By T. Eric Nightingale, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
Fall is a wonderful time to be in the garden. The cooler air is reinvigorating after the long hot days of summer. Fall is also a perfect time to plant many California natives. Many have been dormant during the summer and will soon awaken and stretch their roots within the soil. These plants will grow through the wet days of winter, preparing to bloom brightly and beautifully in spring.
The soil itself seems to approve of fall planting. Once seemingly made of stone, the clay-heavy soils in our gardens will soon become manageable once again.
It is well known that native plants are hardy, often drought-tolerant options for our gardens. When considering California natives, it can be helpful to look at a more refined list of Napa Valley natives. We live in a large and ecologically diverse state, so focusing on local flora can make your gardening more successful. Napa Valley native plants include many hardy and beautiful choices, enough to provide for almost any garden need.
As winter approaches, many gardens lose much of their color. A great plant for color from summer through fall is California fuchsia (Epilobium canum). Its silver-green foliage provides an excellent backdrop for the bright orange-red flowers. It is a low shrub, sometimes prostrate, so it is ideal for bordering a walkway. California fuchsia spreads via seed and rhizomes, so you may end up with a splash of color where you hadn't planned it.
All through the winter we will be treated to the pink and white blooms of Stanford's manzanita (Arctostaphylos stanfordiana). This manzanita can be maintained as a shrub but will reach seven feet tall if allowed. Manzanita will not only add winter color to your garden but can also shade more delicate plants during the hot summer. Manzanita also provides berries and shelter for native wildlife. Look for Stanford's manzanita the next time you are out in the woodlands of Napa Valley and the surrounding area.
If you are looking for a vining plant, look no further than Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia californica). Its unique blooms are white with red stripes and shaped like curved bells. Dutchman's pipe is a host plant for the larva of the pipevine swallowtail, a vibrantly colored yellow and blue butterfly. Wasps also like the plant, however, and will be drawn to the fruits of the seed pods. To foil them, remove the pods before they open or cover the plant with netting until you can collect the seeds. Due to the odd shape of the flowers, Dutchman's pipewas once thought to be carnivorous. This notion has since been disproven, however.
For a low-maintenance, drought-tolerant, worry-free groundcover, try purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra). It is an unassuming yet amazing plant. This perennial grass grows readily in many types of soil, including the clay soils of Napa Valley. The roots can grow 20 feet deep, giving it incredible drought-tolerance. Purple needlegrassworks well with other native plants, but also helps to block and suppress invasive weeds. In 2004 it was designated the official State Grass of California!
My favorite native tree is the California buckeye (Aesculus californica). It grows large and sturdy, with wide, attractive leaves that provide much-needed summer shade. The blooms this tree produces are truly incredible: many small, cream-colored flowers grouped into long, impressive cones. This show will often last through spring and summer, until the tree drops its leaves as part of its summer dormancy. Toward the end of summer, large nut-like fruits will appear. While they somewhat resemble chestnuts, these fruits are inedible.
These are just a few options of the many native plants you can add to your garden. There are many helpful resources available to those new to natives. Calflora (www.calflora.org) is a website that allows you to search for plants based on criteria such as shape, native ecosystem and lifespan. The Napa Chapter of the California Native Plant Society maintains a list of native- plant gardens and nurseries (www.napavalleycnps.org).
I heartily encourage you to investigate the possibilities of native plants. By including them in your garden you not only benefit yourself, but also the many creatures that make up our local ecosystem.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will hold a workshop on “Toxic and Carnivorous Plants” on Saturday, October 27, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at the University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Foxglove. Lily-of-the-valley. Wisteria. These common plants and many others are toxiix. Who knew? Sundew. Venus flytrap. Pitcher plant. Carnivorous, or so we've heard. Join the UC Master Gardeners and explore the fascinating properties that plants have to protect themselves and survive in inhospitable places.Online registration (credit card only);Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.