Oenothera Hookeri: a wonderful “weed”

It reseeds, it’s tall, it’s got more leaves than flowers. Its flowers fall off as soon as the day warms. But it’s also a fantastic thing to watch as night deepens.

After sunset, the buds begin to swell. The sepals crack apart, then flip open. The petals emerge like popcorn, their motion apparent as you watch, although not as fast as popcorn. By night, the flowers are fully open, awaiting the heat of tomorrow to drop their petals and await the next night’s new flowers. As summer progresses, the plants grow taller and taller, their floewers moving ever skyward.

Hooker’s Evening Primrose is easy to grow in a spot with a bit of moisture. It’s a California native so it doesn’t need much moisture, just enough to keep the plant growing and the flowers coming. If things get too dry, it will simply stop growing and switch to seed production. The plants only live a couple of years, so seeds are how they maintain a presence in your garden.

Bringing the ‘burbs to life

When we started, there were plants, a bird bath and bird feeders. The plants for the most part did nothing to feed the birds. Native insects likewise did not come here for fine dining.

With this makeover, that’s all changed. The bird bath is now a recirculating fountain. The bird feeders remain, but now there’s a veritable smorgasbord for visiting birds, with insects buzzing around a host of new native flowers.

We didn’t touch the concrete paths, other than to add a looping access path of flagstones set in sand and gravel to service the fountain and resupply the bird feeders. To make the design look as though it were done at once, gravel mulch strips align to the existing steps, flowing back into the plantings.

Perimeter plants were left in place for screening, the white birches remained for shade and habitat, but most of the other plants were ripped out. If a plant didn’t feed pollinators, help restore butterfly populations or provide nectar it got chopped. The result is a seasonal display of successive blooms that support local bee populations and feed migrating hummingbirds. As plants go to seed, they’ll support seed-eating birds. Some plants, like the milkweed, may even supply downy nesting materials.

We did not choose a purely native plant list, since some of the best plants for honeybees are not native (neither are these bees, for that matter). As long as all the plants in each group used the same amount of water and sunlight, the design would work.

Indian paintbrush, unlike most plants, does not get everything it needs from sunlight, soil and water. It needs a host plant: bush monkeyflower. Growing paintbrush alone is unlikely to be successful, but once paired with monkeyflowers there’s a good chance you can grow this native wildflower in your garden.

Partial plant list

Although the plants had to provide some function, that didn’t mean that they were thrown together haphazardly. They’re massed to form swaths of color, partially screen one area of the garden from another, and make the garden seem more private near the house.

  • Milkweed: restore monarch butterfly populations
  • Indian paintbrush: hummingbird food
  • Bush monkeyflower: host plant for paintbrush, hummingbird food
  • Annual wildflowers: food for native solitary bees
  • Mexican lobelia: hummingbird food
  • California fuchsia: hummingbird food
  • Lavender: honeybee food
  • Red yucca (Hesperaloe): hummingbird food
  • Penstemon: hummingbird food
  • Russian sage: honeybee food
  • Woolly sunflower: bee food
  • Coyote mint: butterfly food
  • Mugwort: background plant, interesting fragrance (leaves)
  • Grasses: keep some green while natives are dormant, add texture.
  • Sundrops: great color, and feeds bees, too.

It was also accepted by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Garden for Wildlife, meeting the criteria for food (pollen, nectar, seeds), water (fountain), cover (perimeter shrubs), places to raise young (perimeter shrubs and birch tree) and sustainable practices (no pesticides or nasty chemicals).

Although the style of this garden differs a bit from the surrounding homes, it seems to be accepted by the neighbors. It was certainly accepted by the birds and insects! It will probably need to grow in a few more years before the milkweeds get large enough to attract monarch butterflies, but other benefits were immediate. Ground-nesting bees moved in, probably taking advantage of nearby abundant food. Hummingbirds zip through the flowers, searching for nutritious nectar and probably insects to eat. Then there’s the impressive palette of color to delight passing people.

 

 

 

California Dutchman’s pipe at peak bloom!

It may seem strange for a plant to flower at the beginning of February, but that’s what this plant likes. Its leafless stems are covered with a profusion of strange greenish flowers that somebody thought looked like a Dutchman’s pipe. I suppose if they have to look like something, other than what they really are, that’s an okay analogy.

