By T. Eric Nightingale, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
When it comes to making decisions about new plants for your garden, consider combinations of the following types: California natives, plants that aid pollinating insects and plants that attract beneficial insects.
Including native plants in our gardens should be standard practice in California. We are lucky enough to have a wider variety of ecosystems, and a more diverse range of native plants, than any other state.
California's beauty is something to be preserved and nurtured, which we can do through gardening with natives. When you add native plants to your garden you help not only yourself (they are attractive and easy to manage), but the entire local ecosystem.
Birds and other wildlife have evolved in conjunction with certain plants; they require these plants for food and shelter. Many of the popular non-native plants don't fulfill these functions.
Stepping away from the familiar classics can be difficult. Many people's image of the "ideal garden" includes plants brought here from other continents. Hydrangeas come from Asia; lavender is native to Europe. Even the locally popular agapanthus hails from South Africa.
While working in a nursery, I once had a South African customer erupt into laughter. "That is a weed!” he exclaimed, pointing to the agapanthus. “It is despised where I come from." Obviously, there is room for interpretation in what defines an ideal garden.
If you are a novice native-plant gardener, I suggest starting with one of my favorites: monkeyflower. These plants bloom throughout the spring and summer and are fairly low maintenance. The most common bloom colors are yellow, orange and red, but pink and purple can be found as well. Interestingly, there are both drought-tolerant monkeyflowers (Diplacus spp.) and water-loving ones (Mimulus spp). Both types attract pollinators but different ones. Bees seem to prefer monkeyflowers with pink blossoms; hummingbirds prefer red-flowered varieties.
Also consider California gooseberries and currents (Ribes spp.). These fall-blooming shrubs produce unique flowers that hummingbirds frequent and berries that birds enjoy. Gooseberries have thorns while currants do not. The fruit is edible but can often be bitter. The best-tasting varieties are Ribes aureum and Ribes rubrum. Aesthetically speaking, my personal favorite is Ribes speciosum, or fuchsia-flowering gooseberry. The red hanging flowers give the shrub a colorful fringed look, a unique and eye-catching addition to any garden.
One California native that helps both pollinating and beneficial insects is milkweed. Our Napa-native varieties are showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) and narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias fasciculation). You may know that monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed. Compounds in the milkweed help to feed and protect the caterpillars after they hatch.
Urban development has destroyed much of the native landscape, causing monarch populations to decline dramatically. Planting milkweed will benefit these beloved insects. What's more, milkweed flowers produce a nutritious nectar that honeybees collect, improving their health and productivity. In addition, many beneficial insects are attracted to Asclepias.
Yes, there are good bugs in your garden. The most recognizable are lady beetles, but lacewings, syrphid flies and parasitic wasps also do good work. And spiders are among the most helpful denizens of your garden. One spider can eat around two thousand insects in a year. Just think about how much free extermination work you are getting from all those arachnids. Next time you see a spider, or any unknown insect for that matter, think before you squish it. It may be a new friend.
If you are looking for more information on native plants, plan to attend the Master Gardener workshop on Sept 23 (details below). You can also find beautiful natives for your garden at the upcoming California Native Plant Society Sale on October 7 and October 8 at Skyline Park in Napa.
Workshop: UC Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a guided walk and talk on “Pollinators, Native Plants and Beneficials” on Saturday, September 23, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the Martha Walker Garden at Skyline Park in Napa. Any discussion of pollinators would not be complete without some remarks on the bounty of beneficial insects found in everyone's garden. Come see if you can recognize some pollinators and beneficial insects. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in form (cash or check only)
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.