Why are so many California native plants gray…?

OK. I have no idea but it did not take me long to make that observation. Also this year’s INS: the aforementioned buckwheat, sedge and other mixed grass meadows, river rocks and lots of places to sit and swing. On the way OUT: rigid formality, real lawn, synthetic lawn, tropicals. Let’s get going on the 2017 Theodore Payne Foundation Native Garden Tour!

THE LEAD OFF GARDEN–The Joyce garden in Granada Hills

Tucked into the curve of a cul-de-sac, this home has a front yard no bigger than a minute. A mature desert willow, Chilopsis linearis, anchors the entrance. Although not in bloom, the willow like leaves waved us in with an airy welcome.IMG_1498

Gardens on this tour must have at least 50% California natives. The Joyce front garden was well done with a mix of natives and a few nice roses. A narrow walkway led garden goers into a back garden that just could not be imagined. In contrast to the tiny front, the back is almost one quarter acre. Looking across a soft-textured slender sedge meadow (Carex pansa) which is surrounded by a variety of native habitat plants, your eye lands on the many mature evergreen, coniferous and deciduous trees, including the Tabebuia rosea  pictured below, which screens the back of the property from a busy street. This garden is full of winding packed earth paths and includes a bioswale to capture runoff and prevent the patio areas from flooding.



Who would not want to take a rest in this inviting hammock? The homeowner has both dogs and grandchildren and told me that the meadow, which is irrigated using a Netafim drip irrigation system, stands up to both. The garden features many species of ceanothus and salvia, in addition to some other natives which were new to me. Here are a few of my favorites:

Calliandra eriophylla (fairy duster)
Encelia farinosa (brittle bush or desert sunflower)
Ceanothus ‘Concha’–more tolerant of heavy soils and moisture than most

The Joyce garden was well planned and well tended without the constraints of formality. Every area was child and pet friendly and I can really see a family using every part of the landscape everyday.

MOVING ON–The Wood garden in Sun Valley

This next garden took me to a unique part of the northeast San Fernando Valley called the Stonehurst Historic District (one of LA’s Historic Preservation Overlay Zones HPOZ). The Stonehurst neighborhood is comprised of 92 homes and boasts the highest concentration of homes in Los Angeles utilizing native river rock as a primary building material. Many of the homes were built between 1923 and 1925 by Dan Montelongo, a local artisan and mason, using stone selected from the nearby washes and foothills of the  Tujunga Valley. This “Stonemason Vernacular” style is a derivative of Craftsman architecture and many of the homes are bungalows on large lots, often horse-keeping or animal-keeping properties.

The naturalistic Wood front garden complements the 1923 arroyo stone bungalow. The garden was redone in 2015 using selected native species to attract pollinators and promote biodiversity.



A large ornamental pomegranate shrub hugs the side of the home and provides shade for the courtyard behind the stone wall.


A meadow of custom grass seeds mixed by Theodore Payne and a small water feature provide calm counterpoints to tall spiky Cleveland sage (foreground, top photo) and other native perennials.


Salvia spathatica, hummingbird sage, provides a pop of pink among all the gray green foliage and the blues of the ceanothus and other sages.

The back of the property was not included in the 2015 native re-do but it is just too charming for you to miss, complete with the home’s original stone garage. The back garden has a 500 gallon cistern to hold rainwater for the drip irrigation system and a very large shade structure whose roof supports almost unseen solar panels.

Here are a few peeks…


The veggie garden with the garage in the background


The raccoon proofed chicken house


A great place for a picnic lunch

Nice uses of trellis work everywhere—doesn’t everything look fabulous against the river rock!


I ended up seeing this plant in a couple of  gardens but this was the only one I saw still in bloom. You guessed it–it is a buckwheat! This is Eriogonum crocatum, common name Conejo or saffron buckwheat. This relatively rare perennial is endemic to the Conejo Valley in Ventura County where it grows in dry, rocky places. It will tolerate clay soil and takes full to partial sun. This one was fairly low and the little button heads are about the size of your little fingernail.

Before I move on to our next garden I want to share the photo below of the house across the street from the Wood garden.


This short retaining wall is made from a number of structures called gabions. A gabion is a cage or box filled with rocks or concrete. The word comes from the Italian word gabbione which means “big cage”. I have been seeing these in gardening magazines recently but they are certainly not common where I live. Over the course of this tour I would see several more, primarily used in place of non-permeable retaining walls.

