The Manzanita Miracle, or, why you should love native plants if you live in a dry climate

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A beautiful stand of big old manzanitas, photo taken last March after an alarmingly dry winter. They don’t need your water, thank you very much.

Recently I was fortunate enough to attend a class called Watershed Wise Landscape Training, taught by the fantastic Pamela Berstler of G3 (Green Gardens Group), hosted in the lovely TreePeople facility, and offered at a low price thanks to the LADWP. For two days I had my mind blown with water math and plant facts, and I wanted to share this story with you. I call it the Manzanita Miracle.

We learned how to calculate how much water plants need, and how often you need to water them. It’s not easy–but it is possible. This really is like the holy grail to a gardener who has been guessing about watering all her life.

For practice, we ran the calculations for a manzanita. Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos) are handsome native California plants–native to the West in general– known especially for their glossy red bark and twisting limbs. They appear as both ground cover and shrubs, and some of the happier shrubs can get big enough to resemble small trees.

As a class we ran the calculations needed to figure out how much water a particular manzanita would need in a particular place. These calculations are never general–they are always very specific to plant, soil and place. I’m not going to go through the math here—for this post specifics of the calculations are not as important here as the results.

The manzanita in question was a three year old plant with a 36″ root depth. Root depth is not guessed, but measured by using a soil probe. Manzanitas are categorized a low water use plants. The location was in Los Angeles, and the soil type was a sandy clay.

Using this information, we were able to calculate how much water the soil held, and how much the plant used daily, leading us to figure out how long this particular plant can go between waterings–safely. Not pushing it to the edge of death, you understand, just calculating its normal water needs. This figure is called the “irrigation interval” and the answer was 225 days.

Let me repeat that. This particular plant expects to go 225 consecutive days without water every year, and can do so without stress.

And this number is just based on the evapotranspiration rate of the plant. It doesn’t account for healthy soil biology. A thriving population of fungi and bacteria around the plant’s root zone might make it even more resilient–that is, able to last longer without water.

But anyway, 225 days translates to about 7 months between waterings–which just so happens to be a reflection of our annual dry season in Southern California.

And when that watering deadline rolls around, how much water does this particular manzanita need to recharge its water reserves?

4 inches.

Even in our desperate drought, we’re getting that much rain annually.

The moral here is that nature has provided us with everything we need. We have beautiful native plants which can thrive with no supplemental water whatsoever, even in drought, provided we plant them correctly, and treat them well. (That last part is actually a huge caveat, since we don’t do either very often.)

Here in Los Angeles we seem to be trapped between two competing and unhealthy ideologies. One is “You’ll pry my lawn out of my cold dead hands” and the other is “Los Angeles is a desert, so I’m planting cactus.”

Neither is appropriate. In Los Angeles, a lawn needs about 50 inches of water a year to stay green–and it usually gets twice that much–up to 100 inches. Compare that to manzanita’s 4 inches.

Cactus doesn’t need much water, true, but we are not a desert–yet. We are in the process of desertification, yes, which is not a good thing. At the end of this road, we don’t end up in a dreamy Georgia O’Keefe style desert, we just end up in a hot, polluted city surrounded by a dead landscape. Gravel and cactus landscapes simply hurry this process along, because they don’t cool the city, and they don’t build soil which can capture and hold water.

We need to settle down in a comfortable in-between spot. This is not Ireland and this is not Sonora. This is Southern California and we have a whole palette of amazing, largely misunderstood plants which are ready willing and able to green this place up even in the heart of a drought.

All we have to do is treat these plants right. Native plants have a reputation for being tricky, and it’s true, in that they don’t act like typical imported landscape plants–the lawns and the boxwood hedges. They don’t need even a fraction of the water as exotics do, so they are almost always overwatered, and die as a result.

I think it is hard for us to even imagine that plants can be so profoundly unthirsty, because we are so accustomed to babying along lawns and other needy plants. We might water our hypothetical manzanitas every two to three weeks, thinking that is what “low water use plant” means. The math shows us how wrong that is–and why manzanitas often die in home landscapes.

Imagine a yard which doesn’t need water at all, even in a drought year. Imagine yourself, free from the chore of watering, free to just not worry about it, because the plants are taking care of themselves. Wouldn’t that make it worth the trouble to learn how to host native plants?

225 days.

What is green water?

