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Gardening with a Wild Heart: Restoring California's Native Landscapes at Home

Gardening with a Wild Heart: Restoring California's Native Landscapes at Home

by Judith Larner Lowry

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Judith Lowry's voice and experiences make a rich matrix for essays that include discussions of wildflower gardening, the ecology of native grasses, wildland seed-collecting, principles of natural design, and plant/animal interactions. This lyrical and articulate mix of the practical and the poetic combines personal story, wildland ecology, restoration gardening


Judith Lowry's voice and experiences make a rich matrix for essays that include discussions of wildflower gardening, the ecology of native grasses, wildland seed-collecting, principles of natural design, and plant/animal interactions. This lyrical and articulate mix of the practical and the poetic combines personal story, wildland ecology, restoration gardening practices, and native plant horticulture.

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University of California Press
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Gardening with a Wild Heart

Restoring California's Native Landscapes at Home

By Judith Larner Lowry


Copyright © 1999 Judith Larner Lowry
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93387-3


Gardening at the Seam

I wish so to live ever as to derive my satisfactions and inspirations from the commonest events, everyday phenomena, so that what my senses hourly perceive, my daily walk, the conversation of my neighbors, may inspire me, and I may dream of no heaven but that which lies about me. Henry Thoreau

Biodiversity has recently become a fashionable concept to promote, but should we try to enhance biodiversity just at the state and federal level and not at the county level or even in our back yards? Should we settle for small populations of species in distant parts of our state and nation, when with protection viable populations could exist as well in our own neighborhoods? W. David Shuford, 1993

It's not as if they learned about willows and grasses in order to make baskets, but as if they learned to make baskets by knowing willows. Mary Austin, 1912

Discovering Home

Moving fifteen years ago to a small town on the north central coast of California, I was entranced by the miles of protected land that surrounded us. My first walks into those public preserves revealed to my grateful eyes the beauty and variety of coastal plant associations.

All shades of green and gray made a rich foliar tapestry, accented in spring and summer with the rainbow colors of coastal wildflowers. Rounded forms of shrubs and trees cast beautiful shadows on soft coastal hills. Where water seeped through cliffs, willows threaded surprising ribbons through the seemingly dry slopes. Light dappled the shade-loving ferns and flowers of dim canyons. I couldn't look enough.

Yet when I visited the gardens of my town, these local plants were conspicuous by their absence, as was any conversation about them. I came to see that I lived in a uniquely protected location that reflected little of its surrounding plant communities. My rambles revealed a slow but inexorable lessening of these native plant riches, a blanking out of natural values, beginning in gardens and towns and spreading into adjacent public lands. Observing small losses adding inexorably up, part of what Paul Ehrlich calls "the nickel-and-diming to death of our environment," I began a gardening, walking, and thinking investigation.

Walking and looking, I came to hypothesize that the group of native bluff and coastal scrub plants that hold these cliffs, hills, and valleys have just the right characteristics for the job. Their leaves filter rain to the soil in just the right way, their roots dig into the cliffs in just the right way, and the habitat structure they provide enables the greatest number of fauna of all kinds to thrive. I began to explore the ways, both obvious and subtle, in which we could benefit from the incorporation of the wild into our gardens.

Coyote Bush

I began my own garden, juggling its creation with trips into the nearby wildlands for seed and idea collecting. Without quite knowing what I was doing, I began to try to work myself into my new home through gardening on my one-acre homesite with these plants. I never drew up a plan but depended on visions gained through explorations of the surrounding wildlands. I haven't been tied to these visions but have kept open to surprises; indeed, I have come to see surprises as the highest kind of gardening experience. Gardening with our local flora has allowed me to study and live with plants in such a way that I have discovered qualities of which I was previously unaware.

Take coyote bush ("coyote brush" to some).

On my flat, once heavily grazed, piece of land, the only species representing the northern coastal scrub plant community was coyote bush, Baccharis pilularis consanguinea, an undervalued species often removed when a garden is made. When we began the removal of weedy grasses, brambles, and French broom, we left islands of coyote bush, good places for mysterious rustlings in the early morning. I began to think about and appreciate coyote bush, and slowly I found others who had thoughts about this plant. As I talked to people about coyote bush, information began to emerge. What had begun as a solitary conversation expanded to include many talkers, and eventually a loose association formed, dedicated to protecting and restoring habitat in our town. At first jokingly and then as a matter of course, we called ourselves Friends of the Coyote Bush.

We learned that coyote bush, with its late bloom, is an indispensable source of nectar in the autumn, when hundreds of insects take advantage of its nectar, including Paradejeania rutillioides, the Tachina fly, whose larvae are parasitic on numerous insect pests harmful to important agricultural crops. An electrician working on my house opened some buried electrical boxes to find soft deer mouse nests made of the fluffy pappus of coyote bush seeds. A local hiker, caught in a tight spot on a steep cliff, grabbed onto coyote bush, sturdily rooted into the cliff, and pulled himself to safety.

