Don't replace your lawns and hedges with a native-plant garden to eliminate watering. "It is relatively low-water gardening for the amount of plants, but not no-water gardening," says Encinitas native-plant landscaper Dave Buchanan.
Tearing out your roses and rhododendrons and replacing them with native manzanitas and monkey flowers won't be cheap either. Count on paying two to three dollars per square foot to install a native-plant garden -- about the same as a traditional garden.
As far as upkeep goes, "I come infrequently," the 42-year-old Buchanan explains, "but I'm not a mow-and-blow 25-dollar gardener. It takes time to maintain, to trim things and to pull weeds. You've got to know what weeds are weeds because native plants reseed a lot in your yard."
Who would want such a garden?
"The people who call me," Buchanan answers, "I would say most of them are into native plants through the Native Plant Society. The smaller portion are just those referrals who like what they saw or may trust somebody they know who knows me. Those are the ones I have to do more convincing, more explaining with.
"I try to sell them on the philosophy of native plants," continues Buchanan. "I explain that I don't do the normal plants. I want to give back the plants that are native to our state because we're losing them to development. I explain that their native garden will be a bird and wildlife attractant. There's a whole number of points to bring up as far as selling the idea goes. If they want, I'll give them the addresses and they can look at the houses I've done. Usually it's not that hard of a sale."
Driving by Buchanan's yard in Encinitas, you wouldn't think, "What a beautiful garden." The native-plant landscaping doesn't look good at 30 miles per hour. It seems crowded, undefined. Plants vie for the same space, some lack leaves. But as you walk through it you notice the contrasting textures and colors of the plants. Some have glossy, dark-green leaves, others powdery green-gray leaves. Each inhale of the ocean breeze fills your nose with the fragrance of sage and lilac. Buchanan, clad in maroon sweat pants, green T-shirt, and a tan cap, starts a tour of his yard by a patch of lawn between the house and garage.
"This is a section I'm having some experimental fun with. It was a Bermuda lawn, and over a few years I got rid of it and I put down a seed mix. I wanted to try a yarrow lawn. It's common yarrow. It grows from the mountains down to the coast in a lot of areas."
The yarrow looks like miniature ferns growing to a height of one or two inches. "It's nice and real comfortable to walk through," Buchanan says. "Now, it's not a football turf or a play turf for kids, but it's nice as a substitute for a lawn that's just going to be there for decoration anyway." Buchanan breaks a sprig from a nearby bush with fuzzy green-gray leaves and hands it to me. "Check this out. This is one of the things that people don't realize about natural landscaping, the fragrances. Smell that..." The smell is a combination of wet earth and mint.
"It's in the mint family," he says. "It's Cleveland sage. It's a sage that is endemic to San Diego and down into Baja. Isn't that nice? It's one of the most incredible fragrances. Beautiful flowers. Doesn't look like much now but wait till all the growth comes out. Right now things are just responding to rain and it's the start of a procession of bloom that lasts for months and months, probably eight months, nine months."
From another bush he breaks a branch covered with tiny lavender blooms. "Smell that...that's lilac. Similar things to this cover our hillsides all around out here. Further inland, out by Mission Trails, the hillsides will be covered with these in a month. It's not just the blooms, the leaves have a fragrance that, when it's sunny, radiates off the leaves. Of course there are hundreds of varieties of this throughout the state."
Buchanan leads me down the concrete path of his yard pointing out plants on either side -- toyons, shoulder-height with leathery dark-green leaves; manzanitas, some prostrate, some upright, all with glossy red bark; various sages; and lilacs with tiny fragrant blooms of varying shades of violet. Near the fence, screening the view of the house next door, is a 25-foot Catalina cherry tree.
Buchanan stops at a three-foot shrub with long, slender dark leaves that are glossy green on top, fuzzy underneath. White blooms bud along its stems. "This is the native-plant aficionado's favorite," he says, plucking a leaf, "even though it's the hardest one to grow. They usually die. Pinch that and smell it."
It's a sharp, yet pleasant, citrusy odor.
"It's also in the mint family. It's called woolly blue curls. It's an exotic and incredible bloom and a hummingbird attractant as you see. That's another thing about these plants. They do bring in tons of hummers, bees, all the native fauna. Wait till you see this house I did over in La Costa. The animal life there is amazing."
The house in La Costa is a large Spanish colonial sitting on one-and-a-half acres overlooking Batiquitos Lagoon and the Pacific. Buchanan was hired by the homeowners in 1992 to landscape the hillside lot and now he maintains it. As we walk up the driveway I hear the chatter of birds as they flit in and out of the sages and manzanitas. Hummingbirds hover near blooming lilacs while lizards scurry in the dead leaves under the bushes. Though I can't see them now, Buchanan says many more animals visit the yard.
"We've had a few snakes in the yard," he says. "We've had a few rattlers. We've had a rosy boa, a wonderful native snake which is passive and a rodent controller. We've had garter snakes, lots of lizards, and a tremendous amount of bird life including numerous nesting sites. Coyotes come through here, we have deer in the yard. You can see where they've been nibbling on shoots. Lots of bunnies. We had to protect the plants with little cages when we first got started."