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In the Garden

Going native



HAVE TO CONFESS THAT WHEN I PLANTED MY GARDEN in Eureka a year-and-a-half ago, I gave little thought to native plants. The kinds of plants that topped my list at the time were lavender and rosemary, daisies and cosmos, sunflowers and daffodils. I was looking for plants that would provide bright bursts of color and plenty of cut flowers. The closest I came to planting a native was when I chose a couple of salvia that are native to Mexico, and, frankly, those just don't count as a native around here.

Shortly after I'd gotten all these plants settled in their new home, I took a walk along some dunes up north. It was a chilly, grey February day. A salty mist hung over the dunes, and I could hardly see the ocean unless I walked right up to it. After a while I began to notice the plants along the trail.Douglas iris

Native dunegrass ran in a wide expanse along the dunes. The silvery leaves of beach bursage and sand verbena stretched out across the sand, and behind me, closer to the forest, I could pick out some native shrubs and trees. Pacific wax myrtle was familiar to me; I knew bird lovers who planted it because its purple berries attracted birds in the fall. I also saw Pacific madrone, easy to recognize for its smooth, reddish trunk that sheds bark. And, of course, there were a few non-natives: yellow bush lupine, which is native to other parts of California but has become invasive on our dunes, and the European beachgrass that was introduced about a 100 years ago.

Douglas Iris

Even with those exotic plants in the mix, I realized, as I looked around me, that the plant community on the dunes looked right, somehow. It was a little wild and undomesticated, like the rugged coast itself. The plants hunkered low to the dunes and looked as if they could withstand all the wind and salt spray that the Pacific Ocean could hurl at them.

I thought about my own garden at home: the young lavender plants, the daisy seedlings, the roses and azaleas I'd inherited from the former owners of the house. Everything about my garden seemed frilly and overdressed, like Blanche DuBois bringing her filmy gowns and fox stoles to the Kowalski's flat along the streetcar tracks. It was enough to make me want to rush home, rip everything out and start over again.

By the time I got home, the urge had passed. I guess I wasn't quite ready to give up my old favorites. Some habits die hard. But this fall I'm digging new perennial borders in the backyard, and I intend to do my plant shopping at the North Coast Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) Autumn Plant Sale this weekend.

There are plenty of reasons to grow native plants. They're well-adapted to local soils and actually prefer it if you don't fertilize them. They don't require much water once established, and they're practically immune to pest infestations. Many native plants attract birds and butterflies and act as host plants to a wide range of beneficial insects. And with the rainy season just around the corner, now is the perfect time to get some perennials in the ground.

The North Coast CNPS holds two plant sales each year: one in spring to coincide with the Annual Spring Wildflower Show, and one in fall -- this weekend -- at the same time as the North Country Fair. This year over 25 volunteers have grown plants for the sale, and many of them will be on hand to answer questions about the plants and give advice. They'll also have a booth on the Arcata Plaza over the weekend, during the North Country Fair, to spread the California Poppiesword about native plants.

Proceeds from the plant sale help the North Coast Chapter to operate all year long. Volunteers hold workshops and field walks, track the rarity status of local plants and support the nonprofit in its efforts to act as a watchdog group and protect sensitive habitats.

California Poppies

I asked plant sale organizer Jen Kalt for a preview of the plants that will be for sale this year. "Red flowering currant is always popular," she told me. "It's a fast-growing shrub, it blooms early, and the hummingbirds love it. We'll have lots of those. And Douglas iris -- that's one of our most popular natives. And there will be all kinds of trees -- alder, Douglas fir, spruce and madrone.

"With so many volunteers growing plants, anything could turn up," she said. "We have a lot of regulars who come every year and snatch up anything we've never sold before. It's best to get there on Saturday morning. Some plants will definitely go fast."


The Autumn Plant Sale will be held Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 21 and 22, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Pacific Union School on 3001 Janes Road, Arcata. While you're at the school, be sure and visit the Native Plant Arboretum, where you can see mature specimens of many of the plants for sale. For more information about the plant sale or about the North Coast Chapter of the CNPS, visit its website at


E-mail garden-related announcements, gossip, rumors and innuendo to Amy Stewart.


 September Checklist

  • Now is the time to plant perennials. Look for good deals at plant sales and farmer's markets; plants in 4-inch pots are an especially good bargain and catch up in size quickly.
  • Once the rainy season begins, consider setting aside an area of your yard for native wildflowers like clarkia, poppy and blue flax. Clear the area of weeds, scatter wildflower seeds and rake them in gently to protect them from birds.
  • When it comes to choosing bulbs, size does matter. Select large bulbs, and avoid those with bruises, cuts or mold.
  • Try an all-natural copper soap, as opposed to chemical fungicides, to eliminate blackspot and powdery mildew.
  • As the days get shorter, cut back on the amount of time you spend watering your lawn. Ten to 20 minutes, twice a week, is often sufficient for coastal gardeners.
  • Remember those spring vegetable crops? Bring them back for an encore in the fall. Lettuce, peas, broccoli and root crops like beets and turnips can be ready for harvest at Thanksgiving if you plant them now.


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