Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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My Haul from the Fall Native Plant Sales

The best way to buy native plants, at least in California, is not to go to your local native plant nursery. That's the second-best way. The best way is to go to the annual spring or fall sales of your local chapter of the California Native Plant Society, where native plant nurseries from all over the state bring their plants to a single location for the day, giving you a gigantic selection of plants species you'll never see for sale on any other day of the year.

This month, I actually went to two such sales, held by two different chapters of the California Native Plant Society. Because we live in the Sacramento Valley, we are technically supposed to be served by the Sacramento Valley chapter. But the Sacramento Valley chapter holds its sales in Sacramento, which is an hour's drive from here, whereas the Redbud Chapter (which serves the northern Sierra Nevada foothills) holds its fall sale in Grass Valley, which is 45 minutes' drive from here. So in the past (last fall and last spring), I went to the Redbud Chapter's sales. This month I went to both sales, on consecutive weekends.

There were some interesting differences: the plants at the Redbud chapter's sale were spread out on the ground in a huge parking lot, so there was plenty of space, but my legs got rather sore from squatting on the ground next to each plant, one at a time, to read the labels. The Sacramento Valley chapter's sale had about the same number of people and about the same number of plants, but squeezed into less than a fifth of the space, and with most of the plants up on tables and shelves at eye level. More importantly, I found that at least among the plants on my shopping list, the Sacramento Valley chapter tended to have the more drought-tolerant plants, while the Redbud chapter tended to have the plants more tolerant of poor drainage. This sort of makes sense and sort of doesn't: the Sacramento Valley is more prone to drought than the foothills, but it's also more prone to poor drainage. But I suppose most people's drainage, even in the Sacramento Valley, isn't nearly as bad as ours, so it's not such a big issue for them as it is for me.

I approach gardening in the geekiest possible way: with spreadsheets. I keep a spreadsheet with information about all the plants I would remotely consider planting, ever. (Plants that are invasive, poorly adapted to this area, or have annoying traits such as thorns do not make it onto the spreadsheet; nearly everything else does.) When I buy a plant, I copy its information onto a separate tab that shows just the plants I've purchased, and I record its performance in my garden: this tab shows which plants have bloomed in my garden, which have reproduced, which have died, and what I suspect the dead ones died of. On another tab, I record the weeds and volunteer plants I've identified in my garden. And whenever I go plant-shopping, I filter the first tab (the one with all the plants I would ever consider planting) to pick out the plants most suited to my garden: plants native to the Sacramento Valley, generally under five meters tall, not so wide at the base that they'll fill up the yard, and able to tolerate either horrendous drainage and moderate summer drought (in the wetter spots in my yard) or mediocre drainage and severe summer drought (in the drier spots in my yard). I print out the resulting shopping list, which is generally about four pages long, and bring it with me. If I see any plant on that list for sale and I don't already own it, I buy it. If I do already own it, I may buy more if I particularly like it and have a place I want to put it. The result is that I spent about $120 at each of the two native plant sales this fall. I came home with the following:
  • one five-finger fern (Adiantum aleuticum)

  • three bulbs of appendage cluster-lily (Brodiaea appendiculata)

  • eight small pots of clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis)

  • one red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea)

  • one California fuchsia (Epilobium canum)

  • one leafy fleabane (Erigeron foliosus)

  • one Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum)

  • one naked buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum)

  • one hawkweed (Hieracium albiflorum)

  • one ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor)

  • one bowltube iris (Iris macrosiphon)

  • one gaping beardtongue (Keckiella breviflora)

  • seeds of Humboldt lily (Lilium humboldtii)

  • one hairy honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula)

  • one deerweed (Lotus scoparius)

  • two small pots of seep monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus)

  • two small pots of deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens)

  • one Indian plum shrub (Oemleria cerasiformis)

  • one California polypody (Polypodium californica)

  • one sticky cinquefoil (Potentilla glandulosa)

  • one Western hop tree (Ptelea crenulata)

  • one skunkbush (Rhus trilobata)

  • one California figwort (Scrophularia californica)

  • two small pots of blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)

  • one blue witch (Solanum umbelliferum)