Later in the year, the plant will leaf out and the flowers will transform into long green seed pods. Once they’ve grown out, the leaves will hopefully be devoured by hordes of ravenous pipevine swallowtail caterpillars.

If you think the flowers are strange, the caterpillars are even stranger. Black, with orange Godzilla-like protuberances down their backs and bright yellow stink horns that appear if you bother them. The butterflies are iridescent blue-black beauties with orange markings on the undersides of their hind wings.

Last year was the first year we had caterpillars. It took them five years to find the plant! Since we’re not that close to the butterflies native riparian habitat, they’re not already in the area looking for plants.

Perhaps if everybody would reserve a space in their garden for this plant we would have a lot more of these interesting butterflies. While they were at it, they could reserve some space for milkweeds, so we could have more monarchs, too.

Aristolochia californica flower
Aristolochia californica flower
Aristolochia californica plant in flower
Full bloom for the pipeline (Aristolochia californica)

A new native grass for the meadow

This is one of those plants whose common name – Alkali Sacaton – is only a bit more comprehensible than its Latin name – Sporobolus airoides. The Latin name is a lot more fun to say, however.

We picked up a small fuzzy looking tuft of grass in a four inch pot at Elderberry Farms nursery. The grass, when mature, will have clouds of flowers held above narrow leaves.

We didn’t know much about its culture, only that it’s native to Saramento – and much of the western United States as well. From the name, we could guess that it tolerates alkaline soils, but that’s about it.

It turns out that it tends to indicate near-surface water, so it’s not likely to be extremely drought tolerant. Still, as a native plant it probably will get enough water even from occasional watering. We placed it in a low area of the rain garden. Hopefully it won’t drown during the rainy season, but it’s supposed to be dormant then anyway.

Sporobolus 2386

A (mostly) native garden by a stream

Some gardens don’t have it simple. This one gets drainage from above, plus it’s subject to flooding along its lower portion. If that wasn’t enough, the soil is non-draining clay. The solution? Pick plants adapted to the site, of course.

The garden had been in for about a year when these pictures were taken, and it’s progressing well.

streambank garden

The lower portions take advantage of native shrubs and grasses that grow in wet or boggy conditions: button bush, sedges, rushes, red twig dogwood…

The drainage passes under a low bridge made from pressure-treated wood and is filtered by a small meadow planted with native tufted hair grass and sedges. So, even if there is some sediment flowing off the slope or the driveway, the intent is that it will enrich the meadow instead of silting up the stream.

simple footbridge over meadow

Further up the slope, redbuds, toyon, deer grass, California fuchsia take over, blending with coffeeberry and other plants and taking advantage of increased drainage provided by the slope. There are a few Mediterranean plants for variety: Powis Castle wormwood, rock rose, snow in summer. For fast cover, there are some patches of Myoporum – the closest thing there is to an instant ground cover.

Some plants are somewhat short lived, and will die out to leave place for other plants to spread as the garden grows – so it won’t look bare in its early years, but won’t become as crowded as it would if all the plants were to compete with each other.

Adirondack chairs with a viewTwo chairs look out over the stream toward the neighbor’s lawn, a study in contrasting garden design approaches. This side has nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds, plants that will thrive if the stream floods, color and interest that changes with the seasons. The other is constantly lush, simple and green.

Chairs looking over garden

 

As the river birches grow, the upper area will become a shady haven looking out over the sunnier lower garden. Other plants will grow with time, blocking views of a culvert and making the stream banks look more wild. There will be a bonus for wildlife, too, as flowers bloom and fruits ripen.

As their roots grow downward, they should reach underground water from the stream, reducing or eliminating the need to provide supplemental irrigation. The plants farther up the slope, when established, will require little water.

Garden update, one year later

Quite a bit happens in a year. Some plants fail, either totally or partially. Others grow; some re-seed and fill in bare areas. Some decide to conquer their entire section of the garden and have to be dealt with.

Ready to plant!

After the irrigation and lighting systems are installed, it’s time to plant. Often nurseries don’t have all the required plants, so flags are used to mark the position of plants that will arrive later.

All the plants are carried to their approximate position on site and placed, still in their pots. After walking around the site and viewing the plants from several angles, their positions get adjusted, checked and readjusted. Finally, they’re ready to go in the ground.

