Best tips from experienced CA native plant gardener Joan Bockman


See Joan's garden 'Mid Century Original' on the CNPS-SD Native Garden Tour this year April 14 & 15.

Sixteen years ago, Joan founded the Seaside Native Garden Tour in Oceanside. The Seaside Native Garden Tour is held annually on the second Sunday of April.

Joan, what are your 3 best tips for planting native plants?

  • I always start by telling people to take a hike. Literally. You need to find that place you love. For me it was Torrey Pines Reserve because my native San Diegan husband had no idea what was native. So we started hiking and learned about Coastal Sage Scrub. I've been planting that habitat ever since in coastal Oceanside. A great view is from the Coaster south of Sorrento Valley. You come into Rose Canyon and it is exactly the way San Diego mesas and the creek valley should be.
  • Dig a hole exactly the size of the pot. Fill it with water and let it drain before planting. While working with a group at the Buena Vista Audubon Nature Center, we had a debate about how much water to put in the planting hole. The best way to describe it was to have chocolate icing in the bottom of the hole but not chocolate pudding.
  • Plant stuff and see how it does. You are starting on a journey, not finishing a job. You will learn more and wonder why you did some things early on. I have never used fertilizer in old yards or forgotten places. Some of my coyote bush ground cover is pruned by cars running over it on a corner.

What are your 3 best tips for maintenance of native plants?

  • Sages and Buckwheats: Trim back by one-third early in spring when they are actively pushing out growth. The hardest thing is to trim it when it is finally starting to show some green!
  • Learn which plants you can take to the ground like Matilija Poppies, Mountain Mahogany or Encelia. Some of those you can do twice a year and some, every 5 years. 
  • Try to never touch manzanita or ceanothus (other than to control the argentine ants).

If you were talking to a first-time native gardener, what 3 foolproof plants would you recommend?
An easy way to plant is to just focus on Buckwheat, Ceanothus and Sage. You can find ground covers to tree sizes in just those 3 species and their cultivars. A long standing and popular cultivar is usually pretty foolproof (like Yankee Point Ceanothus or Dara's Choice Sage).
What 3 plants have you put in or seen in other people’s gardens that provide abundant habitat to attract beneficial pollinators, butterflies, birds and other creatures?

  • Saltbush (Atriplex lentiformis) is an amazing plant. It can get huge but it is so easy to care for. It can cascade down a slope with beautiful gray green color. When paired near a bright red (like a neighbor's bouganivillea, it is stunning). It looks flammable but is one of the better ones because it pulls salt out of the air or soil (not 100% sure on which). The leaves can taste slightly salty. The interior is a maze of sticks with no leaves. Whole flocks of birds disappear into it and are perfectly safe from cats and other hazards. Easy to grow, very low water, and I have seen it from the coast to Riverside on I-215.
  • Bladderpod (Peritoma arborea) is always full of yellow flowers and covered with bees. The seed pod maracas are great for dancing with little kids!
  • Nevin's Barberry (Berberis nevinii) is endangered but available in nurseries. The yellow flowers attract bees and other pollinators and then the resulting red berries are loved by birds. I have used the spiny leaved canes from this plant to keep neighborhood dogs and cats from destroying wildflowers along my walkway.

A favorite native gardening story or anecdote?
In my school gardens, explaining things to kids usually results in a great explanation for adults. They learn that after the dinosaurs, our current native plants evolved, and then waaaaay later the people came. This is why plants brought by people are not good for nature: 500 years is nothing. Kids really get that they are in the Insects' House. We talk about the difference between a spider in your bedroom (get rid of it!) and being a guest in the Insects' House in Nature. The word "eww" is never allowed and as one boy said, "You have to compliment the bug!" Once gardeners understand that they are growing insect habitat and not just plants, natives are clearly the right answer.

One of my favorite times was when I was at Laurel School explaining how plants drop their leaves and it creates a richer soil thanks to all those wonderful bugs eating the leaves. We were talking about how you shouldn't rake the leaves up and one little girl thought a minute and said "So, you just leaf it where it falls!" That phrase and "My goal is Worldwide Domination by Native Plants" are what I want to find on t-shirts and bumper stickers everywhere.
Years ago, when Joan and her husband moved into a house in Oceanside, she wanted the experience of living "here" and couldn't find "here" due to all the imported plants. Their first yard was transformed by landscape architect Kay Stewart. Their 3 boys loved finding lizards in their urban front yard. Their next house 3 blocks away had a bigger yard and the kids even voted for veggies where the play lawn was supposed to go. A proud moment was when their youngest son quoted her quoting native plant landscape contractor and author, Greg Rubin.