Fall is fast approaching, and already we’re thinking about spring!
With the vegetable gardens under way, the orchard planted out and irrigated, it’s time to turn our attention toward the native wildflower species that we’d like to see growing here come spring.
Rather than plant the orchard out with typical commercial cover crop species, most of which are non-native, and some of which are rather invasive, our plan for the orchard is to bring a diverse array of California’s native wildflowers to our orchard slopes instead.
After last year’s clearing, and the planting in spring, the slope became home to a number pervasive, and undesirable weed species this season. However, distracted with other tasks, little weeding was done, and we also discovered a few natives growing too. We’ve endeavored this year to focus on watching what grows here of its own accord, friend or foe, before beginning work on the more aesthetic components of the garden.
Although we purchased some wildflower seeds last year, we opted to hold off on seeding the orchard while we tried to inventory as many native species on the property as possible, and identify the worst of the invasive thugs and remove them. We’re winning some battles, like the broom patch along the road, and losing others, primarily due to our own error, such as cutting down some bull thistles, inadvertently forcing them to bloom a year earlier than they should have. Live and learn!
Now that we have a better handle on what to pull, when to pull it, and what not to pull in the orchard, the nature of our soils, sun exposure, watering needs, and wildlife pressures, it’s time to acquire the additional species we want to add to the property, as fall, for California annual wildflowers at least, is the best time to plant seed, as our seasonal rains are (hopefully) just around the corner.
We’re electing to seed as many natives as possible, rather than purchase plugs or transplants, because we literally have a lot of ground to cover. Seed is simply the most economical route. Before we can plant though, we first have to decide which species would be most appropriate here.
We first had to ask ourselves what sort of gardeners we desired to be. Do we want to be purely habitat restorationists, purists? If so, then those plants that are endemic to this watershed will dictate the group from which we can select plants.
Alternatively, could we focus on planting regionally native plants, those native to Santa Cruz county, even if they were not historically present on this property? This would certainly afford us a wider variety of species to choose from.
What about plants not native to this region, but native to other parts of California, that are adapted to our climate?
New to native gardening, I honestly had purist intentions, but I’ve already broken a few of those rules, and I expect I’ll break a few more before we’re done here. I suffer from a syndrome akin to that which magpies are afflicted with, except instead of absconding with shiny objects, I’m attracted to colorful ones, usually while I’m on a mission for ‘just one thing’ at a local nursery. Invariably, I leave with half a dozen things I had no idea I ‘needed’. To my credit though, 99% of the time, they are at least regionally native. The majority of natives we intend to plant here will be either endemic to the property, or at least regionally native to Santa Cruz. However, as explained below, a few adapted, but well behaved natives from outside the region may occasionally find their way here.
As we are endeavoring to preserve the endemic natives here, we’re intending to propagate some of them from seed collected during the year, including Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, Calochortus albus, and Lonicera hispidula.
Despite finding numerous native species here this year, overall, with the exception of the Sticky Monkeyflowers (Diplacus aurantiacus ssp. aurantiacus), the palette throughout most of the property is rather…well…green, and a bit dull.
Not that green is drab, but I have found myself yearning for more pizazz throughout the year here. We have a lot of structural natives here already, we’re just lacking a little zing. Some of that pizazz will come from encouraging those species already here to increase in number, but it seems even then, we may still be a little lacking. This year, in regards to mass and scale, our squash blossoms in the vegetable garden probably had the most ‘wow’ factor.
To address this, we’ve spent some time researching which species at least are native to Santa Cruz county. Of those, we then needed to determine which were readily available in seed form (many it seemed were not). With the list narrowed, we had to consider which color palette, if any, we wanted to work with first, and of the plants within that palette, which were best suited to the areas we wish to plant.
I should clarify, we’re not planting in the natural woodland areas of the property, just the small cultivated areas, targeting the orchard, and the exposed dry, sandy slope, directly above the gardens. Plants tolerant of occasional water will be sown through the orchard, but those not requiring supplemental irrigation once established will be grown outside of the irrigated areas. The true woodland areas will be either left alone, or only species already there will be propagated for those areas, and the thugs will continue to be removed.
So, after whittling down the list of the regionally appropriate native species, we’ve narrowed our choices down to:
Goldfields (Lasthenia glabrata): Annual. Native to Santa Cruz County. This plant bears tiny bright-yellow flowers, forming a sunny backdrop for other California native flowers. This plant is one of the primary nectar food sources for the Checkerspot butterfly. The fine seed attracts goldfinches, and planted en masse, apparently has a beautiful scent.