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Rhubarb roots, as reproduced in Root Demystified. One square equals one foot.

This is a new vocabulary word for me:

You’ve heard of grey water and black water–but what is green water?

Well, if you’re a sailor, it’s a term for the water swamping the deck during a storm. That’s not what I’m talking about here. Amongst sailors of the soil (i.e. gardeners), green water is the water supply held around the roots of the plants. Water from rain or irrigation which does not run off the surface of the soil, nor run down through the soil to ground water, but which stays with the plant for its use.

Green water is a plant’s envelope of life. It’s also a space of water storage which we don’t often consider. We’ll invest in a rain barrel, but we will forget the massive storage tank which nature has placed under our feet.

If we have healthy soil in our yards, our plants have a baseline supply of water. It’s held in the space between the soil particles and in the bodies of the microscopic creatures which live in healthy soil. How much water? I don’t know, but the real answer is, enough. Plants acclimated to your local climate (natives or similar), living in spongy, healthy soil don’t need supplemental irrigation. Not even in the summer. (Drip line doesn’t occur spontaneously in the wild, after all.) Conversely, in times of heavy rainfall, healthy, spongy soils also resist flooding, swamping and rotting.

By focusing on healthy soils, and allowing rain water to percolate into the soil, we empower the plants to take care of themselves. That’s better for them, and less work for us!

It’s easy to have healthy soils and deep green water reservoirs. We just have to take some commonsense steps to allow life to develop in the soil:

  • We stop adding fertilizers to our yards, even organic ones. They actually collapse the soil structure and make the plants into fertilizer junkies. Mulch, compost and worm castings are all a yard needs.
  • We design our yards so they capture and hold rain water rather than ejecting it straight to the street.
  • We leave the leaves. We keep our clippings and fallen leaves on our land, and let them return to the soil. Mulch is is vital to living soil, while bare soil is dead soil.
  • We make our yards lush. Soil life occurs around the root zones of plants, so more plants means better soil.
  • We plant trees, which the founder of TreePeople, Andy Lipkis, calls “living cisterns.”

Our new front yard, part 5: Constructing a meadow community

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One of the many tracing paper overlays that I used to think through the placement of the plants

Okay, I’m back to the series which never ends after a break for flipper fence building, Thanksgiving and a few days nursing a cold.

“Constructing a meadow community” translating from Planting in a Post-Wild World, means choosing a bunch of shortish plants which work well together, with an emphasis on grasses. (Well, maybe a little more than that.)

I’ll get into the details of the community building, but I’ll say first that I’m not so sure about all of my decisions, but they’re done.

In the world of the DIYer, there’s a big gap between the idea, and what actually gets executed. Then again, that is true for most art. I spent a lot of hours researching plants, trying to find plants which would work together as a community, had low water needs and which would provide nearly continuous bloom over the course of the year. It’s a puzzle that runs in four dimensions, the fourth dimension being time.

Then, of course, I had to find the plants themselves, and that was not so easy. So my original selections were edited to fit what I could actually find in stock at our local nurseries. (Most of the plants came from the wonderful Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery.)

I’ve been doing this long enough to pretty much expect a certain percentage of these plants will not do well…you know, just ’cause.  And then I also expect that once stuff comes in and starts to come together, I’ll have to make changes or fill gaps. Editing comes with the territory.

If I’d had more lead time, I wold have grown more stuff from seeds and cuttings–so I’d have had more options and saved a lot of money. Isn’t that always the case? You pay for speed and convenience. I know this. But I really wanted the plants to have a chance to root down a little before our torrential El Niño rains hit in January. At least our money is going to a worthy non-profit.

So, that’s the end of my excuse-making and complaining.

Lets look at a what a meadow community consists of:

First, there are layers.

As I mentioned my previous posts, Planting authors Rainer and West encourage us to plant densely, but intelligently. The plants are not crowded, but no space is wasted–as it is in nature. As simpleton humans, the best way to approximate the abundant intelligence of natural systems is by developing our own mimetic systems. In Planting, Rainer and West encourage us to conceptualize our planting in consecutive layers:

The structural layer: In a grassland, this includes tall grasses and species with tall flowers which will poke up above the rest, preferably too, these flowers will form interesting dried seed heads or pods for continuing visual interest. Think milkweed, for instance. These should make up 10- 15% of your community.

