Southern California: How would you landscape this south facing hill with natives ???

What Do You Notice About This Hill That Will Create Challenges To Your Decision Making ???

Image - Leslie Lipton - South Facing Hill in Coarsegold, Ca

This is a common type of cutout slope you'd find at almost any new Southern California housing tract. Like maybe the exclusive Sky Ranch Housing Development on Rattlesnake Mountain in El Cajon, California. The challenge with the cut made into a mountsinside is there is no topsoil, usually decomposed granite & fractured bedrock. Not exactly ideal gardening soil, let alone a prime urban landscape blank canvas material. Now the situation of course is different if the slope was created with earthen fill when creating housing pad building site on the opposite side like my sister's old place in Lakeside. You can plant almost anything. But click on the image and get a closer look. You can tell it's been here for a while, take note of what little weeds you see. Notice any pattern which would indicate where plants would do best ??? 😕 Yeah I know, not too many. What about that diagonal line in the middle going from bottom right upward to the left in the middle of the bank ??? Seems to indicate a fractured faultline of sorts. It's a rare spot where some roots could grab hold if the native plant is tough enough. Take note of small fractured area where weeds are grouped. Could be a possible bright spot for planting of small native shrubs. In any event, this bank cut is not fresh indicated by the presents of weedy annuals. Most folks are going to want deep rich green plants like those from back east. This has always been the problem most gardeners out west who began populating the west after World War II and service men didn't want to go back home to the cold wet and humity back east, but they still wanted all that green in their yards. So let's take a look at some plants that will work and other plants never really considered of aesthetic value, on their own merits, but actually support other plants which do hold eye appeal value.

Image - Google Earth (2018)
The photo above has been updated from Google Earth street view at the end of Marlinda Way in El Cajon, California at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain. When I was a child in the late 50s & early 60s, the flowers you see here in the photo below were the main native players which overwhelmed the landscape in between California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) and the dominant present of California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum). There were loads of TidyTips, California Poppies, Lupines, Blue Bells, Blue Dicks, Owl's Clover, etc in between these shrubs every Spring. As you can see from the photo above, they all have now been replaced by Black Mustard, Yellow Star Thistle, Wild Radish, Cheatgrass, etc. All non-mycorrhizal non-native invasive plants which have changed the soil microbiology through change in chemistry from a mycorrhizal one to a bad bacterial and pathogenic one. These plants do this when they invade into an area in great numbers created through ongoing repetitive irresponsible land mis-management and by their root exudates these weeds release chemicals into the soil which disrupt the chemical signaling for symbyosis which normally takes place between the native host plants and their mycorrhizal fungal partners. You may be interested to know Researchers have found that Tamarisk trees do the same thing in fouling the lines of communication against riparian trees (Fremont Cottonwoods, etc) of the southwest and their fungal partners. Something good to know before proceeding on a plan for the restoration of such sites. 
For more info on Tamarisk vs Fremont Cottonwoods, please reaad the link below: 
(Disrupting mycorrhizal mutualisms: a potential mechanism by which exotic tamarisk outcompetes native cottonwoods)
Image - Ryan Cummings (2011)
The native low growing coastal sage scrub plants were always evenly spaced apart. Easy to walk around and through. Many wree aromatic fragrant shrubs. The wildflowers easily grew in between them, not in competition, but mutualistically tied together underground connected to the mycorrhizal grid network of fungal mycelia strands. In this perfect state, the fungal grid resisted the invasives by outcompeting the ruderal non-native plants for nutrients like phosphorus. The invaders stood no chance until lousy land management practices based on ignorance took over along with more and more common unnatural wildfires for which many even today mistakenly view as necessary for chaparral to be healthy. Repeated fires at short intervals eventually kill the native host plants which will no longer recover, which inturn kills the beneficial fungi which need and require a living host. Take a look below now.