  • one California goldenrod (Solidago californica)
I've now planted everything but the bulbs, the seeds, one of the deergrasses, the single-leaf sumac, and the Western hop tree. Most of it has been in the ground for a week or two now, and so far, everything seems to be remaining in pretty good health. If history is any indicator, at least a third and perhaps as much as half of it will die within the next year. (Yes, that's $80 to $120 down the drain. Gardening is not an entirely practical hobby, at least not in a yard as difficult as ours.) But at least my transplanting skill seems to be improving; when I first started gardening, at least a quarter of my plants tended to die within a week of when I planted them, from the stress of the transplant. Now they more often survive six months and then drown in winter or die of thirst in summer. And for the moment, with most of the new plants in and none of them dead yet, the yard looks amazing!

I used most of my eight new clustered field sedges (Carex praegracilis) for lining both sides of the ditch (or pond, or whatever the correct word is for that thing that was supposed to be a drainage ditch but that I've given up hoping will ever actually drain). I actually planted one more of them on the right side of it after I took this picture. I'm becoming a really huge fan of clustered field sedge. It seems to stay bright green and gorgeous no matter how much drought or poor drainage it's subjected to. It also readily tolerates being walked on. The only thing that has ever damaged it in my yard is when I dug one up and tore its roots into tiny pieces to thoroughly extricate the Bermuda grass that had infiltrated it. And, well, I can forgive any plant for dying under conditions like that!

Clustered field sedge grows almost anywhere in North America, from California north to Alaska and the Yukon, east to Québec, Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania, south to Virginia, Missouri, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. It skips only the deep south, far northern Canada, and a few scattered states along the east coast. If you live in the areas where it grows, you should seriously consider growing it. Some people use it as a lawn substitute. I think that when mine fills in between the clumps, it will make a sort of mini-lawn. A very floppy, eight-inch-long, unmowed patch of mini-lawn only about two feet wide, but still - there'll be a resemblance. And I think it's much prettier than an ordinary lawn.

The front yard looks pretty decent, too. This bed along the front sidewalk is where I put all the plants that need the best drainage and tolerate the most drought. As a result, it's quickly becoming The Bed of Silvery Foliage. (Silvery foliage is better adapted to drought and scorching heat than green foliage.)

Let's start with a tour of this bed along the front sidewalk. The most noticeable plant at the moment is one of my new ones, blue witch (Solanum umbelliferum), which is covered with gorgeous lavender-colored flowers. Another new one, gaping beardtongue (Keckiella breviflora), is propped between two rocks behind the blue witch. The other plants you can see below are older and more established: California fuchsia (Epilobium canum 'Calistoga') at the top edge, creeping sage (Salvia sonomensis) to the right, and a few strands of blue flax (Linum lewisii) poking up at the bottom right.

Here's a closeup of the blue witch flowers. The lavender-colored part seems to be about equally often bent backward as bent forward, but I like it better when it's bent forward as it is here.

Here is the new gaping beardtongue (Keckiella breviflora), with creeping sage (Salvia sonomensis) in the background. This is the second gaping beardtongue I've bought. The first one died, but it hung on long enough in a bad location (too shady and maybe a bit too wet) to convince me to buy another one and plant it in a better location.

Here is my new naked buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum), also in the front sidewalk bed. This plant is named for the fact that it can produce six-foot-tall flower stalks but has now leaves except for this little circle of them lying flat on the ground. It's native to California, Oregon, and Washington state. (greenshadows, I've decided that I'm going to start mentioning when any of my plants are native to Washington state. Eventually I may find some that you take one look at and decide you can turn into bestsellers! But I admit that this one is not likely to be very marketable.)

Also in that same front sidewalk bed, here is my new woolly sunflower, also called Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum). This is native from California north to British Columbia and west to Montana. It's not likely to be a bestseller either, but I was glad to get a chance to try it out.

I have an established California fuchsia (Epilobium canum 'Calistoga') in the front sidewalk bed, but I also bought a newer California fuchsia that is not the 'Calistoga' cultivar. It has much smaller, narrower leaves, almost like needles. I planted it in the same bed as the established cultivar. This is the new one, with the needle-like leaves.

