Fall is a wonderful time to be in the garden. The cooler air is reinvigorating after the long hot days of summer. Fall is also a perfect time to plant many California natives. Many have been dormant during the summer and will soon awaken and stretch their roots within the soil. These plants will grow through the wet days of winter, preparing to bloom brightly and beautifully in spring.
The soil itself seems to approve of fall planting. Once seemingly made of stone, the clay-heavy soils in our gardens will soon become manageable once again.
It is well known that native plants are hardy, often drought-tolerant options for our gardens. When considering California natives, it can be helpful to look at a more refined list of Napa Valley natives. We live in a large and ecologically diverse state, so focusing on local flora can make your gardening more successful. Napa Valley native plants include many hardy and beautiful choices, enough to provide for almost any garden need.
As winter approaches, many gardens lose much of their color. A great plant for color from summer through fall is California fuchsia (Epilobium canum). Its silver-green foliage provides an excellent backdrop for the bright orange-red flowers. It is a low shrub, sometimes prostrate, so it is ideal for bordering a walkway. California fuchsia spreads via seed and rhizomes, so you may end up with a splash of color where you hadn’t planned it.
All through the winter, we will be treated to the pink and white blooms of Stanford’s manzanita (Arctostaphylos stanfordiana). This manzanita can be maintained as a shrub but will reach 7 feet tall if allowed. Manzanita will not only add winter color to your garden but can also shade more delicate plants during the hot summer. Manzanita also provides berries and shelter for native wildlife. Look for Stanford’s manzanita the next time you are out in the woodlands of the Napa Valley and the surrounding area.
If you are looking for a vining plant, look no further than Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia californica). Its unique blooms are white with red stripes and shaped like curved bells. Dutchman’s pipe is a host plant for the larva of the pipevine swallowtail, a vibrantly colored yellow and blue butterfly. Wasps also like the plant, however, and will be drawn to the fruits of the seed pods. To foil them, remove the pods before they open or cover the plant with netting until you can collect the seeds. Due to the odd shape of the flowers, Dutchman’s pipe was once thought to be carnivorous. This notion has since been disproven, however.
For a low-maintenance, drought-tolerant, worry-free ground cover, try purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra). It is an unassuming, yet amazing, plant. This perennial grass grows readily in many types of soil, including the clay soils of the Napa Valley. The roots can grow 20 feet deep, giving it incredible drought-tolerance. Purple needlegrass works well with other native plants, but also helps to block and suppress invasive weeds. In 2004, it was designated the official State Grass of California!
My favorite native tree is the California buckeye (Aesculus californica). It grows large and sturdy, with wide, attractive leaves that provide much-needed summer shade. The blooms this tree produces are truly incredible: many small, cream-colored flowers grouped into long, impressive cones. This show will often last through spring and summer, until the tree drops its leaves as part of its summer dormancy. Toward the end of summer, large nut-like fruits will appear. While they somewhat resemble chestnuts, these fruits are inedible.
These are just a few options of the many native plants you can add to your garden. There are many helpful resources available to those new to natives. Calflora (calflora.org) is a website that allows you to search for plants based on criteria such as shape, native ecosystem and lifespan. The Napa Chapter of the California Native Plant Society maintains a list of native-plant gardens and nurseries (napavalleycnps.org).
I heartily encourage you to investigate the possibilities of native plants. By including them in your garden you not only benefit yourself, but also the many creatures that make up our local ecosystem.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will hold a workshop on “Toxic and Carnivorous Plants” on Saturday, Oct. 27, from 9:30-11:30 a.m., at the UC Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Ave., Napa. Foxglove. Lily-of-the-valley. Wisteria. These common plants and many others are toxic. Who knew? Sundew. Venus flytrap. Pitcher plant. Carnivorous, or so we’ve heard. Join the UC Master Gardeners and explore the fascinating properties that plants have to protect themselves and survive in inhospitable places.Online registration (credit card only); mail-in/walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).