The soil under coyote bush is rich, good for growing vegetables or for sheltering native herbaceous plants like checkerbloom or brodiaea, native bunchgrasses like the blue fescue and coastal hairgrass. Its flowers when gone to seed cover the bush like white snow, gleaming in the winter sun.

Some birds, like wren tits and white-crowned sparrows, live their whole lives in coyote bush, finding there all they need for perching, nesting, breeding, eating, and resting. Creatures like the rare mountain beaver find homes and food where coyote bush is. Coyote bush is enough for them.

We pondered the mysteries of its many forms, from the graceful shrub-sized mounds, like clouds on a hillside, to the low-growing, ground-hugging form, to those individuals that unaccountably shoot up to tree size. As we learned more, one of us said, "It's hard to remember that once I thought coyote bush was just ... coyote bush."

Some call it "tick bush" and hold it in low regard, considering it a mere interloper where there could be grasses and colorful wildflowers, but here on the coast, bunch grasses and perennial wildflowers thrive in its gracious company. When the exotic grasses are dry and dormant in late summer, look near the skirts of Baccharis pilularis to find soft tufts of native grasses, still partly green, interspersed with late-blooming wildflowers like the tarweeds, both madias and hemizonias.

In the garden, its rich green foliage and neat mounding habit make a satisfying background plant for other, showier species. One gardener discovered that cutting coyote bush seedlings to the ground when they are small will cause them to sprout back shapely and round. In other situations, where competition causes it to grow in a distorted fashion, it can be pruned to enhance its sculptural qualities. After fires, we watch the new green shoots sprout from the crowns, under a burned hoopskirt of blackened branches. Galls form on its leaves; some of us think it is helpful to remove them, but we don't know for sure. It is to coyote bush that I turn when discouraged or in need of a reminder of all that is available to learn in my own back yard.


I began to see the dim outlines of a vision of my home, nestled into the intricate earth, surrounded by those trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers that at one time graced this land, and surrounded also by those birds, insects, rodents, and mammals that have slept in, eaten off, hidden in, bred in, and otherwise hung out in these plants for the past ten thousand years. Home was becoming more particularly defined, more specific, more tied to the details of smell, color, and form, as we searched out the clues and looked at the pieces. The white-crowned sparrow, famous for its different dialects, has a clear, sweet whistle, called the Palomarin, or clear dialect, heard only in the area reaching from my town to a lake three miles away. Along our coast, the California poppy occurs in a lemon yellow rather than crayon orange variety.

While the land around my house, and in my town in general, can no longer be called pristine, the kind of gardening I have become interested in appears at the place where my plant choices and the general direction of the wild landscape meet, where I can work to locate myself and my garden in the ongoing evolution of life forms as they have become evident in this post-Pleistocene era, on this marine terrace, at the edge of this sea.

I am increasingly eased by my association with these plants. Collecting, cleaning, and sowing their seeds, planting and transplanting them as young plants, and collecting seeds from those in turn, all create a long intimacy somewhat reminiscent of, although not nearly as rich as, the complicated, layered involvement of the native Californians that used and continue to use them. When Mabel McKay, a deceased Porno basket weaver and doctor, heard somebody say that he had used native medicinal herbs but that they hadn't worked for him, she responded, "You don't know the songs. You have to know the right songs."

With no one to teach us, we don't know the songs either. The native practice of dreaming songs about the nonhuman world seems as valuable and elusive as a piece of pure bunchgrass prairie or the truth about this land.

Our retreat hut in the garden is called the Coyote Bush House, and its door handles are made from the hard, twisted limbs of its namesake. We use this hut for restorative naps, on a cot so situated that what you see out the open door before you fall asleep in April is the intense blue of lupines against the creams, yellows, and golds of tidy-tips, goldfields, and the lemon yellow form of the California poppy. What you see in the winter months is coyote bush regenerating after the long time of no rain, its new leaves the freshest of greens. The structure sits low to the ground, providing a good place for guard quail to perch while watching their flocks feed — their calls spring through the garden. Here, our first plant songs might be dreamed.

The Larger Garden

Twenty years ago, when I first began working in a California native plant nursery, I wasn't sure why I was drawn to work with native plants. In the middle of a major drought, they seemed important elements of the water-conserving garden, although now I no longer focus on the drought-tolerant aspects of native plants. The reasons to garden with locally occurring native plants have more to do with joining in, with setting in motion interrupted processes that are unique to this place. It has to do with recreating a garden that connects the gardener with that larger garden beyond the fence.