At the opposite end of the same bed, in the shade of the oleanders, I planted my new hawkweed (Hieracium albiflorum). I'm pretty sure this is the ugliest plant I own. It's basically a hairy dandelion. This is native from California north to Alaska and the Northwest Territories, and east to Colorado, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Québec. (It does not grow south of Colorado, South Dakota, Wisconsin, or Québec.) I pretty much just bought it because I had never expected to see it being sold anywhere and wanted to find out whether it has any desirable qualities. So far, the only thing I can figure is that if you don't have any pets and are experiencing severe furriness withdrawal, you can go outside and pet the hawkweed leaves. They are very soft.

Now on to the back yard! The back yard has been most difficult to plant, because it floods so much in the winter, but I'm proudest of my successes here. Here is a view along the back fence, from one corner to the other.

At the bottom center of the picture above is one of my new ferns, California polypody (Polypodium californicum). Here's a closeup of it below, with California poppy seedlings in the background. I really adore ferns, but they're hard to find for sale and even harder to grow successfully in the Sacramento Valley - most of them just don't tolerate three or four months of 100-degree heat! But this one is supposed to be able to grow here, so I found it a heavily shaded spot and I'm hoping for the best.

Next to the fern is my new pink honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula ssp. vacillans). It's the leafy shrub toward the upper left in the picture below. This is the second pink honeysuckle I've purchased; the first was much smaller than this and didn't last long. I think the dogs may have trampled it to death. This larger one should be better able to handle them (and I put a log next to it to help protect it from them). Pink honeysuckle is sort of halfway between being a vine and being a shrub, but I decided to treat it as a shrub and not give it anything to climb up. It's growing with sticky moneyflowers (Mimulus aurantiacus, one on each side of the large rock) and ferns (one on each side of the honeysuckle). This is native from California north to British Columbia, and byrdiebotany reports seeing it as a very common understory plant in coast-range forests. I haven't noticed it in the wild myself, so I don't think it's as common in the Sierra Nevada forests.

On the other side of the honeysuckle is my other fern, also new: five-finger fern (Adiantum aleuticum), named for the way its fronds resemble fingers. This is native from California north to Alaska and British Columbia, and east to Colorado, but also in Michigan, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maine, Québec, Newfoundland . . . it just skips over the middle of the continent and stays toward the coasts.

On the other side of the five-finger fern is my new California figwort (Scrophularia californica). I tried to grow seeds of this species once before, but none sprouted.

And next to both of them is my new California goldenrod (Solidago californica). I bought a smaller California goldenrod last spring, which died over the summer. I hope this one does better. The fact that it's already in bloom means that it should at least give me some seeds to work with.

Further along the back fence, here's my new redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea). I was tempted to buy one of these at last spring's plant sale, but I asked someone for help deciding between it and the buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and was advised to buy the buttonbush. Now I have both! That's the buttonbush behind it, in the far corner. The person who advised me at the spring sale told me that the buttonbush would lose its leaves in response to summer drought but would survive, whereas the dogwood could die if it dried out. Well, the buttonbush kept most of its leaves all summer, and has grown two or three feet, so I think the dogwood will probably be just fine too. Redtwig dogwood is native to pretty much the entire North American continent except for most of the former Confederate States of America and possibly Mexico. There are not many plants that are native to Nunavut and also to New Mexico, but this is one of them.

At the foot of the buttonbush is a scarlet monkeyflower (Mimulus cardinalis). After I took the picture above, I dug up the non-native ox-eye daisy behind the dogwood and planted one of my new seep monkeyflowers (Mimulus guttatus) there, between the dogwood and the buttonbush. Here is the new seep monkeyflower, which should eventually look like this. This one is native from California north to Alaska and the Northwest Territories, east to New Mexico and Nebraska, and also to Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Connecticut, and New Brunswick. It skips the south and most of the midwest. Meanwhile, the scarlet monkeyflower is native from California north to Washington state and east to Utah and New Mexico.

Another of my new shrubs is ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor), which is native from California north to British Columbia and east to Montana, Colorado, and Arizona. I haven't photographed it yet, but it should eventually look like this.