NEXT UP–the Klemm garden in Shadow Hills

The highlight of this relaxed, low maintenance garden was the standout mixed green palette used on the home’s steeply sloped front yard.IMG_1557 Three plants used in irregular masses covered the entire slope. The predominant species was, you guessed it, a buckwheat! This was my first introduction to Erigonum fasiculatum ‘Bruce Dickinson’, one of several cultivars of California buckwheat. Unfortunately, at this home I could not get close enough to get a detailed shot of ‘Bruce Dickinson’ but you’ll see a close up later on the tour. The foreground is massed with Rosmarinus officinalis which had been neaten up recently enough to have pushed lots of gorgeous new growth. The last main player is Cistus salviifolius, commonly called sage leafed rockrose or Gallipoli rose. The rockrose is pictured below. These three wandered and wove in and out of each other providing a low water cover for a slope otherwise hard to irrigate.




This home also featured a native grass back meadow in place of lawn. In this case it was blue gramma, Bouteloua gracilis, and I did not find it as appealing as the sedge meadow.


I listened as the homeowner explained the process for getting it established to the point it would be child friendly–needing over a year without foot traffic–and promptly crossed it off any future meadow list!

Another memorable feature of the Klemm garden was a supreme Dendromecon hurdfordii, common name island bush poppy, another Channel Islands native. This one was easily 8 feet tall.


Pure sunshine!

THE LAST OF THE FIRST FOUR–the Jamison garden in Valley Glen

There was nothing not to love about this close to 100% native 5 yr. old front garden. It was the perfect inspiration for a gardener who needs to see that mature natives can look groomed while still let to achieve their natural shapes and sizes and who needs to see ways to offer subtle support to the floppers of the world. I spent a lot of time talking to these homeowners–the husband took several classes from Theodore Payne and those classes got him started and kept him going through the transformation from a house with a few shrubs and a lawn to the 1,800 sq. ft. burst of nature you see below.


Meet Matt and his dad who I met at this garden and then we tag teamed each other for several gardens after. Matt’s dad is his family’s garden guy and he and his son have been converting to natives for a couple of years. Matt was not so good with the names of things but he knows what he likes and together they are creating their little piece of paradise in this hot, dry valley!


Take note all you tall plant next to the driveway and sidewalk naysayers at how this homeowner offered support that blends in with the natural feel of the garden and set that support back 18″ or so to create a secondary planting area for smaller scale selections (and behind the split rail escapees.)

I could not even get out of the driveway before I was making plant notes and crouching down to snap shots of plant labels.


This little vignette sits right at the corner of the split fence next to the driveway. Though not in bloom, I had seen the taller purple stemmed plant at the TPF demonstration garden  and learned it was Clarkia unguiculata, a reseeding wild flower commonly called elegant clarkia. I knew the name clarkia but was only familiar with the hybridized forms rather than the native species. The California poppy has also found a spot in this small patch of ground. The tall wild flower whose lavender flower can be seen at the top of the photo is Phaecelia tanecetifolia, also a prolific native reseeding annual and. Below you can see the flowers of the clarkia and phaecelia in more detail.

The desert marigold, Baileya multiradiata, also caught my eye. I am not normally drawn to yellow gold flowers but I loved the floppy form of this smallish native perennial.

Although not a great photo, you can see the homeowner who designed this garden below sitting in his Adirondack chair surveying his work, enjoying greeting visitors and offering plant ids and advice. Who would not like this peaceful view out their front door? He told me he and his wife sit in the shade of the crape myrtle frequently in the afternoons and even to watch the sun go down.



This home also has a beautiful small backyard with somewhat fewer native plants but clearly a garden area they nurture and use daily.


And, who could not love a native plant garden with a Little Free Library tucked into a corner where passers by can stop to admire nature at work, leave a book for the another to enjoy and pick up one to settle down with in your own hammock in the shade?


My takeaway on these first four–these are all regular gardeners with small to average sized homes on small to average sized lots. All had more conventional landscapes that have been converted, either in sections or as a whole, into predominately native plant gardens. Some, but not all, had varying amounts of professional design help. All maintain their own gardens, actively and hands-on. These were all ‘do-able’ landscapes and every one had ideas I could adapt to my own not native at all garden. A+ to all!!

I’ll try to post the last three Saturday gardens visits when I arrive home tonight. Now I am off on my Sunday route which will take me through Beachwood Canyon, Atwater Village, Silver Lake and down into Santa Monica. Then back north on the San Diego freeway for the long drive back to the Central Valley.

2 thoughts on “Why are so many California native plants gray…?

  1. Most Cal natives that are water wise and adapted to open sunny locations are grey for the same reason you use sun block. Thousands that live in cooler, darker, wetter climates are luxuriantly green


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