Going Native: A California Native Landscape Story

  • Posted on 22 October 2019
  • By C. Robin Smith
Environmental Gadgetry?
Environmentalism is trendy these days. The topic is even so politically divisive, sensible conversations can elude us. 
Reaching for moderation and rationality, I think environmental issues are at the heart of human progress and survival. Yet I notice most people practice sustainability through mechanical gadgets rather than thinking about Nature. 
Do we live in a culture of “nature deficit disorder?” Are we simply out of touch with nature – especially at the local level?
Electric cars, low flow toilets and solar panels are good things.  Big, green energy is on the rise. But, will all the gadgetry really correct the emerging trouble now seen in global weather patterns? I hardly hear anyone talking about prioritizing Nature or considering their own backyards, when thinking about climate irregularities or species loss.  It’s as though we turn to man-made products for everything.
In my hometown of Diamond Bar, electric car drivers pull out of driveways surrounded by lawn and other water-thirsty, exotic plants. Hillside developments convert historic native woodland to “green,” gated luxury housing.   
Is there a disconnection here? I mean, WHAT are we humans doing to preserve quality of life, which actually turns out to be truly, authentically sustainable?
A powerful answer confronted me, which I did not recognize at first.
Natures’ Worth?
The answer was: a tree. But it was no ordinary tree.
Actually it was a forest of natural oak trees, growing on my backyard hillside, along with a canyon of sages and chaparral. We live on the “urban wildland interface.” For decades, I took for granted, the natural landscape growing on the slope; native trees and plants growing there, without any human help. Around the house, we had conventional, ornamental suburban landscaping. Visiting wildlife routinely foraged in the oaks. We enjoyed the beauty yet never thought more of it until we were jolted to attention when a neighboring development project proposed to remove the “wild edge,” for an infinity swim pool. Threat of loss awakened my appreciation for life in the trees; I began to question their intrinsic meaning and worth.
Trees of Life
Diamond Bar is set within steep and soft, rolling Puente hills and valleys in the eastern San Gabriel Valley, nestled in large patches of iconic, California natural landscape. A fifteen square mile community, descended from a historic cattle ranch. But before the 1790’s Spanish land grant days, an indigenous people, called the Kizh (pronounced “keech”, meaning willow houses) lived in the California wildlands. Oak trees were sacred to the Kizh, revered as the “tree of life,” and the center of Kizh life.  Rich, associated plant communities provided food, medicine, tools, shelter and spiritual communion to the ancient people. Before European settlers arrived, the Kizh lived in harmony with Nature’s provisions, as devoted earth stewards.To day, even though Diamond Bar is nearly built-out, enough wildland persists, to hold unique opportunity as an urban oasis; to educate and preserve the unique, southern Californian landscape ecology.
Artificial Life Support vs. Going Native
As most suburbanites, I struggled with the decorative landscaping in my yard. Heavy water usage, constant weeding and replacement of dead ornamental plants, all dependent on artificial life support (automated irrigation, fertilizer, pesticide) was a frustrating burden. The annual yard maintenance tab was over $3,000.  Eventually, questions of, “so, what grew here before modern developments arrived? And, What’s so special about oak trees and sagebrush?,” swirled in my mind. I began tracing California natural communities and local landscape history. What would happen if I worked WITH Nature on my own property, instead of using ice plant, ivy and the dangerous chemicals, which kept them alive?  I went cold turkey and turned-off the sprinklers.
Thanks to many free, online resources in the California Native plant movement, the puzzle pieces came together. I asked questions and visited California botanic nurseries to discover more. I read Dr. Douglas Tallamy’s enlightening book “Bringing Nature Home.” It seemed like I was on a path to learning about life, by going Native.
The Natural System
Science now understands a bigger picture: native landscapes, (no matter where they are), are wired to support life best, in each of their particular areas. Soil, trees, plants, insects, birds, mammals and climates are dynamic, interdependent elements, programmed to function in a local life-cycle, or “ecosystem.”  It’s biology really. The quality of local ecosystem function has cumulative impacts locally, and can have impacts abroad.
One example of an impact, contributing to a natural climate solution, resides in the function of mature oak trees. California’s endemic oak woodland, provides significant “carbon sequestration.” Just one, mature oak tree takes 55,000 lbs of carbon out of the air each year! One mature oak supports over 1,500 species. The oak is a “keystone” species, meaning its ecological function is primary, being a complete ecosystem, all by itself. No wonder oaks are considered a “tree of life.”