Near the ocean spray is my new sticky cinquefoil (Potentilla glandulosa), a yellow-flowered cousin of strawberries. This is native from California north to British Columbia and east to Alberta, South Dakota, and New Mexico.

Also nearby is my new leafy fleabane (Erigeron foliosus).

Across the non-draining drainage ditch from those is my new bowltube iris (Iris macrosiphon).

At the entrance to the back yard from the patio is my new deerweed (Lotus scoparius), next to the butterfly-adorned stepping-stone my parents gave me for my birthday in July. The tiny plant in the upper left is one of my two new blue-eyed grasses (Sisyrinchium bellum), and the larger plant at the upper right is one of my eight new clustered field sedges (Carex praegracilis).

And over in the side yard, here's my new Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), which is native from California north to British Columbia and should eventually look like this.

That leaves just the deergrass, skunkbush (Rhus trilobata), and Western hop tree (Ptelea crenulata) that I haven't yet planted. I could fit in the deergrass in any number of places, but I haven't yet planted the two shrubs because, frankly, I can't find anyplace left to squeeze them in! Maybe another shrub will die soon and make room for them? But that seems like a terrible thing to hope for. Eventually I'll just have to plunk them in the ground somewhere. The Western hop tree is going somewhere in the back yard - I'd kind of like to put it where I currently have a coffeeberry planted. The coffeeberry isn't entirely happy there, but if I'm going to put the Western hop tree there, I first need to (1) work up the courage to transplant the coffeeberry, and (2) figure out where in the world I can move the coffeeberry to. An additional complication is that there are several plants clustered around the base of the coffeeberry that I very, very much do not want to kill - most notably, I suppose, the checker mallow (Sidalcea malviflora), which is looking rather terrible at the moment, almost leafless. I suppose if it dies, at least I can be less afraid of transplanting the coffeeberry.

The skunkbush could go in either yard. I'm not too emotionally attached to it; I'm just trying it out to see whether I like it. It's related to poison oak and visually sort of resembles it, but it's not much more likely to provoke an allergic reaction than, say, cashew nuts or mangoes, which are also in the same family as poison oak and poison ivy. However, it can get rather wide, which presents difficulties in finding a place for it. Probably I should put it in the front yard, because honestly the back yard already has so many shrubs in it that if they were all to eventually grow to their maximum potential size, the yard would be an impassable thicket of brush. I'm sort of gambling on my plants' poor track record of survival back there in the past, and planting with the expectation that much of what I plant will not survive. This lets me try out many more plants than the small size of the yard would otherwise permit - and when we eventually buy a house, I may be able to dig up some overcrowded plants and bring them with us.

Compare the very first picture at the top of this entry with the one below of our back yard in July 2009 (when I had already been gardening here for a year!). I count five of the plants in the picture below that are still alive now, and twelve that are dead. (I'm not counting volunteers, some of which are dead and some of which are still alive.) Why exactly do I keep trying, when more than two thirds of the plants I had 15 months ago are now dead?

Many of the dead plants were already dead by that December. Here's the same view in December 2009:

And below is the same view last May, shortly after the spring native plant sale. The annuals from my scattered seed mixes were trying hard to transform the freshly dried moonscape back into something garden-like, but shrubs were still few and far between. The tiny little buttonbush in the far corner, newly planted after the plant sale, and the not much older, virtually invisible coffeeberry wedged between bits of cement at the far right showed promise of eventually adding a little more long-term structure to the yard. But so many of the plants in this picture were annuals, doomed to die as soon as they finished producing seeds, that I can only pick out ten plants in this picture that are still alive now. (Other plants have survived from this time, but only ten of the survivors are visible in this picture.) This was only five months ago!

And now? Although the yard is less colorful and floriferous than it was in the spring, it actually looks a lot prettier to me now than it did then. It's finally looking downright presentable, with the buttonbush and coffeeberry both grown in substantially, and the new redtwig dogwood wedged between them, and the golden currant larger than ever, and the blue elderberry shorter than before but less awkward-looking, and all the middle space in between finally starting to fill in with perennials rather than annuals. But how long will it last? Two months from now, when it's December again and the yard turns into a big sticky mess of swampy mud and standing water again, how much of this will be dead?

Tags: native plants, photographs

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