(Image - Granada Native Gardens)
This is actually a demonstration garden up in Livermore California, quite close to the Coarsegold hillside at the top of this post, which is the main subject as what to select for planting. Notice the beautiful spacing between the native California Buckwheat shrubs ??? I'll post some other awesome Buckwheat varieties at the bottom. This Buckwheat or any other native interior Sierra Buckwheats would be an excellent choice for starting out on the hillside. Back in the early 1970s when the California Highway Department was in the process of building the very northern extention of Interstate 15 to Temecula from Escondido in San Diego county, they made several major roadcuts in the hillsides along the way from the Old Hwy 395/East Mission Road exist to Fallbrook and from that point north all the way to Rainbow, California. Take note below of two photos of those meticulously terraced patterns created when the cutouts were made.
Image - Google Earth
They are not covered with vegetation, but take note if you can of the almost perfect terracing the original construction crews did when making the cutouts. You may click on the photo for a separate wide shot view to magnify the features. These are now blanketed now under California Buckwheat cover, but originally these terraces where hydroseeded with a mass of non-native wildflowers mix, the most dominant species being African Daisy. Travelers often mistook these for the native California Poppy. That African Daisy then suddenly became popular after gardeners and landscapers who viewed their potential for beauty. I don't believe anybody uses this choice much anymore. But later along I-15 each year these flower became less and less until on it's own the native California Buckwheat moved in and never left. That's a wonderful plus. 👍
Image - Google Earth
This Google photo here is on the opposite east of the freeway from the other previous photo. It too became overwhelmed with Buckwheat after the non-native African Daisies disappeared. But now you can see on this side how larger native Chaparral shrubs have moved in. Trees and shrubs like the Toyon or California Holly and even a native Engelmann Oak which is already naturally present on both sides of this terrain are present. This is how nature moves and develops in succession within any plant community when there has been a disruption to the norm. Now if humans actually know how nature works through it's different stages, then humans could accelerate the process faster within a few years as opposed to five or six decades by replication. So mostly here I'm focussing on the coastal or interior sage scrub choices because I think the small bank (which is this post's original topic) would be overwhelmed by large specimens which I believe would fail anyway because of the shallow soils.
Image from Center for Natural Lands Management
Above Photo: Sky Ranch lands restoration project 2014 on a mountain between El Cajon and the city of Santee. Clearly this is one of the restoration photos which show both California Buckwheat & California Sagebrush in alternating patterns on drip-irrigation. This drip was meant to be only temporary, but many other areas have an elaborate irrigation infrastructure up there which is overkill and permanently in place. Native plants actually hate this type of care. Drip irrigation itself becomes life-support to native plants which become dependent on it's presence. Take them off later and everything dies. But over the years since 2014, I first saw another voluteer native called Deerweed (Acmispon glaber) which is a perennial sub-shrub move in and overwhelm the area. However, this is a good thing. I've seen this happen on Rattlesnake Mountain many times after wildfire and always after the initial annual wildflower blooms were gone the second year. This native plant is a member of the pea family and is excellent at introducing nutrition back into the soil through the roots of deerweed which contain symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria that transform atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogen compounds that can be used by other native plants. The photo below is of a new paved backroad coming up from Pepper Drive School into the Sky Ranch Housing Development which here at this point is still being built in 2011.
Image is mine from 2011
Unfortunately I've also seen numerous non-native plants like Mediterranean Rockrose here by the storm drain access manhole cover, a variety of Iris and other non-native cactus. Frankly I believe the landscape company who was hired to restore the area back to original native plants simply ran out of native plant availability and inserted many of these things as filler. Below is the mega-infrastructure of irrigation which is being used to the keep oaks alive in shallow soils on top  of the ridge. I don't think Oaks were present before up that high as I never saw them as a kid, but they were present when the orange groves below were planted on the alluvial fans which were oak woodlands, but removed for agriculture. Searching in vain, I found no evidence of ecto-mycorrhizal truffles which Oak trees actually require for survival here. Better keep that irrigation handy. The oversight here by the Center for Lands Management is atrocious.
Image from Google Earth

Sadly what was supposed to be a positive in conservation, turned out to be a conservation area of dominated by Black Mustard and Yellow Star Thistle which surrounds this very sign on the left. Historically, aside from coastal sagescrub shrubs on Rattlesnake Mountain in El Cajon, that photo of the granite boulder faced mountain which looks down on the Pepper Drive Elementary School literally had 100s and 100s of San Diego Coast Barrel Cactus and a couple of native succulents called Lady Fingers (Dudleya edulis) San Diego Dudleya as seen in this photo below. Of course this was back in the late 50s & early 60s when I was a kid. Even then people were collecting them and putting them in their front yards. All that has radically changed for the worse now. Today they are totally gone. Smothered now by Mustard & Yellow Star Thistle which was granted access by too many wildfires obliterating the natives which in turn dominoed and killed the mycorrhizal fungi and eventually could not recover. Now let's concentrate on the other smaller plants of the Coastal Sagescrub plant community. 

Photo by Ken Blackford. San Diego, Ca.

Image - Matt Opel U. Connecticut
Take note of the combination of plants which not only grow well together, but actually prefer otherwise undesirable rocky fractured shallow soils which most other plants reject and most gardeners hate. These are perfect combinations for that bank at the top of this post. Other selections which may be comparable to the native Sierra Foothills. Right straight away you will notice San Diego Coast Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus viridescens), San Diego Coastal Cholla (Cylindropuntia prolifera) and Lady Fingers (Dudleya Edulis). And this photo on the right here is another Chalk Dudleya or Chalk Liveforever (Dudleya pulverulenta).
They could also plant many different varieties of native Califorina Prickly Pear Cactus which would require almost no care at all. How about the rare endangered Bakersfield Prickly Pear Cactus here in the photo at left, Opuntia basilarus treleasei ??? Many varieites are low growing and spreading. Most all provide beautiful flower colours. And there are other cactus from the Cholla varieties which likewise can be low and spreading and also provides many beautiful colour varieties. Caution: Avoid the varieties where joints easily fall off and spines are of the wicked design type. Steep hillsides would facillitate build up of unwanted cholla hazards at the bottom. Let's now deal with another plant that even most diehard native plant lovers would reject, Chamise or Greasewood (Adenostoma fasciculatum).

