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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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Sep 30

Designing with Native Plants

Posted on September 30, 2016 at 10:41 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

A friend called a week ago seeking ideas for converting his lawn-covered front yard into a habitat garden that would attract beneficial insects and birds to his home. His timing is perfect since the Marin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) is hosting their annual fall plant sale on Saturday, October 15. This is a great opportunity for him to explore their large selection of native plants for just the right type of vegetation to meet his needs.

However, achieving a well-balanced and successful landscape requires more than purchasing an assortment of plants and plopping them haphazardly into the ground. First, consider exposure. Will the plant survive hot direct sun or does it require shade? Second, what is the condition of the soil, and will it support the plant's survival? Is the ground hardpan? Will it require drainage or amendments? 

The scale of the home and garden space is another important factor to consider, especially when choosing trees. For example, a two-story home would better balance a tree that can grow 40 to 50 feet tall. A single-story home would benefit by sporting a tree that grows no more than 25 feet tall. A Sequoia sempervirens (California redwood) would be a poor choice for a tiny landscaped area, even though it is indigenous to our area. On the other hand, Cercis occidentalis (redbud) would be a perfect fit in a small yard—especially if the winter sun would be welcome in the home. 

This brings up another point: Whether a tree is evergreen or deciduous must be considered. Evergreens are great for blocking sunlight or undesirable views year round, whereas deciduous trees provide shade in the summer and allow the sun to warm the house during winter months.

Why such a focus on trees? They are the "bones" of the garden. They support the landscape structure. And they take a very long time to grow to establish that support. Their placement can make or break the look and function you are attempting to achieve. Trees planted close to pavement could wreak havoc on hardscapes if the roots are shallow. Or spreading branches could impede passage to the front door if the tree grows too wide for the area. Tree removal is an expensive and painful loss of time, so it's important to carefully consider type and placement before planting.

When choosing perennials and shrubs, follow the same thought process as for trees. How big will the plants get? Will they block windows? Are they placed far enough apart to allow space to grow without crowding? Will the plant choices provide color or interest throughout the year? Can the same flower colors or plant varieties be carried throughout the garden to tie the landscape cohesively together? And even though we are talking about native plants, remember that native plants are not all water-conserving or xeric. Some of these plants are native to wetlands. Plan hydrozones accordingly to group plants with similar watering needs together. 

Will you attend the Marin County CNPS annual sale? If so, are you prepared with a plan or design? Given adequate time, I think my friend will be ready to shop.


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