Native Plant Gardens in West Adams

  • 12 August 2012
  • Anonymous (not verified)

[We first published this in April 2008. In revising our website in August 2012 we found that the text and photos had disappeared. We have located the material and are reposting here. The information about native plants is important for everyone in our dry climate who has a lawn or garden. Some of the specifics about particular West Adams gardens and their owners may be out of date, but the rest of the information remains current.]

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Some of the many reasons you would want to emphasize native California plants in your garden and some of the West Adams gardeners who do.

Jennifer Charnofsky

Why do you use native plants? I remember my mother's garden back East, my childhood garden, filled with flowers. When we moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s she couldn't easily adapt to the Mediterranean climate, and kept trying to use the same trees, shrubs, bulbs, perennials and annuals that she planted before. Some couldn't survive; some did but only with large amounts of work and/or water. By the time I began my own gardens, it was easier to find the kinds of plants that like it here. And what likes it better than California natives?


The Mediterranean climate is characterized by wet non-freezing winters and dry summers. This means usually totally dry summers, no rain at all for up to six months. It exists in few places in the world: coastal zones around the Mediterranean Sea, southwestern Australia, the Chilean coast, southern Africa, and central and southern California. Plants native to these regions adapt to the lack of summer water by going dormant at that time instead of in the winter.


We use native plants for aesthetic reasons, because they are less work, cost less, and for environmental reasons. Are they beautiful? Try ceanothus, California lilac, filled with blue flowers (and bees) in the spring. Oddly enough you'll find ceanothus all over Great Britain. Gardeners love it there, and struggle to keep it thriving even though it doesn't want summer water, as I discovered on a garden tour 9 years ago. Or California poppies, drifts of bright orange, which self-seed so you never have to plant them again. There are so many native flowering trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, bulbs, and annuals, so many colors, flowering in the spring and in the fall. As John Arnold, whose West Adams garden is almost entirely native, says, something will bloom all year round, and the summer dormant plants look good. During the dry summers most natives are dormant, and it may require a shift in our attitude to appreciate their muted green and grey colors at that time. But the seedheads are there, and the leaves and the grasses. An excellent book which includes color photos of the plants in bloom is "California Native Plants for the Garden" by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O'Brien. It's also an encyclopedia of just about everything you need to know about the subject.


CeanothusLess work and less money: try no fertilizing. Ever. And there is no need to dig amendments into the soil. A layer of organic mulch on top (I use homemade compost) once or twice a year is all that is necessary. Most of the plants need little pruning or spraying. Emily Green, the garden and environmental writer, one of our own West Adams native plant gardeners, gives her plants quarterly cleanups. And of course the plants need little or no water once they are established. During the six months of our rainy season, if it rains a reasonable amount, they don't need any supplemental water at all. If, as happened last year, the total is only 3 inches, then yes, you'll need to give them extra water in the "rainy" season. But Los Angeles averages 15 inches a year, and that's more than enough. During the other six months, it depends on the plant. Some natives don't want any summer water at all, and may suffer or even die if you give it to them. Others do enjoy a little supplemental water, perhaps once a month. So if you have beds of native plants, you may water established plants as little as zero to as "many" as six times a year. And that costs much less. Green believes she could have put a kid through college on what she spent on her lawn before she took it out. Lawns need a lot of water; they flourish in England or the eastern United States. But in our Mediterranean climate, we must give them additional water, and that plus fertilizer stimulates growth which must be cut off. Then we either cut the lawn ourselves or pay someone to do it.


Mediterranean Climate


The Mediterranean climate is characterized by wet non-freezing winters and dry summers. This means usually totally dry summers, no rain at all for up to six months. It exists in few places in the world: coastal zones around the Mediterranean Sea, southwestern Australia, the Chilean coast, southern Africa, and central and southern California. Plants native to these regions adapt to the lack of summer water by going dormant at that time instead of in the winter.


