Greener Gardens

By Valerie Lemke

October 3, 2008 5 min read

GREENER GARDENS

Native plants are the key to eco-conscious planting

Valerie Lemke

Creators News Service

You've moved into a new home. Whether the garden is filled with struggling plants, lush exotics or surrounded by what seems like acres of dirt, you want to make it a little "greener."

Susan Gottlieb had the same idea. She became a green gardener in 1989 -- long before the earth-friendly movement had a name.

"I wanted to do a drought-tolerant garden and I wanted to attract native birds and butterflies," said the 20-year resident of Beverly Hills, an upscale community in the heart of Los Angeles.

Originally from the East Coast, Gottlieb did her research and was determined to put in local California plants. The result was a simple yet blooming garden.

"Native plants are easy to deal with," she said. "They don't require insecticides, don't need fertilizers, have deep roots and they are beautiful. Just don't over water them."

With her garden, she got the animals that she wanted. "The majority of insects evolve to survive on species that are native," Gottlieb said. "The birds live on the insects. You won't see a lot of birds and butterflies without native plants."

She believes there are no "bad" plants -- just plants that crowd out others if not in their natural environment. When she started, her first action was to remove the vegetation on the property that wasn't from the area. Gottlieb then planted three California ceanothuses, a local lilac.

Today her garden boasts 150 species, including manzanitas, California black walnut trees, native irises, poppies and penstemons. Numerous varieties of sage, quail bush, coyote brush and deer grass also abound.

Along with the birds and butterflies, coyotes, bobcats and deer frequent the property. Quail, Cooper's hawks, hooded orioles, Bewick's wrens, black phoebes and California towhees are a few of the feathered friends who visit the garden -- and sometimes set up their nests.

"Almost every day there's something wonderful in the yard," she said.

Certified as a Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation, the mature California native garden is still a work in progress. Currently, Gottlieb is concentrating on a steep, one-acre hillside in back of her home where she is developing a bluebird trail -- a winding path with custom birdhouses on posts along the way. The birds have yet to arrive, but she is patient.

If Gottlieb's two-decade labor of love appears daunting, she offered tips for getting started on your own earth-friendly garden.

"Start slow," she said. "Get advice from regional resource books or local nurseries. Most states have native plant societies -- a whole list will come up if you Google them.

"Size is not the criteria. Your yard can be four feet square. If you put in native plants that attract insects, birds and bees, the world will be a better place."

Paul James, whose show "Gardening by the Yard" appears weekly on Home Garden TV, echoes Gottlieb's eco-consciousness and has a few axioms of his own.

"First and foremost, forego use of all synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. There are organic equivalents available for any and every pest and disease," he said. "Use them and you'll begin to see beneficial insects, birds and other wildlife that will help keep everything in balance."

The life of any garden, of course, is where you plant it. "To get started, focus on developing healthy soil," James advised. "You do this through the use of compost which you buy or you make yourself.

"Enriching soil will do more for helping you to 'get green' than any other thing. Plants are like people -- when our immune system is compromised, we are open to disease. So are plants."

James also advised planting drought-tolerant plants and following proper watering practices, including collecting rainwater, using gray water and mulching to conserve moisture.

And don't be timid about seeking advice. "Contact your local master gardeners' organization, a nursery or chat with neighbors about your plant palette," he said. This is especially important for people who are new to a region.

Get rid of plants that are disease prone and find plants that are well adapted to your area. "Fungal diseases can be more pronounced in areas with cold and wet springs and hot and humid summers, for example," he said. "I had a gardener asking what he could do about an apple tree that he's sprayed for mildew for eight years. I told him to get rid of the tree."

James practices the tenets he preaches. "I have been gardening for 30 years without synthetic chemicals and pesticides and I am proud to show my yard on my program," he said.

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