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Is this your year to go ‘native?’

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Have you been thinking about going native? Are you ready to replace your lawn with plants that evolved in this area? 

There are many reasons to do so. I was recently reading an article on milkweed (Asclepias sp.) in Wings, the magazine published by the Xerces Society. The society was founded to save invertebrate populations. The article gives several examples of insects and plants not working together because they did not evolve together.

In contrast, the Monarch butterfly and California’s native milkweeds work in harmony. The native milkweeds provide nectar for many bees, bugs and butterflies. Monarch caterpillars can only mature on milkweed.

Invertebrate populations include all the little bugs, bees and insects that pollinate plants or dine on each other. They keep nature in balance, and they have evolved with our native plants over eons. That co-evolution is important as our native insects and pollinators may have problems with plants introduced here. As with the almond trees in the Central Valley, humans have to step in and import pollinators.

If you visit the Martha Walker California Native Habitat Garden in Napa’s Skyline Park, you will see a diversity of native plants thriving. A stroll through this garden is guaranteed to change your mind about native plants. When you walk in the gate, you will pass a selection of manzanitas that are native to this area. They come in all shapes and sizes.

When I first moved to Napa, Martha Walker was a garden writer for the Napa Valley Register. I did not have a garden then, but I followed her weekly column. When she died, friends created the Martha Walker Garden as a living memorial.

A walk through this garden is definitely a treat. Birds sing, butterflies dance in the trees, and other critters have taken up residence. The Napa chapter of the California Native Plant Society cares for the garden, and curator Kathleen Chasey has done a wonderful job of grouping the plants into the communities they would inhabit in a native setting.

One recent improvement is the addition of a hedgerow to provide cover, food and nesting places for small critters. British gardeners have long understood the importance of maintaining hedgerows, which typically include plants of different heights, trees and small plants to fill the spaces in between. 

I also noticed the cleaned-up area around the redwood grove. Most plants won’t grow under redwoods because of the dense shade and shallow tree roots. In other areas of the garden, you can find Ribes (currants). Their pink or yellow flowers in spring become berries that feed the birds in the fall. The Martha Walker Garden also includes a bird and butterfly garden, creek-side habitat and bunch grass and wildflower meadow. 

Native plants confer many advantages. Because they are accustomed to our wet winters and dry summers, they need little summer water. Since they evolved in our native soils, they look good without fertilizers and chemicals. Occasionally you may need to prune a native plant that becomes too large for its space, and newly planted natives may need water during a dry spell. But once they settle in, native plants need minimal care, although I’m sure they appreciate a little organic fertilizer occasionally.

The City of Napa offers rebates of up to $500 to homeowners who replace lawns with non-thirsty plants, permeable hardscape or artificial turf. Larger properties may be eligible for even larger rebates.

To prevent the spread of the glassy-winged sharpshooter, purchase your plants from Napa County nurseries. The Napa County Agriculture Department inspects all the plants that come in to the county to make sure this devil has not hitched a ride. Local nurseries do carry many natives. And mark your calendar now for the California Native Plant Society sales in April and October at Skyline Park.

 If this is your year to go native, consult Sunset’s Western Garden Book, which has a big section on natives and their needs. The Internet is another good resource; just search “California native plants.” And to help the Monarch butterflies, plant a patch of native milkweed in a sunny spot. The invertebrate populations will thank you.

(Napa County Master Gardeners are available to answer questions in person, by phone or on their Web site. Call 253-4221 or visit for information.)








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