The seasonal theme layer: These are plants chosen to add seasonal interest either through bloom or texture. So for instance you might choose certain plants for their spectacular spring bloom, knowing they will act more like green companions to the other plants for the rest of the year. Ideally you can mix this category up enough so that you have continual interest in the garden. Think irises, for instance.  These make up 25-40% of your community.

The ground cover layer: These plants are more functional than showy–shade tolerant plants like low grasses and creeping ground cover which will suppress weeds and help anchor the soil. Rainer and West admit that this is often the most difficult category for folks to fill, because nurseries sell flashy plants, not sturdy background players. Think sedges. These make up about 50% of your community.

The dynamic filler layer: These are short lived, opportunistic species which will self seed and pop up whenever there is a temporary space to exploit. Think about wildflowers, for instance, which show up first in the spring, and fade away as the perennials come back to their own. These make up 5 -10% of the community.

Now, this sounds pretty straightforward, but once you get into the weeds (so to speak) it gets a little confusing. I wasn’t always able to decide what category a plant should be in.

For instance, yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a seasonal theme layer plant, but it is low and spreading and works rather well as a ground cover when not blooming. It’s usually considered a sun-loving plant, but our sun here is not like normal sun, it’s SoCal SunPlus! ™ and the slope gets a lot of it, so I don’t think the yarrow would mind if it got some shade from tall grasses and the like. Basically, since I like yarrow, and already had it growing on the slope, I just doubled down and planted a lot of it, making it sort of do double duty as both theme layer and ground cover. All of this is to say, I fudged through the categories. If the garden is a design disaster, it’s not Rainer and West’s fault.

My ratios don’t line up exactly with theirs, but they are not crazy far off. I found it was hard, as they said, to find much choice of ground cover plants–especially in the drought tolerant category. I know I don’t have enough. I think if I were smart now I might start some interesting grasses from seeds to fill the inevitable holes which will form as some of my selections die.

Planning for seasonal interest and function

My primary goal for this mini-meadow was to provide food and habitat for insects and other small critters. My secondary goal is for it to be an attractive front yard landscape. Both of these criteria hinge on the plant choices being sufficiently dynamic to keep the yard interesting for both people and critters.

Rainer and West– as well as others– have warned me that one of the dangers of meadow gardens is that they can be really boring looking if they are too grass-heavy or otherwise poorly planned. Instead of ending up with a fabulous Piet Oudolf-esque landscape, your “meadow” looks like an overgrown lawn. Aesthetics aside, we also want flowers in continual bloom to feed the critters, so planning is critical. (Other meadow design dangers, according to Rainer and West, are towering plants–remember the intimidation factor I spoke about before?–and clashing plant color or textures. Meadow are diverse, but mysteriously unified.)

I started keeping notes on the plants I liked with all their basic stats, including their bloom time. The notes got so out of control that I was forced to make a spreadsheet. Now, some people really like themselves a spreadsheet, but I am not one of them. The fact I was forced to make one only shows how much information there is to juggle in this process. In fact, I began to wish I knew more about spreadsheets, because more functionality would have helped at times–like, being able to arrange the list by bloom time or color or whatnot. But I was content enough just to have it all in one place in standardized columns.

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Anyway, for the seasonal interest plants, I was keeping my eye out for any native plant which had strong insect or bird appeal, and which was relatively small. My slope is not big, so if I wanted a diversity of species and the ability to have bloom over multiple seasons, the plants couldn’t be too large. Otherwise I could just plant six big shrubs and call it done. My sweet spot for this seasonal category was around 1 foot high (the flower stalks may be taller) and anywhere from 6 inches to 2 feet wide. This led me to some plants I’ve never grown before, including:

  • Sisyrinchium bellum (Blue eyed grass) This is an pretty little grass-like plant with tiny blue flowers, very meadowy. Pro: it’s a self seeder! Con: It’s summer dormant, meaning it will leave holes in my landscape in the dreary height of our long summer.
  • Monardella villosa ‘Russian River’ (Coyote mint) This one is new to me, a small leaved creeping plant with purple blooms the insects just love. The foliage is also gently mint scented. I planted this along the terrace edges so it can spill over and hide our ugly retaining walls. I also planted it closer to where people walk, so we can smell it.
  • Eriophyllum confertiflorum (Golden yarrow) This is a small shrub, not a true yarrow at all, with “ladylike” habits and proportions. It blooms more in the summer, so is valuable, as so many plants want to do all their business in the spring.
  • Sidalcea hickmanii “Cuesta Pass” (Checkerbloom): This is a cute little miniature mallow. I bought it on a whim because it is so very endangered. It’s called Cuesta Pass because it only grows in the Cuesta Pass anymore (and at the Theodore Payne nursery). Unsurprisingly, it strikes me as fussy. Fingers crossed it will like our slope.
  • Linnum lewsie (Blue flax): This is another excellent meadow-y meadow plant, made to peek up between the grasses.

