Category Archives: California Native Plants

Dry no longer: drought broken, or just at bay?

My region of Southern California is often dry. Total days of rain are usually few, less than 30, I’d say. Additionally, inches of rain average between 10 and 15. But, in the last several years, California, and here specifically, has been in the grip of severe drought. I estimate that we got something like 6 inches of rain all year last year (by which, I mean, the “rainfall year” which typically is said to begin in October. This month alone we have doubled that. In January, my weather station (which is probably fairly acurate but not necessarily precise) has received nearly 12 inches, and will most likely exceed that today.


I’ve become much more aware of the weather and rainfall since starting my garden/yard. The majority of my plants are drought tolerant. They still need water and in times of drought, they need supplementary irrigation. But, I think I may not be watering much this Spring. In fact, more than half of my plants have been in the yard over a year. My understanding is that after a year, California native plants are “established” and need significantly less water. For some, that means none. There’s a great site, Las Pilitas, that is primarily a nursery but is also a treasure trove of information about California native plants. On that site, they specifically state that most truly drought tolerant California native plants hate water after the first season or two. For example, I have a few different Ceonothus species. These are also known as California Lilacs.


Ceonothus plants, as far as I can tell, hate water, especially when it’s warm. They will accept water when it’s cold, like right now, but that’s it. What I have read is that there are microorganisms in the soil that live when it is either cool and moist or warm and dry. Warm and moist soil kill these microorganisms. They are what provide nutrients to the roots of many native plants! This is why, by the way, you also should not amend California soils when planting natives, and do not add fertilizer. Apparently these mycorrhizae feed the plants are vital for their growth and survival. You might say that if you are a gardener of California natives, you aren’t growing the plants so much as these mycorrhizae!

So, I have killed at least two Ceonothus plants by watering them too much. I’m doing better with the ones I have right now. I have four that have been in my garden over a year now. Two others were growing and looking good but they were eaten by gophers. Speaking of, I just read as I was getting links for this post, that gophers tend not to eat plants that aren’t being watered!!! Oh yeah! So, maybe this year will be better if I’m not watering so much, then maybe the gophers won’t eat so many.

That doesn’t mean my hose will be idle. About once per week, I will go out and “wash” the dust off the plants by spraying the leaves. This won’t really water them but it will keep them from getting covered in dust, something else they hate. That will be nice to just go spray my plants down and not worry about watering deeply. Let’s be clear, though, this only applies to established plants. For the plants that are still young and in the first season, I will definitely be watering those plants (and keeping an eye out for gophers!).

The rain coming down right now as I write this means I will probably not water any of these established plants at all this Spring. We’re having a good year for rain, even by California’s standards. It looks like we will at least meet the “normal” averages for rain and that should make my garden very happy.

A couple Black sages, and a California Buckhwheat in the foreground. Behind it is my baby Live Oak. 01-22-2017
The garden on January 22, 2017

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Winter blooms on Black Sage (salvia mellifera)

One of my black sage plants is showing flowers already.

This surprised me. It has been cold here, and even rainy. Yesterday the high was in the low 60’s and last night it actually got down to 30°!

According to  one of the best sites for information on California Native Plants, Las Pilitas, the black sage isn’t supposed to flower until March. I guess no one told this one.

Turned the corner on the path. Literally.

Turning the literal corner in the path.
I mentioned yesterday that I got to the corner of my pathway. This is one of the curviest parts of the path, with the inside corner being probably the sharpest turn. Like I mentioned before: wow, there are a lot of stones to cut.

Those in my family have been very supportive, telling me how great it looks. It’s very kind. I am well aware that there are mistakes and things I am doing that a true professional wouldn’t do. I get that. And, I’m also probably saving a thousand bucks or more by doing it myself. I like the way it looks, though. And, since I’m the client as well, I believe that mine is the only opinion that matters. Okay, my wife’s opinion matters, too. And she’s happy with it, too.

Path sanded and ready for stones.

Yesterday I also got a good amount of sand leveled into the path. This morning I laid out some more blocks. Tomorrow I will be doing a lot of cutting to get this section done. I think I can finish this in a couple days. Then, I will sweep in the sand and probably compact it and be done. I am really looking forward to being done.

