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Going native in the garden: one plant at a time

Amicable companion-planting can cut back on water use overall

So you have heard about the advantages of native plants, but aren't inclined to start over in your entire garden? That's OK; you can still enjoy the benefits even if you introduce natives into your garden slowly.

Once you see that you can lower your water usage and maintenance time, while attracting beneficial insects, bees and butterflies, you will start to understand what all the talk is about.

To begin, choose an area of your existing garden that has similar sun and irrigation needs to the native you have in mind. Good plant placement takes many requirements into consideration, but let's use sun orientation as a basic guideline.

Full sun: Our native Buckwheat adds texture, color and attracts butterflies into your garden. For a space less than 3 feet wide, try Red Buckwheat, Erigonum grande rubescens, or for a small yellow mound, use Shasta Sulphur Buckwheat, E. umbellatum.

If you like long-lasting purple flowers, try Verbena. With a hint of spicy, clove-like fragrance, you'll want to place this in an area you walk by to enjoy the scent. Verbena lilacina grows about 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide in the garden, but can also be kept smaller in a container.

Partial sun/shade: For succulent lovers, try Chalk Dudleya, Dudleya pulverulenta, nestled among rocks. It has spectacular stalks of red flowers that contrast nicely with its silvery rosette shape. The common name is also Live Forever because they are amazingly resilient, making them perfect for beginners.

To give a garden structure and year-round appeal, nothing beats Manzanita. Although most are slow growing, the trade off is that they are long lived, have beautiful auburn bark and provide valuable winter nectar to hummingbirds. Manzanitas love full sun but will tolerate partial shade. For a shrub that can get about 6 feet tall, try Arctostaphylos 'Howard McMinn' or A. edmunsii for a low groundcover. It is tempting to over water this plant since some of their leaves may brown naturally. To avoid too much irrigation, plant a few sacrificial annuals next to your new Manzanita and when the annuals show the first sign of leaf wilt, that's your cue to water.

Dry shade: Many people have concerns about planting around oak trees and for good reason. Oaks do not tolerate summer irrigation, so it's especially important to select natives that are acclimated to this particular hydrozone. Once established, you can reduce or stop irrigation. As a tip, if you install your oak understory in the fall before the rains, you'll have one season of "free irrigation" under your belt.

Coral Bells or Heuchera are an excellent choice for dry-shade groundcover and will take your breath away when planted in large masses. There are many wonderful hybrids of Heuchera to try. For an easy-growing choice, use Heuchera 'Wendy' with its green leaves, purple veining and tall flower spikes. This evergreen perennial can also be enjoyed in shady planters or window boxes and will attract hummingbirds.

Our Coastal Wood Fern, Dryoperteris arguta, is one of the few ferns that is both drought-tolerant and evergreen. Since it can withstand root competition, it's suitable for under trees such as oak, bay and pine. To keep its lush, green appearance, simply remove older fronds as they brown.

Now that you have a few ideas, try them out and see if you can measure the difference between your native and non-native plants. You may even wish to keep a garden journal and note how many hummingbirds, bees and butterflies you can count or how your irrigation usage changes over the years.

Also, see for yourself if you are spending less time on maintenance. No plant is maintenance free. Garden maintenance is not just pruning and deadheading, but also fertilizing and removing pests. Many natives will appreciate a bit of organic compost from time to time and should be fairly pest-free. If pests do arrive, you can try biological controls like praying mantises or organic sprays.

When in doubt, hire an expert. Sometimes a short consultation with a professional landscape designer will get you over your initial hurdles and you'll be going native in no time.

Note: For free garden ideas and inspiration visit the Going Native Garden Tour on Sunday, April 17.

Julie Orr is a landscape designer and member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) and the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), who specializes in designing waterwise, low-maintenance landscapes, including California native gardens. Call 650-468-8020 or visit Julie Orr Design.

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