It’s still not over, however. They’ll need to be watered correctly and even more importantly, have their watering adjusted as they become established so that they’re not drowned by the irrigation system.

There may be some other adjustments, too. One species may thrive in one spot and perish in another, even if the two plants are in the same garden. The goal is to fine-tune the garden over time so that only the plants which flourish without intensive care are left to create a worry-free landscape.

The incredible flying circus

The Aster chilensis is blooming, and it’s the biggest insect party of the year. The plants are covered with skippers, with frequent visits by mason bees and other creatures.

Despite its Latin name implying South American origins, it’s a California native – but from the Southern part. It’s common name, California aster, makes its origins clear. This is our first year with these plants, so we’ll see if they can handle our Northern California winters. They’re about four feet tall, until they flop over onto adjacent vegetation, in this case Deschampsia caespitosa, a native California grass.

The plants, when out of bloom, are gangly, spindly things that haven’t got much presence. They’ve almost been yanked out as weeds until we realized what they were, since they somewhat resemble a weed when they’re out of bloom.

The flowers aren’t exactly a riot of color, either. Kind of a nondescript pale blue, so pale as to look more whitish than anything else. The reason I noticed that they were in flower was the hovering, zooming skipper butterflies over the plants. Sometimes, just about every flower on the plant harbored a skipper, and this plant has a lot of flowers. So, the color comes from the butterflies, bees and flies that visit the plant more than the flowers themselves. Overall, a great deal and much more animated than simple flowers.

Seems like this is a pretty good example of regenerative design. Three small aster plants have five or six species of butterflies (I didn’t get decent photos of the other two – another species of skipper and a buckeye), two or three species of bees, drone flies and whatever might show up later. That’s just the herbivores. There are also jumping spiders, preying on the skippers, and probably mantises as well.

Imagine that this had been a patch of lawn, instead. The herbivore would be a lawn mower, probably with a two stroke engine capable of spewing out more smog than the average small car. There would be no butterflies, bees, spiders or grasshoppers. Just controlled, mowed, sterile and perhaps toxic lawn. But the fun thing isn’t imagining this as lawn – it’s imagining lawn transformed into regenerative green spaces. Think of all the life that would appear, and all the noise and pollution that wouldn’t.

 

Let a bit of ecological healing happen

Quercus lobata stem
Valley oak volunteer

When we redesigned our back yard, we decided to let some volunteer native oaks live. Some that were too much in conflict with the design were removed, but in other cases the design was modified to allow the trees to remain. Since we stopped mowing a patch of weeds in the front yard, another oak has appeared where it is much needed to shade the driveway.

This was probably an oak woodland before human development almost completely eradicated the ecosystem. Luckily, what’s left of the ecosystem is still attempting to heal itself, in the form of scrub jays finding acorns and burying them for later use. Since the jays don’t remember where they planted the acorns, it amounts to a natural oak revegetation project.

These trees should have incredible tap roots since they were seeded in place and their roots never started turning around as they would in a pot. Also, they’re from the local genetic population, so you can’t get any more native than that.

If you want to re-establish oaks in a more controlled manner, you can collect acorns in the Fall and plant them where you want trees to grow. Be careful that they haven’t been eaten by something – check for holes in the shells. If there’s a hole, odds are your acorn isn’t viable.

WIld Ginger (Asarum caudatum) having a tough establishment period

Asarum caudatum in garden
Wild ginger (Asarum caudatum)

Wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) is a California native that grows under redwood trees in coastal valleys. This alone should have given me pause before planting it here in the Central Valley, yet I was told that it does grow here.

I was letting it go fairly dry between waterings, since it is a native plant and is supposed to be able to handle drier conditions. This resulted in one plant blackening, shriveling and turning to dust. Perhaps a bit too dry?

The sedges next to the ginger were growing fine, and they were transplanted at the same time, so there was water in the soil, somewhere. The native irises in pots set into the ground and the hummingbird sage weren’t dessicated hulks, although they got less water and more sun than the ginger.

After this tragic loss, I increased watering for the remaining two plants. They’re surviving, but it seems that every time the temperature gets into the high nineties, they suffer. At this point, I’m not sure they’ll make it through the summer. If not, we’ll probably try again with a fall planting, perhaps next time using the foothill species.