In that larger garden, many plant/animal relationships are finely tuned and easily disrupted. Certain butterflies, for example, are called "host-specific," meaning that they will lay their eggs only on one or a few different plant species. When these larvae hatch, they require the kind of food that the leaves of their host plant provide and the kind of shelter that the leaf litter at the base of the plant provides. Without that particular plant, they will not survive. One example is the pipevine swallowtail, whose larvae are found only on the leaves of one of California's most beautiful native vines, Dutchman's pipe, Aristolochia californica. Without this plant, you won't be seeing the huge, iridescent, greenish black wings of Battus philenor. It all starts with the plants.

Gardening this way has changed me in ways I couldn't have predicted. My previous employer, Gerda Isenberg, the founder of Yerba Buena Nursery, had a demonstration garden of native plants, but around her house were a cutting garden, a formal rock garden, and some of the beloved plants that reflected her European birth. When I set up our demonstration garden, I followed her model, starting at the edge of the property with natives and working my way up to the house, where I half-consciously assumed that I too would grow exotic plants that caught my fancy.

By the time I got to the house, which took years, I was different. What I wanted to be greeted by in the mornings were the rusty green, roughish leaves of the California hazel, its horizontal twigs slanting against the office wall. I did not want to have to go anywhere to experience the sleek gray limbs of the California buckeye or the deep green leaves of the handsome coffeeberry. I wanted my fog gray house to melt into the grays of the coastal sages. These are friends whose seasons and graces go beyond novelty, friends with whom I have become quite comfortable.

I want to be able to walk directly into the coastal scrub and see it jumping with those resident birds, such as the wren tit, the bush tit, and the white-crowned sparrow, that favor it for nesting and feeding. Quiet can make me nervous now, reminding me of what Robert Michael Pyle calls "the extinction of experience — the loss of everyday species within our own radius of reach." He says, "When we lose the common wildlife in our immediate surroundings, we run the risk of becoming inured to nature's absences, blind to delight, and, eventually, alienated from the land."

When I hike into the surrounding wildlands, I have a purpose, a reason to be there. As well as collecting seeds, I am seeking inspiration and information. We think we know what these plants can do, but surprises are the name of the game. Led by my friend John, who has made it the business of his retirement to know and protect this watershed, we once went deep into a coastal canyon, past marshy grasses, to a grove of Pacific wax myrtles so large that their ancient limbs created a sheltered glade. Here we picnicked, reclining on foot-deep, cinnamon-colored leaflitter. Having previously seen these plants only in their shrub form, I could only guess at how old these individuals were.

I brought back a bit of the duff to scatter at the base of my own small wax myrtles, in case some mycorhizzal connection in the soil has enabled the spectacular growth of these plants. These treasured bits of information let us know what was once and what might be again.

In the way that our coastal creeks spread out over the land in a broad floodplain before they empty into the lagoon, so the plants in this garden and in these wild gardens have begun to spread and seep out into our lives. At the end of a performance at our community center, we threw handfuls of coyote bush seed into the audience. The shining fluffy white seeds floated and drifted and landed in people's hair, adding to the layers of memories about coyote bush. Some people grabbed at them and put them in their pockets, as though the seeds were something valuable they had never seen before. For a while afterward, people would stop me on the street to talk about coyote bush.


One part of the garden where the domestic and the wild meet is the food garden for humans. (The rest of the garden is food for something or somebody else.) In this area, I have planted both domestic and wild bush fruits, the domestic raspberry and blueberry alongside the wild huckleberry and thimbleberry. In the greens department, we have two kinds of Indian lettuce, every backpacker's favorite green, Claytonia sibirica and Claytonia perfoliata, side by side with domestic lettuces. The California woodland strawberry sends runners alongside Fragaria 'Sequoia'. Asparagus beds flourish next to a plant of cow parsnip, said to have shoots that taste like asparagus. Native alliums and Bermuda onions sometimes share a bed.

Some farmers are thinking about agriculture based on natural models. Wes Jackson and others at the Land Institute in Kansas look to the prairies for possible perennial grain crop combinations that may give health back to some agricultural lands. We have used native legumes, like sky lupine, Lupinus nanus, as cover crops, which provide the bonus of a spring crop of beautiful flowers for pollinators and people to enjoy. Some wildflower species, like tansy-leaf phacelia, Phacelia tanacetifolia, and meadow foam, Limnanthes douglasii, are used to attract beneficial insects to agricultural crops.


Excerpted from Gardening with a Wild Heart by Judith Larner Lowry. Copyright © 1999 Judith Larner Lowry. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

For the past twenty-eight years Judith Larner Lowry has been the proprietor of Larner Seeds in Marin County, California. Her essays on native plant gardening have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies.

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