs little water, use it.

"If you're on a street in Van Nuys or Pittsburgh, they look alike," she said. "What we need to love is our regional diversity and develop our own style. The drought and push toward interesting native plants is bringing us back to our desert origins."

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