Learning from the Master Gardeners

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Garden Features

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Drought Tolerant

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Edible Garden

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California Natives

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Drip Irrigation

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Pesticide Free

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Rain Garden

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Reclaimed/Recycled Materials

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Sheet Mulching

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Lawn Conversion

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Lawn-Free Landscaping

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Permeable Surfaces

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Wildlife Habitat

Partner: North Marin Water District

A Master Gardeners Own Native Garden.

I’m learning what works.  This year, fire and water considerations have altered everything I do. I’ve long known—theoretically–how to plan for water shortages and fire threats, but now I’m seeing how things work over time, with my own eyes, in my own garden. 

Therefore, I plant in the fall, not the spring.  I plant native plants – most have had the advantage of adapting to California’s droughts over centuries.  I plant less densely now and leave good spacing.  I let it all breathe. 

I don’t plant next to the house.  Instead, I have a broad swathe of river pebbles surrounding the house and I keep it weeded, which isn’t hard to do, but does take regular maintenance. 

Focusing on Soil

Some native plants will thrive here, and some will not, no matter how thoughtfully I take care of them.  It isn’t their place.  I’ve learned not to fight the microclimates in my garden.    

I enhance whatever I can.  The soil always needs enrichment; the woodchips and leaves of my neighbors’ oak trees make beautiful soil, sometimes in a matter of months.  I’m always alert to tree work in the neighborhood, and I take whatever free materials I can get.  When I first sheet-mulched three seasons ago, the soil was compacted and barely alive.  Now a spade goes into it without effort, and my plants thrive.  Whatever rain we get stays to soak into the ground and soften it further.  

The Oaks

At least three types of small oaks grow in my yard.  All have been planted by scrub jays that pilfer acorns from nearby trees.  I sometimes catch them at it, but mostly not.  Douglas Tallamy’s new book, The Nature of Oaks, tells me that an acorn spends its first year putting growth underground in the form of roots.  I find eight-inch tall oaks in the yard and know that the roots are spreading far already.  Quandary – do I let these potential giants grow where the jays planted them?  Wouldn’t it be great to have an oak grove here?  I’ll never see it, of course, but wouldn’t it be wonderful? 

The Olives

This summer I was pleasantly surprised to see black olives developing on the old olive tree next to my driveway. The tree is one of several survivors of an olive orchard from at least 100 years ago.  I recently found a remarkable photograph from 1895 that showed fruit trees growing in rows, and not far off, a boat sailing up Novato Creek to pick up Novato’s produce and take it back to San Francisco.  My entire neighborhood was once a working fruit orchard.  Before that, oak grassland.  The olives this fall were fat and dark and beautiful.  Unfortunately, I was ill when they needed harvesting and processing.  Next year I’ll do it for sure. 

About the Gardener

Favorite Plants

Prunus spp

Prunus
Organization

Large group of evergreen and deciduous shrubs and trees that includes many ornamental species as well as others that produce edible fruit.

Examples:

  • Apricot, nectarine, peach, and plum trees are all classified as having low-water use in Sonoma and Marin counties. Consult local nurseries for available types and specific growing requirements.
  • Carolina laurel cherry (P. caroliniana, 20-30’ x 15-20’) is an upright, evergreen shrub from North Carolina to Texas where it grows as an understory plant. Its small, white flowers in spring are followed by small black fruit. P. c. ‘Compacta’ (10-15’ x 6-8’) is a popular smaller form.
  • Hollyleaf cherry (P. ilicifolia, 10-25’ x 10-25’) is an evergreen shrub from central California to Baja California. Creamy white flowers in narrow spikes in late spring to early summer are followed by fruits that attract many species of birds. Can be used as a hedge or screen, as well as for erosion control.
  • Catalina cherry (P. ilicifolia spp. Lyonii, 30-45’ x 20-30’) is native to the Channel Islands.
  • Water: Low
  • Light: Full Sun
  • Soil: Well Drained
  • Foliage: EvergreenDeciduous
  • Leaf Color: BronzeGreenPurple
  • Flower Color: PinkPurpleRed
  • Blooming Season (s): Spring
  • Fruit Color: OrangePurpleRed
  • Bark Color: Brown

Rhus spp

Lemonade Berry, Sugar Bush
Organization

Diverse group of resilient shrubs and trees, including several that are native to California, that provide form, foliage, and habitat value.

