The other day I saw a horned toad under one of the sage bushes in our yard in Vista . It was about four inches long. It looked like a fat lizard with a stubby tail, it’s body covered with the unmistakable short spiky horns. Blending so well with the dusty earth beneath, I almost missed it. Pausing, it looking up at me, as if to say, “Thought we were all gone, didn’t ya,” then scampered away. Ecstatic, I rushed into the house to tell my husband about our new little visitor. “I haven’t seen one for forty years! Our native plants are already bringing back the wildlife!”

When our family first moved to San Diego County in 1958 the land was much different than it is now. California scrub oak spotted the hillsides, their smallish curled leaves adapted to the semi-arid climate. Rust-colored buckwheat matched the parched earth, its tiny white flowers adorning the very tip ends of its prickly stalks. Gray-green sage was aptly referred to as “brush”. Its proliferation testified to its seeming worthless expendability, yet it stubbornly hung on. The only shade on our five-acre parcel in Escondido was near a stand of weeping willow, their long thin-leaved branches slapping in the dry Santa Ana winds that gusted through on Fall days. Otherwise, the sweltering summer sun beat down on the dirt-pan barren ground.

The wildlife at that time was a good match for the landscape. An occasional tarantula legged its way across the vacant ground between sparse, sticker-weed patches. We rarely saw a rattlesnake. More often we’d find their scaly skins, ghost-like remnants shed along their winding path. Lizards the color of the dusty earth scurried across huge gray granite boulder outcroppings. Back then there were also plenty of “horny toads”, as we called them. Some people refer to them as “horned toads”, but an even more proper name is “horned lizard”, since they are not toads at all, but from the lizard family. They were well suited to the seemingly desolate landscape. We’d try to catch them, but mostly they were much too fast for us.

During the 1960’s the laid-back retirement town of Escondido saw exponential growth, as city people like us discovered the “Hidden Valley”, and moved there to raise their families in the more wholesome arms of “the country”. As the valley filled in I watched its landscape change. Where deserted hilltops and open fields once lay, gray paved streets now wandered through housetops, separated by the occasional too-green treetop. The land became covered over, all the native foliage replaced by greener, brighter colors of “transplants”. With the change in their habitat, some critters such as the horned toad soon disappeared. That’s why seeing our little horned critter was such a surprise. The key factor was the natives.

Several years ago a friend of mine interested me in native Southern California plants, the ones that used to originally grow in this area. According to a handout from Las Pilitas, a native plant nursery:

“A plant is considered native if it is prehistorically from that region. In the case of California, an important threshold is the Spanish invasion, which started approximately 450 years ago. The Spaniards established dozens of non-native species through agriculture and grazing in combination with slash and burn technology. The introduced species completely displaced the natives in many areas. Native plants could rarely compete.”

Learning this spurred me on to the idea of helping to return our environment to what it once was. Additionally there are several other perks to planting natives: they use very little water, are easy to maintain, and attract the native wildlife back to the land. So off I went to check out Las Pilitas, off the old 395 Highway north of Escondido.

As I pulled into the dirt parking lot, I was met with a few unshaded acres of nothing but black pots. All the plants in them looked the same: like nothing much. They looked wasted, like they were just barely hanging on. Needless to say, none were in bloom. A young woman in shorts, loose blouse, and straw hat approached, “Hi, I’m Valerie. May I help you?”

“Well, yes,” I said. “I want to plant some natives in our yard, but I want the yard to still look green and nice and to have flowers.” Maybe it was the doubtful look on my face. I don’t know. But suddenly it was as if I’d turned on her ignition switch. Valerie kicked into high gear.

“Natives actually hate being in pots; they want to be in the ground,” she explained. “That’s why they look this way.” I could see that they were just begging to be adopted. As we passed between the rows, Valerie helped me see the differences between the species. She animatedly painted a vivid picture of each plant’s potential, what they would look like once full-grown. Her love for these scruffy little floras was obvious. It wasn’t long before I was sold.

Back at the little shack that served as both office and tool shed, Valerie found a piece of scrap paper. We penciled out a rough sketch of my yard, then she suggested what to plant where. “Poso Blue Sage . . . they would be great here . . . plant a few of them together . . . they get these beautiful lavender blossoms in Spring. Then over here . . . some salvia, Cleveland Sage . . . they have a different shade of green leaf and after the Posos finish blooming they’ll start in . . . so you’ll have something blooming all the time.” That sounded good.

“And here next to your Bird of Paradise, plant some Zauschneria . . . they get these tiny trumpet-like flowers on the tips, that are fire-red. The hummingbirds love them!” Her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm, and swept me right along.

“Over here you could plant some Joyce Coulter ceanothus (lilac) . . . it will stay low to the ground so it won’t block your view of the fish pond, yet it will spread out to 8 feet diameter to fill the space with dark green foliage all year ‘round. It gets little blue flowers.” On my own I decided to add some buckwheat, in remembrance of my childhood days on my grandma’s ranch in Elsinore.

After loading them into a wagon, Valerie gave me strict instructions on how to plant and care for my new little natives:

  1. Do NOT use fertilizer--it’s too rich for them.
  2. Dig a hole a little bigger than the plant and do NOT disturb its roots, they are very sensitive.
  3. Place the plant in the hole with the crown 1/4 inch above ground level so they don’t drown and die.
  4. Backfill with the same soil you removed from the hole.
  5. Then do the “plant dance”: firmly press the soil to make sure the plant is snug in the ground by using your feet. (Valerie demonstrated this last instruction by mashing her feet into the ground around an imaginary plant.)
  6. Apply 5-15 gallons of water to each plant immediately after planting.
  7. Put 6”-12” rocks on the south and west sides of the plant to provide protection from the sun and to help keep roots cool and moist. (Natives love rocks.)
  8. Do NOT use mulch; mulch suffocates natives and they will die.
  9. Run a sprinkler on the newly planted area for at least 3 hours. 10.Check plants in about a week to determine soil moisture level. Do NOT over-water. Many chaparral and sage scrub species can be weaned off water entirely within 2 years.

Valerie loaded my plants into the car and waved me goodbye. The very next day I planted them all, it was a no-brainer. How much easier can it get, not having to prep the soil and mulch? I watched them and they grew. In fact, they thrived. The first Spring we were gone for two months on a cross-country trip. I knew I was likely to miss the first blooms of my garden. But as we pulled into the drive at trip’s end, we were met with huge bouquets of glorious lavender color.

“Honey! It’s the Poso Blues!” I shouted. I was close to tears. “I think our yard is going to look nice after all!” I exclaimed.

Since then I have planted very few non-native plants, for when I do I feel a little guilty. I know that the “transplants” die without special care while natives don’t because they are truly meant to live here--they belong here. Valerie’s earnestness about California native plants has stayed with me. She is a crusader for them, and therefore for the environment they support. It’s because of people like her that I was able to see a horned toad in my yard the other day. I’ll be watching for them to multiply as more gardens “go native”.

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JulieParrots March 1, 2009 @ 8:05 p.m.

Yay! I loved this story. It reminds me of the times my grandmother and I planted fruit trees and other flowers in her garden when I was a little girl. Keep us posted on your "horned toad" findings. :)


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