The problem with unfamiliar plants is that they are unfamiliar. It’s nice to know the ways of a plant when you choose to use it in a landscape. Many of my selections are complete mysteries to me. That can be fun. I’m really curious to see how they’ll grow in and what they’ll do. It’s also a little nerve wracking.

In this seasonal interest category, beside the plants already listed, and the yarrow which I mentioned above, I’ve also got a good deal of Salvia spatheca (Hummingbird sage) planted, and a few other things that I can’t remember right now.

My goal was year round blooming. I don’t think I quite have that ( the November–February period is drab, even here), and what I do have is not equal. Spring is glorious. It’s easy. That’s when everything seems to want to bloom, and all the foliage is lush. That’s when we take pictures of the yard, so we look like we know what we’re doing.

Some plants will bloom intermittently though the spring and summer and into the fall, dragging out the show, but I’m just going to have to see how much of that happens. There are far fewer late summer bloomers to choose from. I’ve planted native goldenrod (Solidago californica) even though it can be an rangy, weedy terror, simply because butterflies love it and it blooms when everything else is dead. If it takes over the slope, I’ll have to come up with a plan B. I’ve also got a few Zauschnerias (California fuschia) in place for later summer into winter bloom, and am really hoping that wild sunflowers will show up give the slope some fall color and happy chaos.

On Grasses:

As I said above, I need more, I suspect. Instead of being too heavy on the grasses, my meadow might be too…random. Too insufficiently grassy to be meadowlike. The world of grasses is confusing, especially as regards dormancy. Some sleep in the winter, some in the summer. Okay, but how bad will they look while dormant? Will they vanish or just look pleasantly dry? Some avoid dormancy if you give them water. Some die if you give them water at the wrong time. Oy! Save me from our crazy native grasses.

Right now I have three species of native bunching grasses on the slope.

The first is Sporobolus airoides (Alkali dropseed). This is the tallest of my grasses. It gets to be three feet tall, with more height from the seed heads, I believe. It’s showy, with nice airy seed heads. I planted it in the “back” portions of the slope, i.e. the furthest from the street and stairs. (As one of my aunts once said of gardening, “I finally have gardening figured out: tall stuff goes in back!”)  This way it doesn’t block other plants, and it will be pretty when backlit by afternoon sun. It also serves to hide the retaining walls and other ugly bits of infrastructure. It falls under the structural category because it is striking, more of a diva than a backgrounder.

The second is Aristida purpurea (Purple Three Awn). This is also a lovely grass, just not as tall as the Sporobolus. I used a lot of it –it’s one of the backbones of the slope, so I hope it’s happy and looks right. By the way, it’s not a purple grass–the purple in the name refers to the purplish cast of its seed heads. As far as categories go, I sorta decided in my fudging way that it must be a seasonal theme plant, mostly because it ain’t groundcover and it ain’t a structural plant. Probably.

The third is Festuca idahoensis ‘Warren Peak’ Idaho fescue. This is a small fescue which is drought tolerant, which I am using in the groundcover role. It’s okay in that role, but I need more groundcover which spreads on its own. This fescue sits in polite clumps, waiting to be divided. But you know, they had lots of it at the nursery, and it will fill up some space with short grassy goodness. Good enough!

In general, I need more ground cover. One idea I have is that I have some wild strawberry growing in the shade under the pomegranate at the top of the slope. It’s beginning to take off after a slow start. I’m going to root some of it and introduce it on the slope, where I think it will be okay in the shade of taller plants.

What I don’t know about:

Community. I understand how to make the plant groupings work aesthetically–in theory, at least– but I’m not enough of a botanist to understand their more hidden interactions and relationships to one another and the soil and the world at large. Natural plant communities are extraordinarily complex. Communities designed by master designer/botanists are pretty complex. My community is…well, a little random. What do I know about what plants want or need, much less how they interact with each other? But I do have faith that the plants will tell me what they want–if I listen closely. This means that some of my ideas will be jettisoned (plants will die) and some unexpected things will probably happen, and I’m ready to go with all of that. I’m just waiting for my orders.

