Category Archives: California Native Plants

Designing under native oaks

We are all interested in unthirsty plants these days. When I design gardens under our native oaks there are several principles that I follow that I want to share with you. Drought tolerant plants are a must in this situation. Evergreen oaks even have special needs requiring a different plant palette than deciduous oaks like blue and valley oaks.Bush anemone

Most oak roots are in the upper 3 ft of the soil. The roots which take up water and nutrients are in the upper 12". The critical root disease zone for an oak is within 6-10 ft of the trunk. Do not irrigate plants or disturb the soil in this area. Outside this zone but within the drip line one deep watering per month is allowable for your plantings.
The leaf mulch that accumulates under a large coast live oak increases soil moisture and available nutrients, improves soil structure and moderates soil temperature. It’s a valuable resource that can be used in other parts of the garden. Never remove the entire insulating layer of leaves from under a trees canopy and don’t allow leaf mulch to cover the trunk.
One of the showiest California natives for planting under a coast live oak is carpenteria californica or Bush anemone. This evergreen shrub is resistant to oak root fungus and grows in sun or shade. Although this plant can get by with no summer water after becoming established, occasional summer water will help maintain a fresher look. The compact variety ‘Elizabeth’ produces a profuse display of white flowers with as many as 20 flowers per cluster. Cut back the top 1/3 to 1/2 of the stems after flowering to keep it compact.

Another deer resistant plant I like to use under oaks is Centennial ceanothus. This gopher resistant low spreading groundcover grows 12" high and 8 ft wide. Cobalt blue flower clusters cover the plant each spring. They also attract birds.
Western redbud can be grown as an accent shrub or small tree under coast live oaks. Large bluish grey rounded leaves have heart-shaped base making quite a show among smaller leafed plants. The magenta sweet-pea shaped flowers cover the branches in spring. Scattered flowers may also appear in late summer and fall. Flattened seedpods rustle in the wind in late summer and fall. And if that’s not enough to love about western redbuds they brighten the landscape with a fall color display of yellow or red leaves. Western redbuds respond well to pruning. Thin the oldest trunks each year to keep them growing vigorously. You can also cut the entire clump to the ground to rejuvenate it. This is truly a four season plant.

Combine any of these plants with coffeeberry, native irises, pink-flowering currant, toyon, berberis aquifolium, snowberry, hummingbird sage or yerba buena to complete your woodland garden and keep your oaks happy too.


What to plant under native oaks

Wester Sword FernVisited a site yesterday under dozens of huge native oaks. The clients wants to plant a little landscaping here and there to enhance her property but not endanger her oaks. Naturally both deer and gophers abound. The deer trail goes right below her deck. I was able to give her some information about planting near oaks and will develop a plan for her installer to follow. There are several plants like mahonia ( now berberis ) that would require little water after becoming established and also I am considering ceanothus ‘Centennial’ for an area below the flagstone landing. I’ll add more to this post as I develop the planting plan for this beautiful property. 


Coast Redwood region

Mimulus in Henry Cowell state park

This May I hiked the trail in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton, Ca. I usually hike the trails from the San Lorenzo river side of the park off Hwy 9 but this time I entered from the chaparral side on Graham Hill. I was in search of the Western azalea that I heard grew along the trail.  I am planning to use the photos in my upcoming book : ‘The Mountain Gardener: 21 Tips for Successful Gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  During the first half of the day I didn’t come across any azaleas. After taking a break at the river and painting a watercolor, my friend Evan and I started back. It was on the return hike up the trail that I started to see the bright green leaves of hundreds of azalea plants. Only a few in the sun were flowering which is how I missed them on the way down. Now that I know where they are you can be sure I’ll be at that spot next spring to see the display. Hopefully, it will be a wetter winter and more of them will be flowering.

Rana Creek

Sisyrincium bellumRecently I had the opportunity to tour Rana Creek Nursery in Carmel Valley that grows native plants for restoration projects, green roofs and bioponds. They designed and installed the green roof at the California Academy of Science Museum in Golden Gate park in San Francisco. Over 1 million native plants were grown for this roof scheduled to open Oct. 2008.