Sky Lupine (Lupinus nanus): Annual. Native to Santa Cruz County. Choosing a lupine was challenging, as they’re all quite beautiful. This is a low-growing annual species, blue and white in color, that blends beautifully with California poppies, without dwarfing them. This lupine is also a food plant for American Lady butterfly.
California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica): Annual. Native to Santa Cruz County. We already have a few growing outside the orchard fence, that are systematically mowed down by the deer when they bloom. We’re going to try a few inside the fence for us to enjoy instead.
Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum): Perennial. Native to Santa Cruz County. This was one of my magpie moments in a local garden center. After purchasing a single plant, it simply wasn’t enough. Hopefully we’ll be able to propagate this species successfully from seed.
As it tolerates moisture this plant will be better situated near the irrigated areas of the orchard, scattered among the Goldfields and poppies.
These first four species will form the floral backbone of the main orchard slope.
Globe Gilia (Gilia capitata): Annual. Native to Santa Cruz County. This plant thrives on dry banks in its native environment, and has a long bloom period, self-sowing freely once established.
Tidy Tips (Layia platyglossa): Annual. Native to Santa Cruz County. Daisy-like yellow flowers with white tips, similar in habit to Goldfields, blooming from March to June. Nectar source for the Checkerspot butterfly.
Gilia, and Layia are destined up-slope of the gardens, where the soil is less rich, and very dry. These plants will help to extend the base yellow-blue color palette in the orchard further up slope.
Next spring, in addition to our resident native pollinators and Mason Bees, we’ll be adding European honeybee hives to the property to help improve pollination in the gardens and orchard. As such, we need to be mindful that in our mild climate bees are more active here than in colder northern climes, during periods of a relative dearth of blooms. Some of the following, although native to California, aren’t necessarily native to Santa Cruz county, but should be well enough behaved, that they shouldn’t pose a threat to native flora and fauna that is resident here. Primarily with the honeybees in mind, we’re also planting the following:
Bee Plant (Scrophularia californica): Perennial. Native to Santa Cruz County. Well, it’s a bee plant, how could we not?!? We actually already have one growing here, acquired earlier this year, but most of it was mowed down by some Checkerspot butterfly larvae earlier this season (hence no photo), so clearly we need to plant a few more!
Coast Buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium): Perennial. Native to Santa Cruz County. Bees apparently make a phenomenal honey from buckwheat, and along with some sage, is one of the few plants blooming in mid-September.
Honey flavor aside, these plants should help to provide a nectar source in the late season when little else is in bloom. Coast buckwheat is also a food plant for the native Mormon Metalmark butterfly (Apodemia mormo).
Rosy Buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium grande var. rubescens): Perennial. NOT native to Santa Cruz County. Native to California’s Channel Islands.
Rosy Buckwheat is reportedly easy to grow from seed, and a late season bloomer. The two plants gifted to us by Christine from Idora Design are thriving, but we’d like to grow a lot more.
Cleveland Sage – (Salvia clevelandii) – NOT native to Santa Cruz County. This was my first non-watershed appropriate native plant purchase, proving I’m not a purist native gardener, specifically the ‘Winnifred Gilman’ cultivar, and unless she proves unruly she’s here to stay!
Sadly, this hybrid sage cultivar is not readily available in seed form, but a few transplants were recently obtained and incorporated into our gardens.
Purple Flowering Sage (Salvia leucophylla) – NOT native to Santa Cruz County. This sage cultivar is easily obtainable in seed form, and thrives in dry environments. Similar in appearance to S. clevelandii above.
These are the native plants that we’ve just placed a seed order for, and will focus on planting throughout the upcoming fall and winter season. Our plan is not to plant a formal arrangement of plants, but to attempt to mimic more of an informal native meadow planting with the annual wildflowers, and plant the perennial shrubs around the periphery of the gardens. We still need to source seed for some low-growing native California grasses to blend with the annual wildflowers to help complete the meadow-like effect. If all goes well on the seed propagation front this fall though, the slopes should look anything but drab come spring.
If you’re planning to plant native California wildflowers for the spring from seed, and there are many more than the few listed here, now is the time to start planning, as the sowing season commences as soon as our seasonal rains return.