My California Native Plants Story: Mike Gonzales

I became a member of CNPS-San Diego Chapter over 28 years ago, for one reason alone–to drive my Nissan pickup truck to the annual Fall Plant Sale at Balboa Park and load it up with as many native plants as I could stuff into the bed, and then spend the next few weekends plugging up dead patches of ice plant which was the ONLY vegetation on the slopes in the front and rear yards of our first home purchased in 1992. Having been a CNPS member for only 1-2 years before my wife and I bought our home, I gained a swift appreciation for the many benefits of “native-scapes” and was eager to pull out all this dreaded stuff. “Hold your horses”, my wife said, explaining she didn’t want our yards becoming eyesores of bare dirt turning into unsightly mud pits come rainy season, also resulting in erosion and chocolate stormwater runoff. So, the plan became–fill in small patches of ice plant as it dies off–which I did for years until the final patch. Subsequently different approaches emerged with respect to my journey of “native plant conversion,” eventually morphing into a combination of experimentation and learning how to water my plants through accrued patience borne from laziness.

House covered in ice plant in 1992

Experimentation–CNPS Provides Better Tools to Minimize Costs. This is the part of the story where “experimentation” soon gave way to a forced practice of “patience.” My wife constantly reminds me–with the amount of money lost in “gallons of mortality” over the many years I’ve bought plants from CNPS, species I had no business planting in the first place–we probably could have purchased another home by now! Problem was, even though I did my homework and knew what typically works and what doesn’t, I’d end up buying plants that I wanted so badly to survive in my yard–but alas, wishful thinking! Now that there are so many more wonderful web resources these days, including Calscape, Calflora, Moosa Creek and Tree of Life nurseries, and so on, CNPS has done a wonderful job making such resources more reachable to us, providing additional guidance than ever before to help us with appropriate plant selections, as well as watering and maintenance advice.

About Watering Native Plants. I read a comment once that really caught my attention: “Killing half your plants by August isn't a great sell for having a native garden.” This comment really gets at the heart of the following questions:

  • How long or how much should I water my “natives,” especially some of the most commonly-planted species?
  • How do soil types and microclimates dictate appropriate watering regimes where I live?
  • Are there helpful irrigation strategies for this challenging weather?
  • How do I know my plants are “established,” cutting their ties to regular irrigation?
  • Can we really “plant for no irrigation”?

I’d like to throw my hat in the ring about a very basic concept on this topic, something I’ve learned from Greg Rubin and others over the years, but really had no meaningful contribution–until I saw it transpire over time in my own yard! The answer for me:

Laziness = Patience. One of the first problems I started to figure out early on was how terrible our soil was–basically little to no nutrient loading or mycorrhizal health due to years and years of being smothered by ice plant. So, I began looking into ideas on amending the soil, only to discover there were really no good options here because the root systems of native plants don’t respond favorably to the nitrogen spikes from soil amendments, among other negative soil-flora interactions. Much of the mortality suffered by my native plantings I believe was due to the poor soil conditions. Choosing not to use soil amendments, I instead focused on using good quality organic mulch such as shredded redwood bark–due to its fibrous nature, this stuff could densify with minimal irrigation allowing the mulch to stick better onto my slopes and acting like a sponge to provide moisture evenly to the fine roots that grow close to the ground surface and further away from the crown. In addition, it was slow to decompose providing great erosion and stormwater runoff control.

Next, I turned to a novel solution–do what I do best–nothing–be lazy! What transpired, by no deliberate means of my own, was this: After establishing a decent patchwork of foundation plants, as Greg Rubin refers to them, consisting of a stratified array of hardy, robust and resilient groundcovers (e.g., Yankee Pt. Ceanothus, CA Fuchsia, Creeping Sage, Chamise-the groundcover variety) and sub-shrubs (e.g., CA Buckwheat, Cleveland Sage, White Sage, Catalina Snapdragon, Purple Nightshade, Western Redbud), I sat back and watched, as the shrub canopies eventually closed on one another tightening up the interstitial spaces between them, the leaf litter eventually formed a natural duff negating the need for any further mulching, and this duff layer is injecting beneficial nutrients back into the underling soils energizing the “mycorrhizal soup” which is critical for a healthy stratum. One of the joyful signs for me that this is actually happening is the proliferation of bright green mosses and lichens forming under the canopies.

Oh, and have I mentioned the influx of pollinators?

Mike, a Natural Resources Project Manager, will be a panelist at our upcoming Fall Workshop, "Create a Native Garden: Ready-Set-Go!" on Saturday, September 8.