July 2019

by Tony Gurnoe

This year’s lush winter growth and bountiful flowers has drawn people out to California’s deserts and foothills by the thousands. As we settle into our characteristic long, dry summer, the idea of translating California’s unique floristic beauty into the home garden may seem daunting.

Native plants provide floral abundance for birds and butterflies, low-water and low-maintenance beauty all year, and even structural utility like slope stabilization, but not all native plants are well behaved in a residential garden. The San Diego Botanic Garden’s California Gardenscapes was developed to demonstrate techniques and plant combinations that home gardeners can use to make the most of California’s extensive plant palette.

Certain groups of native plants are naturally suited for the garden life, even as raw species. The Salvia genus, also known as sage, is a good example. Salvia mellifera, black sage, is ubiquitous throughout coastal California, but has a challenging habit of going dormant during the heat of summer, and unfortunately looking dead. This ability to withstand the harshest time of year by dropping leaves to reduce transpiration is an amazing adaptation, and a wonderful tool for educating people about local ecology, but such a twiggy aesthetic is not always appreciated in a front yard.

Amazingly, the same species will stay green, leafy, and in bloom with a small amount of summer water and pruning. Sages are a fantastic choice for gardeners newly introducing native plants to their landscapes. They come in a diverse array of growth habits and flower colors and tend to benefit from regular garden maintenance.

Other species can be trickier to grow in a garden setting. Arctostaphylos and Ceanothus are two iconic California plant genera that often succumb to being overwatered, even in a low- water landscape. Planting these woody specimens during their natural winter growth cycle will help to establish them successfully, but many plants still die the first summer. Visitors to our California Gardenscapes will notice an emphasis on cultivated varieties of these charismatic flowering shrubs. Local species are often bred with plants from naturally wetter regions along the northern coast. Not only are these varieties developed to tolerate supplemental water, they are often more spectacular in their flower cycles than their wild counterparts.

Hot rocky exposures, shady spaces wanting of more flowers, or pollinator gardens are all enhanced with the inclusion of native plants but figuring out which ones and how to grow them successfully can seem an insurmountable hurdle. Our visitors will find educational exhibits in California Gardenscapes targeted to the home gardener as part of an overall culmination of this institution’s experience in learning what works when it comes to gardening with native plants.

Rather than praying for winter rain and sitting in spring traffic to get a taste of our state’s majestic beauty, spend a day at the San Diego Botanic Garden and take practical strategies home to foster amazing local plants in your own garden all year long. Then you can proudly display your very own superbloom!