Paver Patio and Path

I’ve been working on a huge project. This is, in many ways, the final phase of my backyard rehabilitation. Of course, the backyard will never be “done.” A garden is, hopefully, alive, and ever changing. Gophers, weeds, and wind will no doubt ensure I always have more work to do back there. And, plants need tending. But, in terms of the shape of the space and making it useful, this patio and path are the final piece, and largest, which is why it was last, probably.

Or maybe I put it off because I was took a long time deciding what to do and how to do it.

The north walkway from our covered patio. Blocks are laid but unsanded.
Paver stone patio area for a fire pit or other recreation. Unfinished, but the stones are laid down at least.

I originally wanted to have a decomposed granite walkway. It was inexpensive, comparatively, and looked natural. I new I could manage the construction. Concrete seemed better for permanency and neatness, but it was expensive and I wasn’t sure I could do it right. Concrete seems simple, to me, but at the same time, you have to know what you’re doing because you have a time frame to get it right. There’s no do-overs in concrete. So, pavers seemed like a good idea. After a while, anyway. They are not cheap. Each block costs about $1.20 and there are, well, hundreds of them. And, they are heavy so they needed to be shipped to me. And you have to cut them to make a curve.

So, honestly, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to work with pavers. I went back and forth for a long time over it. Finally, though, I realized that the pavers would, in theory, be more permanent. And, they would be easier to clean than decomposed granite. We get pretty bad winds sometimes and my mulch often gets blown around. Being able to sweep, or even use a leaf blower, to clean the patio and path seemed good. I also always thought the patio area with the fire pit was best as a hardscape.

That finally convinced me to use pavers. I chose some that looked similar to my existing retaining wall. It’s not the same color, but my wife pointed out that the blocks are gray and brown at times and that they kind of make a middle between the gray concrete of our covered patio and the sandstone color of the retaining wall.

Installing a paver patio and walkway is not easy work. You’ve got to prep the area. Honestly, most places I looked said to dig down about six to eight inches. I did not do that. Why? First, most places say to do that because you need a mixture of sand and gravel as a base. They said to use what is called “stone dust.” Or crushed gravel. That sort of thing. Well, my soil is, no kidding, at least 25% rock, probably more. It cannot be overstated how much rock is in my soil. I don’t dig holes as much as I remove rock. Think I’m exaggerating?

See all those rocks? I didn’t buy any of them. They are all from the yard. And there’s more where they came from.

If you look at the pictures of my garden, any of them, you are bound to see rocks as part of the landscape. I made a stream bed out of the rocks. There is probably 30 square feet of my yard that has rock as a ground cover. I didn’t buy any of it. All the rocks you see were removed from the ground.

So, the idea of digging six to eight inches down, removing all of that rock, just to add rock I bought, sounded ridiculous. Additionally, the way I understand it, this is largely to deal with the issue of the ground freezing. In Southern California, the ground doesn’t freeze. So, again, not necessary. I skipped it. I also skipped landscape fabric. I realize I may eventually regret these decisions, but we shall see. I’m planning on using polymeric sand to fill in between the pavers. This sand is chemically treated to solidly after it gets wet, kinda like cement. I don’t think weeds will grow through it. But, if it does, dealing with some weeds is less work and money than landscape fabric.

I leveled my areas and then I used a heavy tamper to compact the ground. I did this over several days, got blisters, and was very sore after. But, I did it. I watered when it was dry, and compacted. So, the base is my natural ground leveled and compacted. Now, when I say I leveled it, don’t get too serious. The yard isn’t level. But, I made the patio mostly level and the transitions between elevations gradual. I then put in edging and sand. And then pavers.

Edging and base for pathway in progress
One last piece of edging needed…
Sand and edging ready. Just need to level and place pavers.

When I originally designed my backyard garden, I chose curves for the areas because I liked the flowing look and our concrete patio has curves. I wanted an informal look. So, curves made sense. But, that was before pavers. Now, I have a lot of cutting to do. Curves mean cuts.

Curves mean cuts.

As you can see, I use a “soldier row” on each side of the square blocks. Then, the pattern is in the middle. Ha ha! Pattern! Get it?

There’s no pattern. But, I tried.

But, wherever the “pattern” overlaps the soldier row, I had to cut the paver. This, I’m told, helps the pavers be more firm or strong or something. Anyway, that’s why I’m doing it. Tomorrow, I will show how I turned the corner in that last picture. I actually got that done today but I didn’t get pictures before it got dark.

This is hard work. I’m tired.