Our hypocrisy revealed

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(Well, one of our hypocrisies.)

We make snarky comments  all the time about the new trend toward horizontal fencing in our neighborhood– what we call “flipper fences.” We’ve talked about flipper fences at least once on this blog, probably more, and anyone who hangs out with us has heard the term from us too many times.

To us, these fences are symbols of gentrification. The appearance of one in front of an old house is a sure sign the interior has undergone a rough-n’-ready “Dwell” style modern makeover inside, and the house is about to be re-sold at a 100k mark-up.

Yet when it came time to finally install a handrail on our staircase (just in time for the holidays, to appease our family, who for some reason find our treacherous staircase problematic) we discovered that arranging the boards horizontally worked best.

In short, due to a combination of laziness and skill deficiency and general expediency (the usual deciding factors in our design decisions) we’re constructing our very own flipper fence.

Yup.

Our new front yard, part 4: a digression on the new paradigm

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Detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, c.1500

A couple of comments have come in on my last post remarking that this way of designing a yard (inspired by Planting in a Post-Wild World) seems really complex. And I’d say to that, it is! And yes, it’s kind of a pain to figure out. But (fingers crossed) I think it is a worthwhile thing to do.

What I’m talking about here is moving from seeing our yards as outdoor rooms, and our plants as furniture to be arranged and re-arranged at a whim. Instead, I’m talking about seeing our yards as communities, or as systems. You can pull a chair out of a living room, or paint the walls a new color one day, and these changes won’t effect the the other furniture. In a living system or community, though, changes to parts of the community ripple through the whole community.

I used to buy plants to suit my needs. These needs came in two general categories. The first was the need to fulfill a limited function: “I need a bush over there to hide that section of fence.”  The second was acquisitive lust: “That plant is beautiful.  I’m going to buy it and find some place to put it.”

Both of these ways of thinking are, to go back to the first simile, very much like doing interior design. I need a curtain for this window. I found a great clock at a swap meet, and now I need to fit it into the living room. In approaching planting this way, I’m pretending that plants are inanimate objects subject to my will, and I am placing my needs ahead of theirs.

Sometimes this approach “works” and the yard looks good. What this means is that I make some right calls and the plants play along. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and the plant dies, or fails to thrive, or conversely, grows unexpectedly large and tries to take over the yard. When this happens, I cast blame around, against myself for being a poor gardener, against the soil, against the drought, against the nursery which sold the plant, against the plant itself. In all cases, though, I’m considering the plant as an isolated individual, and I’m evaluating its success or failure in myopic terms.

Now, I’m not a botanist or any other kind of “ist” and I sometimes I suspect all I know about plants would fit in a thimble. Yet I don’t think that the point of viewing the yard as a system means that I have to understand the intricacies of how the system works–I just have to respect it. That’s why I prefer the term “plant community.”

System implies something we could pick apart using logic. Community is more mysterious–it gives agency to the plants. In other words, they are doing their own thing, they have their secrets, their alliances and their agendas– and I, twitchy, chatty primate that I am, can only understand a little of what goes on in their elegant, sessile world.

If I’ve learned anything recently, from books like Planting, from talking to Masanobu Fukuoka’s student Larry Korn, and from hearing Suzanne Simard speak, from studying the aboriginal idea of the kinship of all things is that we should be humble before plants. As Fukuoko-san said, we know nothing. Starting from a place of humility, I’m trying to find a new path. I’m trying to develop a new relationship with plants, and as a result, a new approach to landscaping. This is the path of the post-wild.

New paths often run rough. Meanwhile, the lawn n’ shrub is a path worn into smoothness. In fact, it is a rut.

So yes, learning to view the yard as a community takes some mind stretching and extra work. We are changing the lens by which we view our relationship to the natural world. (Dare I say we are becoming wise?)

This is work, but it is rewarding, because as we engage with this process, we realize that we’re a part of the community, too.  Instead of being a petty overlord, mowing and blowing the world into submission, we are partnering with the life in the yard to make the world a better place. Re-connection with nature is its own reward, because lets face it, it’s lonely being a despot.