Going native

In a neighborhood full of lawns, Jeena and Eric Schoenke's front yard stands as an anomaly.

The Burbank residents tore out their front lawn and redesigned the space about a year ago. They poured a patio, created a path, brought in several large boulders and planted California native plants.

The yard features many native flowers — Baja snap dragons, tiger lilies and varieties of poppies, penstemon and sage — which are in full bloom. Every plant in the front yard aside from one tree is native, Jeena Schoenke said.

“If you stand at my house and look at my yard, you'll see red and yellow and purple and orange flowers everywhere,” she said.

The Schoenkes decided to go with a native landscape out of a concern for the environment, she said.

“My husband and I like to consider ourselves green and we really want to have a low impact on mother earth,” Jeena Schoenke said. “We had talked about native plants for a really long time .?.?.? and finally I just said, 'We're doing it. It's time.' ”

The benefits of a native landscape are almost endless, said Madena Asbell, who works in nursery sales at the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley, an organization dedicated to the preservation of California native plants.

Once they're established, which can take up to three years, most native plants need little to no water and do not require chemicals or soil amendments to grow. Therefore, a native garden cuts down on water consumption and eliminates the use of harmful herbicides and pesticides, Asbell said.

Native gardens are also important because they provide a habitat for wildlife, Asbell said. Many insects such as caterpillars and butterflies are host-specific and need a certain plant in order to survive.

“Those sorts of relationships are so important for the survival of the plant and the insect,” Asbell said.

In addition, people benefit from native gardens because they tutor us in nature's ways, Asbell said. A native garden “can put people in closer touch with nature and our seasons as they begin to learn about the relationships between their plants and wildlife, and the natural life cycles of the plants,” she said.

There are more than 6,000 plants native to California, many that can be planted in Southern California, Asbell said. Native gardening is site specific. To begin, the gardener must assess the climate and soil conditions of his or her garden and choose plants that will grow there. Sometimes this process comes down to the microclimates of the yard, where a plant may grow in one corner but not the other, she said.

With visits to the Theodore Payne nursery, Jeena Schoenke did a lot of reading and research to find out which California natives would grow in her Burbank yard, which is a coastal sage scrub region, she said.

Theodore Payne, the California Native Plant Society, Las Pilitas Nursery in Escondido and the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont are all good resources, Jeena Schoenke and Asbell said.

Jeena Schoenke's plants went into the ground in September and have only needed to be watered once, she said, adding that this probably had to do with the amount of rain this year brought.

She said she planted the yard so that it will bloom all year round, but will have to see if it works out that way.

While it is a common, not entirely unfounded perception that native gardens look “weedy” or go dormant in the summer, “with knowledge of native plants and good design principles, it is possible to create a native garden that is evergreen and beautiful year round,” Asbell said.

It's a good time to start planning a native garden, as the cooler months of fall and winter yield more success for native plants first going into the ground, Asbell said.

The Theodore Payne Foundation teaches basic and advanced classes in native plants and landscape design, and even a class on how to get rid of your lawn, Asbell said.

The Theodore Payne nursery sells many native grasses that can be used as alternatives to the lawn, however they do not hold up as well to foot traffic, Asbell said.

“To those people who have kids and pets and want to keep a lawn, we say reduce your lawn if you can, because they do require so much water and maintenance and fertilizer and pesticides just to keep them healthy,” she said.

Burbank residents looking for lawn alternatives and examples of native or drought tolerant gardens can visit one of four community demonstration gardens sponsored by the city of Burbank Water and Power Department.

The department has given four out of eight possible grants to nonprofit organizations and local schools to develop gardens that demonstrate irrigation products, plant material and practices for cultivating a water-efficient garden. While these gardens also use drought tolerant plants from similar Mediterranean climates, the majority of the plants are native, department Conservation Manager Joe Flores said.

The four gardens are at Burbank Temple Emanu El, the Burbank Family YMCA, the Burbank Housing Corp., in front of Elmwood Achievement Center, and one is under construction at Burbank Adult School, Flores said.

These gardens are part of a larger effort by the department to cut down on water usage by 20% by 2020, as mandated by Senate Bill X7, which went into effect in November, Flores said.

Therefore, the department offers rebates through the Metropolitan Water District for water-saving products like low-flow irrigation systems and offers classes in conjunction with the Glendale Department of Water & Power on water efficient landscaping, which includes a component on California native plants.

It is estimated that more than 50% of drinking water in Burbank goes toward landscaping, Flores said.

The city's water and power department is also looking to implement a program that gives rebates to Burbank residents for removing their lawns, Flores said.

There is an important distinction between drought tolerant and native, Asbell said; while a drought tolerant garden conserves water, a California native garden reaps even more benefits.

“One thing I like to remind people is that we're not just about water here [at Theodore Payne],” Asbell said. “When you're planting California native plants, you're creating a habitat.”

Nonnative plant species can spread throughout Southern California, out-competing with native species. These invasive species do not provide a habitat for or benefit wildlife, and sometimes even cause them harm, Asbell said.

Over in Burbank, Jeena Schoenke said she is pleased to look outside her window and see birds, bees and butterflies flock to her yard.

Increased visits from wildlife, reduced water bills and aesthetics are among the benefits of a native landscape, Jeena Schoenke said.

But at the top of her list is “just knowing that we're doing the right thing,” she said.

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