Musings of an Old-timer (in Native Plant Gardening)

by Gabi McLean

(reprinted with permission from the The Paintbrush, Summer 2015, San Gabriel Mountains Chapter of the California Native Plant Society)

When you put a new plant in the ground, have you ever wondered how it will do, how it will look in six weeks, next season, two years from now, five years from now? Whenever you plant a seedling or a one gallon pot, whenever you sow those wildflower seeds, have you always been confident that they will grow and develop just beautifully as promised? If you are anything like me you’ll have mixed feelings: feeling good that you have taken that first step of planting, and feeling anxious about doing it right and that the plant will like it where you put it and get along with its neighbors. If you are anything like me your heart is with that new plant and you’ll watch it and tend to it and even develop feelings for it. So if it does well, you rejoice, and if it doesn’t you feel sad. I realized this spring that I still feel that way, ever since the first time I went through this experience for the first time, fifteen years ago.

Fifteen years ago, my husband and I got very brave and decided to “go native” in our back and front yards. We killed the grass and replaced it with 120 or so locally native plants. We installed the drip irrigation ourselves—after taking a class at the Theodor Payne Foundation—and then, in the following summer, went on a four-week vacation, entrusting the garden to the irrigation timer set for once-a-week watering. Two years later, we watered just once a month during the summer. Now, fifteen years later, you ask me, how is your garden? What have you learned? Have you saved water? Has it been low maintenance or has it been a lot of work? Is the drip irrigation still working and the timers still reliable? How did your garden do with the drought? What about the weeds? Did the grass come back? How about the neighbors and city/county officials? Are they with it now or do they still fight you? What did you get out of it? Did you ever regret “going native”? What—if anything—would you do differently?

Those are all valid questions that warrant answers. I can’t give you good answers in one short article, but I do want to answer just one question: What did you get out of it?

I learned a lot: I learned to identify native plants, I learned about their life cycles, and how they attract wildlife, even in a suburban garden, away from any wild areas. I learned how to use their fruits and leaves in the kitchen: making jellies from elderberry, golden currants, and native grapes; season meats, salads, and pasta dishes using various sages; and just this year, I learned to use our native grape leaves in Mediterranean recipes for stuffed grape leaves. I learned that the size of a particular specimen depends on its genetic make-up as much as on the watering regime and exposure to sun and wind. I learned that as plants mature they change—as do people—and we might appreciate different aspects throughout their lifespan.

Yes, our native plant garden has saved us lots of money by reducing our water bill and even our energy bill due to the shade it created. But the knowledge I gained, and the money we have saved, do not compare to the main benefit that I have derived from gardening with our native plants: JOY!   Working in the garden—gentle trimming and weeding—relaxes me. Watching birds and insects and lizards live in this habitat that we created, makes me feel happy and soothes my soul. Watching the seasons through the life cycle of a plant connects me to nature: in winter, I watch a cotyledon appear and then develop different leaves; in spring, it grows and sets flower buds, and then one day, bursts into bloom with vibrant colors. It's visited by butterflies, native bees, other insects, and hummingbirds for its nectar and so gets pollinated. In early summer, it sets fruit and with its fruit feeds birds and other critters. And when the heat of summer lies heavy upon us, it dies or settles down to rest during the rainless months, until the winter rains start and the cycle begins anew. Watching it unfold helps me to put happenings in my own life in perspective, and restores my mental health.

Our native plants have taught me how to adapt. When times get really tough—like in a drought—they just sit tight and conserve their resources and wait it out. Their resilience amazes me. And their delicate beauty beguiles me. While their flowers may not be the largest, or the longest lasting, they teach me that beauty may hide in unsuspected places. Just look at a tiny buckwheat flower with a hand lens and you'll experience the wonder. The garden gives me a sense of place, a sense of belonging here and now. Having breakfast on the back porch while watching the birds at the water feature, that is my treat for day. This spring, a family of Western Tanagers frequented our yard for more than one week, and then they were gone. At least two species of hummingbirds are regulars, as are lesser goldfinches, bushtits, mocking birds, and mourning doves. In spring, we get loads of warblers, some flycatchers too. Over the years, we have observed kestrels, Cooper’s hawk, scrub jays and other bird species. The scrub jays even planted a coast live oak in the second season of the garden. It is now about 15 feet tall but it has not had any acorns yet. We are still waiting for its first catkins, observing the life cycle of an oak, discovering things you don’t easily find in a book.

Every season, no, every day, there is a surprise in the garden. The garden is my refuge, my teacher, my oasis in a world of so many challenges. It's the place where I enjoy life to the fullest.

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