By Sondra Boddy, CNPS-San Diego Garden Native Committee member
“Holy cow,” I thought, “there’s a bobcat in my backyard!” I watched as she emerged stealthily from the dense foliage, deftly clamped her jaws around an unwitting Mourning Dove, then trotted off into the wildlands with her limp prize. The thrill of seeing this elusive animal stalking prey on our property in broad daylight made the months of hard work all seem worth it.
Promoting biodiversity, re-creating wildlife habitat and re-connecting with nature were primary motivations for planting California natives on our 1+ acre property up in the hills west of Lake Hodges. To our delight, it was working. Admittedly, conserving water was a key driver for us as well. Faced with a $430 water bill in June 2013 after our first month in the house, we knew that the expansive lawn and overgrown non-native vegetation had to go.
We also knew that we had a unique opportunity – indeed, we felt a special responsibility – to harmonize our landscape with the natural landscape surrounding us. Ensconced in an evergreen canyon straddling Coastal Sage Scrub and Chaparral plant communities, our property called for a new approach. So began our journey with California natives.
We tackled one section at a time. Taking our cue from the wildlands, we planted Baccharis, Ceanothus, Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia), Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.), Sugarbush (Rhus ovata) and Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) on a large, steep slope. These evergreen shrubs offered the triple benefit of screening a road, preventing erosion and establishing the crucial “backbone” for our design. We filled in with smaller shrubs and perennials like Buckwheats (Eriogonum spp.), Mallows (the family Malvaceae) and Sages (Salvia spp.).
To cover large areas, we direct-sowed seeds for Brittlebrush (Encelia farinosa), Sagebrush (Artemisia californica), San Diego Sunflower (Bahiopsis laciniata) and many, many wildflowers. We created a desert garden in a sunny exposed area and a woodland garden in a shady sheltered area. In short, we got inspired! By the spring of 2016, we had over 1,500 plants representing over 250 species of California natives and we had installed 16 irrigation zones with Hunter MP rotors and a controller programmable from Bob’s mobile phone. Our highest water bill this summer was $212.
We ended up doing most of the work ourselves. We learned as much as we could as fast as we could about selection, care and maintenance of native plants. Books, websites, nurseries, classes, lectures and workshops were all great sources of information. At times it seemed overwhelming, but we approached the task with a spirit of discovery, experimentation and dogged determination. Luckily we had a hot tub to soak in at the end of long days scrambling up and down slopes, digging and filling holes!
Although we have made our share of rookie mistakes, we believe that designing and installing our own garden has given us a deeper connection with the plants. We remember most of their names and, in many cases, we remember where they came from and how tiny they were when we brought them home. I started keeping a journal so we could remember when we put them in the ground, and we briefly mourn when the hole we dug becomes a grave. On the whole, though, we marvel at the resilience, the vigor and the sheer beauty of these plants.
At first, our goal was to fix our yard; now, it fixes us. We love coming home and seeing the textures, colors, and emerging shapes of the plants. The local fauna seems to like them as well. We have thrilled at the sight of 47 species of birds and countless native bees, butterflies, moths, lizards, toads, rabbits, squirrels, coyotes and other mammals on our property. Oh ... and a bobcat.