California Natives Are Special
California native tree and plant communities have co-evolved for thousands of years in our state’s climate patterns of drought, morning fog curtain, hot, dry winds and seasonal wildfire. Native plant communities are equipped to be “fire ready,” able to resist and rebound from wildfire. 
California is a recognized biodiversity hotspot, one of thirty six in the world; with more than 6,500 native plant species, 40 percent of which are endemic to the state—meaning they occur naturally nowhere else on Earth. In fact, California has more native and endemic species than any other state in the United States.
Natives grow from Fall to late Spring, sleep in the Summer heat, to survive California drought seasons. The state’s natural water-scarcity is no problem to native vegetation. Ornamental, drought tolerant plants cannot match the resilience of native trees and plants.
Seeds of Change, Nature Needs Space
In my particular case, once I stopped watering and removed the invasive, African ice plant from my yard, native sages from over the slope returned! The decades old seed bank revived and gave me a cue. I converted the formerly ornamental landscape, to its native pallet; restoring the land to what it was before the developer cleared a pad for our house in 1986. Dozens of different plants, assigned by Nature, thrive in coastal sage scrub and oak/walnut woodland “alliances.” Birds, butterflies, pollinators busily work the trees and shrubs – fill my garden with life. Life that spans the neighborhood and beyond, creating a patch of healthy ecosystem, supporting wildlife circulation to larger, natural open spaces, like city trails and parks. Nature needs space to thrive.
A Patchwork of Distributed Habitats
In the United States, 55% of our land is devoted to urban and suburban uses. Imagine what could happen if half of Los Angeles county neighborhoods would restore their yards to California natives. Or city parks and greenbelts, installing natural “corridors.” One parcel as one patch of ecosystem, all connecting to create a larger patchwork of distributed, functioning habitats. Human and wildlife ecosystem services would increase; Nature would be restored, one parcel or garden at a time.
Nature is Always Right
My yard is now a certified National Wildlife Habitat backyard. It uses no scheduled irrigation, no fertilizer, no pesticide. Property water usage is down to 10%, with occasional hose water. The permeable, native watershed cools temperatures, captures rainfall, cleaning groundwater, the air and preventing water runoff and erosion. Fallen leaves, twigs, branches are mulched to nourish the soil or left to serve wildlife. No lawn is mowed; no leaves are blown. Birds keep insects in check and eat living plant seeds, which form naturally. Buying garden gadgets from stores has ceased. Maintenance is very minimal. Natives form an ecosystem. No gadgets needed.
Most of all, my relationship to Nature has been (surprisingly) reconnected. I live with Nature each day, in my own space. The beauty, fragrances, texture and wildlife activity are a source of peace, inspiration, comfort and healing. Nature is always right.
Bring Nature Home
Whether you have an acre on the wild edge or a balcony; whether you live in suburbia or  in a bustling city, gardening with native plants is a rewarding way to feel more connected to your own home. It brings the enjoyment of attracting and helping native wildlife, especially birds and other beneficial pollinators, that face extinction and have seen their habitats greatly diminished by human encroachment.
Californians should emulate natural communities, move beyond gadgets; support biodiversity, making consumer water and energy use plummet.Plant a California Native garden and Bring Nature Home!
Why grow native?
Wildlife habitat. Native plants attract and feed native birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators.
Drought tolerant. Many native plants save water and are naturally adapted to thrive in our ecosystem, climate and soil.
Native plants are beautiful! They’re rich in color, form, texture and aroma and create a striking look in any style of garden. Strategic planting can yield year-round blooms.
Your ecological cultural history. Native plants connect you to the ecology and rich cultural traditions of your region.
No fertilizer. Native plants require no fertilizers and are generally low maintenance.
Pest-resistance. Native plants are pest-resistant and require no pesticides.
California is a recognized biodiversity hotspot, with more than 6,500 native plant species, 40 percent of which are endemic to the state—meaning they occur naturally nowhere else on Earth. In fact, California has more native and endemic species than any other state in the United States.
--- Theodore Payne Foundation, Sun Valley, California
C. Robin Smith, October 2019, copyright  ©  Cynthia Robin Smith
Naturalist, Cal Native Gardener, Diamond Bar – Pomona Valley Sierra Club Task Force, Chair
Dr. Douglas Tallamy, “Bringing Nature Home”
Lisa Novick, Education Director, Theodore Payne Foundation 
Free Videos Youtube, search: Theodore Payne Foundation, California Native Plants
The Gottlieb Native Garden, Los Angeles
All photographs, by C. Robin Smith, unless otherwise noted
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Fantastic article!

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