And that leads us to the environmental questions. First, native plants attract animals and insects. Arnold loves the birds, butterflies, and bees that abound in his garden. Green's place is like a bird sanctuary, even with her four big dogs (plus one rescue puppy). She remembers the time a hummingbird landed on a native sage as she was taking it out of her car, and thinks it is indicative of the profound relationship between native plants and the creatures who want to live here. Beneficial insects are attracted, also, and they along with birds help control pests.


Water conservation comes naturally to native plant gardens. Since they need almost no irrigation, being dormant during the dry season, there is little or no irrigation runoff. You've seen water running down the gutter almost every day, and then you know that your neighbor is watering his lawn or his tropical plants. According to Green, southern California drains wild areas of their water in order to pollute the Pacific, with large expanses of lawns in between, using petroleum in the process.


Yellow California poppies next to buckwheatPeople who are interested in saving water tend to also want to harvest or save stormwater. At Arnold's property, rain used to pour off his house and run down the driveway into the street. Now it flows the other way, through a gravel filled trench, disguised with plants, into the backyard where it sustains an old, prolific orange tree. The front third of his driveway still drains rainwater into the street, but he plans to cut up the concrete so the water can percolate into the soil.


Green achieved her goal of zero runoff. Rainwater drains from the house into channels lined with three feet of gravel, scarcely noticeable amid the profusion of plants. She broke up the concrete walkway at the front of the house, and relaid the pieces on gravel and sand. No water ever runs off.


At my house the gutters drain into various combinations of barrels and soaker hoses. We recently removed the concrete and asphalt covering the rear driveway and laid permeable tile. No runoff there anymore, and the rain helps irrigate the thirsty apricot and orange trees.


Using Other Plants


Emily, John, and I do have other plant material. Some are established plants that were already there when we moved in, such as old myrtles or aloes that have proved their drought resistance, or fruit trees that produce well. Some we put in, such as various new fruit trees or roses, or vegetables. And there are fruits that need less water and appreciate our climate, such as figs and pineapple guavas. My roses are heavily mulched, planted in basins, and watered with a drip system, so they don't need nearly as much water as they would otherwise. And we do use other Mediterranean plants. Emily believes that lavenders should be "honorary California natives," because they do so well here and reseed easily. Rosemary, salvias from other states, fortnight lilies (dietes) and other Mediterranean plants blend well with natives in our gardens.


However, some Mediterranean plants need soil that is different from ours, such as sandy, acidic soil, and ours is the opposite. And if we use those plants we are back to trying to change basic conditions instead of working with what we have. So we lean more and more towards natives; thus we feel more in tune with the subtle gradations of California's climate.


Native Plant Gardens in West Adams


If you want to take a look (from the sidewalk please, this is not a tour) here are some of the principal West Adams gardens adapted to our climate.


Mostly or entirely native plants:


1. Emily Green 2158 W. 24th St


2. John Arnold 2166 W. 30th St.

John Arnold's front garden


At least one third native plants:


In the bungalows:


1. Hunter Ochs 2022 W. 27th St.


2. Greg Travis 2036 W. 28th St


3. Renee Gunter 2108 W. 28th St., plus the front garden she designed for the South Seas House, at 2301 W. 24th St.


4. Jim Lancaster 2153 W. 30th St.


Near Normandie and Adams:


5. Julie Burleigh 2651 S. Raymond Ave.


6. Jennifer Charnofsky 2657 Van Buren Pl

Jennifer Charnofsky's parkway


There are probably others that I inadvertently left out.


Public Gardens and Nurseries


Public native plant gardens:


1. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/ 2. Santa Barbara Botanic Garden in Santa Barbara


Native plant nurseries offer classes, too:


1. Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants, in Sun Valley, is the closest one. This nonprofit now operates a booth at the Hollywood Farmers' Market each Sunday morning.


2. Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano


3. Las Pilitas, in Escondido and Santa Margarita