Gabi McLean's San Gabriel Valley Home Native Garden
Ruminations on the benefits of replacing your lawn with a native landscape

(reprinted from California Native Plant Society Bulletin, October-December 2003)

It's morning. The cool air greets me as I step outside, car keys in hand, purse tucked under my arm, maneuvering carefully so that my business suit won't brush the carport pillar. I catch a glimpse of the poppy blossoms still folded up in the hazy morning light. The soft breeze carries the fragrance of the white sage. My eagerness to meet my tight work schedule dissolves, and I turn toward the wildflower patch with the promise of bright orange poppies strutting in the midday sun, butterflies dancing on the golden sun cup blossoms, and carpenter bees buzzing in the purple sage. As I watch, a humming bird stops in midair and turns its attention to the wooly bluecurls and the showy penstemon. For a moment, the hummer and I connect; its world is as busy as mine, and we both find reprieve in the garden. Now I know it's spring. Now I know I can withstand another hectic workday—when it's over, the garden will be there and offer me a place to put my mind at peace.

View of the Front Yard

The plants in the McLean's front yard include: California sun cups, woolly bluecurls, common phacelia, black sage, white sage, purple sage, mallow, holly-leaf cherry, California poppy, California buckwheat, and California rose.
Photo: Gabi McLean

It's early Saturday afternoon and blazing hot. Stuck in the house, paying bills and answering emails, I am bursting to stretch my legs. The air conditioner is in high gear but I decide to step outside anyway. The hot air engulfs me and I feel my blood vessels expand and my joints loosen up. Our dog has dug a hole in the shade, between the elderberry and the holly-leaf cherry, enjoying the coolness of the soil. As I stroll over to him I discover a drop in temperature so dramatic that I startle. Are the leaves stirring in the breeze? No, it is still. The shift in temperature comes from the elderberry, cherry, and myrtle trees forming a green, thick but airy insulation from the glaring light. Now I understand why the dog hasn't begged to come into the house. I join him in a siesta on the garden bench. The buzz of busy pollinators reminds me that this is summer and I don't need to hide in the house. I've found my refuge.

We sit on the porch after dinner. The last rays of sun fall on a patch of scarlet monkey flowers near our table. The blossoms are small but shine like beacons. There, our daily visitor is back; a female hummingbird visiting the bright beauties, and then settling at a safe distance in a neighbor's tree. Not for long though, as soon as we get our binoculars, she disappears. I look around hoping she'll return. No luck, but I am not alarmed. I know she'll be back. In winter and spring, the tiny but plentiful rosy flowers of our corral bells attract her, in late spring and early summer, the hummingbird sage is her favorite. Now, the scarlet monkey flowers attract her attention.

Some of the shrubs have already changed from the bright green of spring to the muted colors of summer and fall. Others have shed their leaves, exposing an intricate structure of branches. It's time to prune shrubs resting in summer dormancy, just as the gardeners in moderate climates prune in winter dormancy. I wonder how these shrubs will do in the next season—if I'll do the right thing by pruning them now and by how much. I am just not sure—each plant seems to be developing differently. One black sage has grown taller than I am. Should I trim it down? Another black sage is a tender little thing, three feet around. How can I make it more robust? The barberry has been growing straight up and hasn't branched out at all. Should I top it? Why is it not blooming? I wonder and worry. A thought comes to my mind that makes me smile. My questions remind me of a mother's worries about her offspring, her search for the balance between letting them grow wild and reining them in to fit the mold of expectations.

Watching the garden grow is a little like watching children grow. We learn that things don't turn out as perfectly as we'd like. I decide to let go of wanting perfect control and welcome the surprises—the oak seedling planted by a scrub jay; the elderberry that grows so fast and furiously that I can't keep up with pruning; the heart-leaf penstemon that barely survived for two years and now is showering us with orange-red flowers. Each season finds a different way of pleasing the eye, providing for our feathered visitors, and making a home for our insect friends. I discover the richness of life in the perfect imperfections of nature, the surprises and disappointments that make the web of life so interesting. I deeply enjoy today and yearn for tomorrow's wonders in my native garden.

— Gabi McLean,

Bulletin Editor's note: Gabi and Cliff McLean of the San Gabriel Mountains Chapter have created a program—We Took Out the Lawn and You Can Too! that details their suburban re-landscaping project: how they did it, how much work it took, what has been the result, how the neighbors have taken to it and what it takes to maintain it. The McLean's are also working on a field guide on CD: Common Plants of Eaton Canyon and the San Gabriel Foothills which will be released at the chapter's Fundraiser and Native Plant Sale event Under The Oaks, November 15, 2003 at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center.

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