Landscaping with California native plants has probably never been more compelling than it is today, when gardeners throughout Southern California are taking drastic measures to keep their yards looking green or, at the very least, alive.
“Natives are adapted to our seasons,” says Kitty Connolly, executive director of the Sun Valley-based Theodore Payne Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to California native plants. “Now is the perfect time to plant so that you will have a beautiful garden next spring. Most of these plants are dormant in the summer, but they take advantage of cool weather to grow.”
We asked three veterans of the 2014 Native Plant Tour, held in April, to share their tips and favorite plants.
Natives go modern
J. Shields and Anne Tannen consider themselves Modernists even though they live in a 1924 bungalow in Del Rey. When they purchased the home in 1992 it had a “prototypical lawn, a white picket fence and topiary-type shrubberies, plus a backyard that was really just dirt,” said Shields, owner of Shields Modern, a furniture design company.
The couple has been gardening with California native plants since 1995 when Shields was inspired by bird-watching friends to add habitat plants to his front yard. “They got me going on the idea of how stupid a lawn is in so many ways when instead we could create biodiversity for beneficial insects, migratory warblers and bees,” he says. “Now we have a mini-refuge with food sources and a protective cover in the middle of Los Angeles.”
The 900-square-foot yard is anchored by mature California lilac, manzanita and toyon and it’s accented by sages, globe mallows and a fabulous penstemon collection, a magnet for hummingbirds. The backyard recently underwent sweeping changes to accommodate a free-standing studio and a home addition. Between the two new structures is an inviting “courtyard” space that inspired Shields and Tannen to continue a native plant scheme.
Beneath a canopy of a mature palo verde tree (a Southwest desert native) the couple removed yards of concrete and planted a modernist native landscape with a California lilac screen.
A new, Mondrian-inspired grid of squares is defined by variously colored gravels that play off the couple’s Modernist sentiments. There are places for seating, and each section is devoted to a single native plant. “We wanted to celebrate individual specimens,” Shields says. “And this design forces people to look at each plant.” They calculate that 95% of their plantings are California natives.
Natives at the ranch
In Geneva Martin’s Redondo Beach ranch house, lawn once covered 75% of the 2,500-square-foot lot. An active member of her local garden club and the California Native Plant Society, Martin knew she wanted to eliminate her lawn and incorporate more native plants. Two years ago, she turned to Melissa Carnehl, owner of Redondo Beach-based Land Matters, and the two began planning a coastal-friendly design using mostly native plants.
“Ten to 15 years ago, people weren’t as interested in native gardens, but this time, I was working with a designer who was,” Martin says. The renovation retained all the hardscaping (paths, driveway) from an earlier project but removed all vestiges of the original front lawn.
In its place, there’s now silvery-green dymondia, a cushy ground cover that mimics a grassy path. The swath meanders through a mix of California coastal prairie plants, including grasses and sages, which are placed among rocks to help draw winter storm water away from the house. The design allows for on-site percolation rather than runoff. The backyard mixes shade-tolerant natives with existing Mediterranean plants.
“My goal was to make the house look like it was built into its natural surroundings,” Carnehl says. “We brought in local rock, covered in lichen, to look like a dry streambed.”
Martin is particularly pleased that her anti-lawn inspires people in her neighborhood. “We get a lot of bees and butterflies, as well as people stopping by to ask about the plants,” she says.
Cottage garden natives
For years, the front yard of Mary Beth Fielder’s Craftsman home in Hancock Park was blanketed in turf, just like the neighbors’. But after hearing an interview with Douglas Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants,” she looked critically at her lawn and knew it needed to change.
“With the importation of exotics, we not only have lost a lot of native plants but also native bugs, butterflies and bees that thrived on them,” Fielder says. “I wanted to create a little ecosystem in my own garden.”
She turned to Nick Dean, owner of Los Angeles- and Santa Barbara-based Nick Dean Gardens, who had designed her backyard a decade before. “Gardens from 10 years ago are not very drought-tolerant,” Dean acknowledges. “So it was nice to do something entirely different in Mary Beth’s front yard with low-water and low-maintenance plants.”
That’s not to say all natives fall into those categories, Dean says. “It is a common misperception that all California natives are arid plants. Most are, but some thrive in bogs.” It’s important to check the cultural conditions of the native plants you choose for your garden, and Dean suggests planting thirstier varieties on a home’s shady, north-facing side where they won’t suffer from moisture evaporation.
To create her meadow-style cottage garden, Fielder first removed her aging lawn (using layers of cardboard covered in mulch, which she obtained free from the city of Los Angeles). Dean transformed the generic space with decomposed granite pathways that lead visitors on a journey through vivid blooms and billowy forms — flowering sages, monkey flowers, yarrows and penstemon, among other native perennials. A short staircase connects planting beds closest to the sidewalk with a small seating area where Fielder can rest while admiring a convergence of pollinators — the insect and bird life she hoped would come to feed on native nectar sources.
Dean and Fielder have placed small tags throughout the garden so that passersby are able to jot down the name of the plants that catch their eye. It’s all part of their plan to persuade others that native gardens are anything but dreary. “It’s a great role model for the rest of the neighborhood,” he says.
If this sounds like a good reason to add native plants to your yard, check out the fall plant sale at Theodore Payne Nursery, open to nonmembers, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. 10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley. (818) 768-1802. https://theodorepayne.org/calendar/fall-plant-sale/