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Planning the transition to suburban native habitat
Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
February 27, 2002
There is a growing trend in America of homeowners returning their suburban yards to a more natural state. From the chaparral of San Diego to the forests of Maine, Gardeners and landscape professional are discovering the wisdom of aligning their personal habitats to be more in balance with their biological and climatic environments. Not as daunting as it may seem, there are still a few questions for those interested in making the transition. Before going native, a little clarity of purpose will make things go much smoother, helping to make the experience both rewarding and finance friendly.
The initial step on the path to a native yardscape is to understand that a complete departure from the retail concept of landscaping is needed to properly carry out this endeavor. First a little research is in order. For the most part those of us living in Coastal San Diego County, are doing so on what was once vibrant, and richly diverse, coastal sage scrub or riparian communities. This means reliance on turf and exotic plant species is no longer possible. Once that reality has sunk in, and a friend has peeled your from the ceiling, it's time to get down to planning you commitment to ecological sustainability.
To begin the design process takes a few nature walks to familiarize yourself with the plant communities you will be reintroducing to your suburban habitat. Indian Head Canyon in Encinitas is an ideal location for this nature walk. One needs only ignore the eucalyptus trees where the riparian habitat use to be, and you'll get an idea what this entire region once looked like before east coast natives started importing thirsty species from around the world. The Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve, near Harmony Grove is another good example of the Coastal Sage community, as is Los Penisquitos Canyon Preserve and the majority of Camp Pendleton.
As you explore these native communities notice where they are situated, and if they share similar conditions with the yardscape you are planning to transform. coastal live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), cottonwoods (Populus trichocarpa), and sycamores (Plantus racemosa) are all trees indigenous to the area, yet may not be suited to the constraints some yards may have. It also helps to bring a camera while doing field research. The pictures can then be used to identify plants, and aid in the recreation of a balanced biotic community.
By this time you should be at the point where you are able to answer the five usual questions. Each of these questions is important if the process is to be successful and relatively stress free. And, as is everything in nature, these questions are intrinsically linked. The order in which you answer them is unimportant, although I suggest you answer the economic one first. With that in mind, here are the questions that will serve as your guide to suburban restoration.
What's your budget?
Making the transition to indigenous landscaping will not be done on the cheap. Because few nurseries sell California natives they are considered specialty plants and come at a greater cost. If money is not an issue there are professional landscape companies that can do the work for you which is a plus if you are hoping for a fast transition. If non-native trees are present they will need to be removed, and that may mean hiring a tree service, or at least a day laborer. Thankfully the maintenance of a native yardscape is minimal, requiring little water, and no synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, this will save you money in the long run.
In coastal San Diego County there are three distinct native communities. Coastal sage scrub is by far the most prevalent, and paradoxically the most endangered. Most homes in the area are sitting on land that used to support coastal sage scrub, so sage scrub would be the ideal choice for an easy conversion to natives. Riparian habitat is a little trickier as it requires more water, but this to can easily be achieved with terra forming to help with water retention. If you live within the coastal strand, your plant pallet will need to include native species that are suited to saltier conditions such as Sand Verbena(Abronia spp.), Low Saltbushes (Atriplex spp.), Rye Grass (Elymus mollis), and Coastal Sagewort (Artemisia pycnocephala).
Who will do the work?
Going native is ideal for those who like to get their hands dirty. By doing the work yourself, not only will save money, you will also develop a working knowledge of your suburban habitat. Other than removing non-native trees and digging swales and or berms, creating a native landscaping is not labor intensive. With a few friends pitching in, replacing your existing landscaping can be done over two weekends. Pizza and beer should be incentive enough. Again, if money is not an issue, professional native landscapers are just a phone call away.
Our conversion to natives has been a slow process, what with magnolias and eucalyptus trees to remove, lawns to eradicate and berms to build. Nearing the end of this five year process, what we have is an establish native yardscape mixed with a few non-natives whose days are numbered. If short term esthetics is not an issue I suggest the clear cut method of removing all non-natives in one fell swoop. After the canvas has been cleared, one gallon native specimens can be put in to place, and then allowed to do their thing with very little fuss.
There are many reasons why suburban homeowners should convert their yards to native landscaping; water conservation, habitat restoration, environmental economics, and health are but four. Luckily, the trend to go native is picking up momentum so finding plant stock while not easy, is easier now that Quail Botanical gardens are offering natives for sell and Las Palitas Nursery has set up shop has set up shop in North County.
Those interested in going native can begin the process at laspalitas.com. I say this because they have been guiding me through the process for some time now, and you should see my yard. Want a tour? Email me, as I am always delighted to spread the green gospel.