  • Lemonade berry (R. integrifolia, 4-20‘ x 4-20’) is native to coastal Southern California and Baja California. This evergreen shrub provides white-to-pink clusters of flowers in late winter and early spring followed by sticky, reddish fruits. Lemonade berry is more suitable for coastal climates, whereas sugar bush will also grow in hotter areas.
  • Sugar bush (R. ovata, 4-10’ x 4-10’) is native to dry slopes away from the coast in Southern California and Baja California. Similar to lemonade berry with more reddish flowers and leaves that are often folded down the center.
  • African sumac (R. lancea, 15-25’ x 20-30’) is an evergreen tree from South Africa with willow-like leaves and graceful weeping habit.

Note: The infamous poison oak was previously classified within the Rhus genus, but has since been reclassified to the more appropriate sounding Toxicodendron diversilobum.

  • Water: Low
  • Light: Full SunPartial Shade
  • Soil: Well Drained
  • Foliage: Evergreen
  • Leaf Color: Green
  • Flower Color: PinkWhite
  • Blooming Season (s): SpringWinter
  • Fruit Color: BlackRed

Ceanothus spp & cvs

Ceanothus, California lilac, 'Ray Hartman'
Organization

Ceanothus is a group of fast-growing, evergreen shrubs that vary from groundcovers to small trees, many of which are native to California. They provide a spectacular display of flowers in spring that will attract a multitude of pollinators. Flowers are followed by seeds that provide food for birds. The clusters of tiny flowers range from white to deep violet. Plants perform best with good drainage and minimal irrigation once established. Some do best in cooler coastal climates, but many thrive in hotter inland climates. Pay close attention to the mature size when selecting ceanothus to ensure that it has sufficient space for its natural form.

Groundcovers: C. ‘Centennial’ (2’ x 8’), C. gloriosus var. gloriosus ‘Anchor Bay’ (2’ x 8’), C. griseus var. horizontalis ‘Diamond Heights’ (variegated, 1’ x 4’), C. griseus var. horizontalis ‘Yankee Point’ (3’ x 12’), C. maritimus (2’ x 6’).

Shrubs: C. ‘Blue Jeans’ (6’ x 6’), C. Concha (8’ x 8’), C. ‘Dark Star’ (6’ x 8’), C. ‘Joyce Coulter’ (4’ x 12’), C. ‘Julia Phelps’ (8’ x 10’), C. cuneatus (8’ x 8’), C. thyrsiflorus ‘Skylark’ (4’ x 6’).

Large shrubs: C. ‘Frosty Blue’ (10’ x 12’), C. thyrsiflorus (20’ x 20’), C. t. ‘Snow Flurry’ (white flower, 20’ x 20’).

Trees: C. ‘Ray Hartman’ (15′ x 15′)

  • Water: Very LowLow
  • Light: Full SunPartial Shade
  • Soil: Well Drained
  • Foliage: Evergreen
  • Leaf Color: GreenGreen - Dark
  • Flower Color: BlueWhite
  • Blooming Season (s): SpringSummer

Pistacia chinensis

Chinese Pistache
Organization

Together with crape myrtle, Chinese pistache is a ubiquitous street tree in Sonoma and Marin counties due to its modest size, attractive foliage, fall color, and ability to withstand heat and drought. May be invasive in riparian areas. P. c. ‘Keith Davey’ is a sexed male that will not produce fruit.

  • Water: Low
  • Light: Full Sun
  • Soil: Well Drained
  • Foliage: Deciduous
  • Leaf Color: Green - DarkYellow
  • Blooming Season (s): Fall
  • Fruit Color: Red

Recommended Resources

Nature's Best Hope

By, Douglas W. Tallamy. Published February 4, 2020. This book is a fine guide to a homegrown habitat.

The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees

By, Douglas W. Tallamy. Published March 30, 2021.

Gardening Tips

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Birds Love Native Plants

California native plants, wherever you can put them!  If you love birds, these are the plants that will encourage, nurture, and shelter them.