California Natives at Soka U.

hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea)Although many of my favorite plants are California natives, I, like most other people, have a problem gardening exclusively with them. Once spring is over, I always thought, the native garden is much less colorful and lush, and far less interesting, than its counterpart of imported ornamentals.
A final opinion on gardening with nothing but natives should be postponed until you visit the Soka University garden, located on Mulholland Highway just east of Las Virgenes Road. It is free and open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For reservations: (818) 878-3763.
The Soka garden is proof that once you truly commit yourself to something – which means there is no turning back – greatness is possible. This may require giving up past assumptions and contradicting popular wisdom, even sacrificing what is most dear to you. But the idea, and the goal, makes such sacrifice worthwhile. As you get to know native plants, you will soon discover how vast the “native plant experience” can be. There are more than 6,000 California natives, more than enough to make your garden beautiful.
The Soka garden – which was created by Toyon Design – is made up entirely of plants native to the Santa Monica Mountains. You stroll through and lament your lack of familiarity with the plants that live in the hills and valleys and creek beds that are no more than a few minutes away. As knowledgeable as you are of automobile styles, computer capabilities, and real estate values, your knowledge of what grows in the nearby hills, you realize, is practically nil.
How important is it to know something about our local flora? Most important, perhaps, is what it can teach us about the fragility and temporality of life. Look at the Yucca whipplei with the enormous white flower (which, incidentally, is edible) and stiff, green, spiny leaves; the moment it stops flowering, it dies. Or take the ephemeral Clarkias, blooming their heads off in pink and lavender for a glorious, if quickly passing, moment in spring. With any luck, though, next year’s rains will germinate fallen Clarkia seeds for another beautiful show.
Philosophy aside, there are some wonderful local plants that everyone should have because of their color, form and drought tolerance. In the color category, the penstemons, in purple (Penstemon spectabilis) and red (Penstemon centranthifolius), supply bugle-shaped flowers; they also self-sow and soon become constant garden companions. Another memorable purple flowering plant is the wispy flowered wooly blue curls (Trichostema lanatum). The pitcher sage (Salvia spathacea), with its reddish-purple flowers and coarse leaves, is also not to be forgotten.
Pink and mauve are best represented by species of Chaparral mallow (Malacothamnus spp.) and checker mallow (Sidalcea spp.) with their miniature hibiscuslike blooms.
For color in the yellow to orange range, you will want to plant monkey flowers. At Soka, they are using the bright yellow monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus) as a container plant; it would make the perfect complement to the gray-leaved Conejo buckwheat (Eriogonum crocatum), which also does well in containers. The bushy canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesioides) is another study in yellow – with refreshing light-green leaves. Monkey flowers in hues of salmon and orange are also blooming now, as is Silene laciniata, the flowers of which resemble orange stars.
Looking for unusual plant forms or textures? Try the spreading rush (Juncus patens). Its firm, arching, reedlike stems create 3- to 4-foot fountains of vegetation. For background, consider giant ryegrass (Elymus condensatus), which grows to 10 feet tall with 2-foot-long flower spikes. There is also a local species of Oregon grape (Mahonia pinnata), which is spinier and more captivating than the Mahonias found in neighborhood nurseries. The fuchsia-flowered gooseberry (Ribes speciosum) is another spiny, bristly plant, with shiny, dark blue-green foliage and red eardrop flowers.
Keith Dobry, the curator of this garden, has some eye-opening advice about the culture of California natives. Application of Miracle-Gro fertilizer, he has found, increases the blooming capacity of native plants, even as it shortens their lives. Apply at half the recommended strength in mid-March, he recommends, and once a month in April and May. Stop fertilizing in June. There is a sub-surface drip-irrigation system installed in the garden that delivers water regularly throughout the dry season.
Dobry propagates many of the plants grown in the Soka garden in two adjacent greenhouses. He has found that it is easier to propagate California natives from seeds than from cuttings.
Tip: Dobry insists that when you plant container-grown natives, regardless of their eventual drought tolerance, you should water them well each day during their first two weeks in the ground. The potting soil that still surrounds the roots of a newly planted specimen resists hydration, which means that watering should get special attention during that critical first fortnight in the garden.

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