Bert Wilson - Las Pilitas Native Plant Nursery
Again, this is another one of those interesting plants whose demonization is based on ignorance and stupidity. When I had property up in Anza California, I had a ridge or knoll which was hard dense decomposed granite with absolutely no organic matter. The only thing that grew was Chamise like the one above. Of course the Chamise there never got very high, only about 3' high. Appreciation of this plant takes time. Most look at it as a jagged rangy looking wildfire loving shrub of no value. That's where the ignorance steps in because they've been too lazy to take the time to study it. First off it's a companion host to many other beautiful plants people do like. Contrary to other ignorant beliefs, this is not an aggressive competitor. Where it does dominate it is because nothing else does well there. If you have tough rugged soil profile which rejects a shovel digging more than a few inches, cherish this Chamise if it already exists there. Traveling Hwy 74 at the bottom of San Jacinto River canyon on the southern face of northern slopes which are almost pure Chamise, there are also several healthy California Holly or Toyon shrubs interspersed here and there. Amazing display of mutualism. One more thing, in Bert Wilson's photo above, the Chamise is partnering with Woolly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum) which I've seen numerous times in the San Jacinto Mountains of Riverside County in California. So think in terms of beautiful partnerships when making decisions on plant selection here if you are bold and daring enough to choose Chamise. Most people aren't, including so-called native plant lovers. Here below is something else remarkable about Chamise most people don't know. Look below.
Image taken by Pete Veilleux - Big Sur wilderness - October 2016
Here is a beautiful example of a Foothill Pine pioneering out into the Chaparral plant community away from the forest edge. Now most chaparral are predominantly endo-mycorrhizal, with the exception here of Manzanita which like Pine, Oak , etc are ecto-mycorrhizal. Chamise is endo-mycorrhizal, but during wet rainy periods of more than normal rainy seasons in a row, an epigenetic change occurs within Chamise DNA to become ecto-mycorrhizal which allows the acorns or pine nuts the ScrubJays hide within their dominant cover to geminate better. This environmental change triggers a new chemical message which is released through the plant's root exudates that enters into the surrounding soil and signals any ecto-mycorrhiza spore to generminate and colonize Chamise root system which it previously did not. When that happens, it allows the pine or oak to not only germinate, but also tap into the new ecto-mycorrhizal grid or network of mycelial strands which are present everywhere. This allows the pine to establish itself beyond germination which may take place anyways at other times, but now to the point of becoming a healthy mature adult tree. Much like the Foothill Pine or formerly Digger Pine [Pinus sabiniana] in the photo above.
Silver Sagebrush and Indian Paintbrush
Image - Susan Pedrini

photo by Wyoming Game Warden Bill Bish
One of the other selections I never ever see in urban landscapes are the use of gray foliage shrubs like Silver Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata). I should clarify, you will see more gray foliage shrubs in desert landscapes, but people there are so use to seeing this as normal. Not so much west of the mountain ranges in Southern California, because they basically still want a richer green. Silvers and gray are boring and unattractive to most folks. Yet there are ways to colour up those plantings once again with colourful associates you'd see in nature, just like the California Buckwheat & California Sagebrush I just discussed above. Indian Paintbrush and Silver Sagebrush are a perfect companion to each other. They are a common sight in the wild. Nobody can argue against the brilliant appearance of both together. For me there is a reason beyond the fact that Indian Paintbrush is semi-parasitic. As you know there is a certain negativity to the use of the term parasitic. In this case it's not all that bad. So yes, the Indian paintbrush is a semi-parasite, meaning they make only a portion of the food it requires. Its roots will grow down into the soil until they touch roots of other plants, such as Silver Sagebrush and colonize them, much like mycorrhizae.
Image - Caitlin Lawrence
They then penetrate the tissues of this host plant to steal part of their food. Now for years I've heard and read from experts who say the paintbrushes have so developed this habit that they can now scarcely live without the aid of other plants. This is false because I have observed them fine on their own. But there is something else more important in the way of a hydrological phenomena about Silver Sagebrush and all of it's various varieties or sub-species. They have an incredibly deep taproot 1–4 m in length, coupled with laterally spreading roots near the surface, which allow the sagebrush to gather water from both surface precipitation and the water table several meters beneath. So there is an ability they have called hydraulic Lift & redistribution of water and also when in dormancy the ability to use their extensive lateral root system to work at another ability of Hydraulic Descent where access surface water is taken from the top soil layers in rainy season and pump it deep down into the subsoil layers to be used in drier month. Hence, the Indian Paintbrush benefits from the hydrologcal cycling performed throughout the year. But just one more. Another benefit is the Artemisia manufactures a number of natural bitter alkoloids which it exchanges with the Castilleja which makes them unpalatible to browers like deer and insect pests. Something good to know.

Image - Luke Ruediger (June 2014)
So that you are aware, there are a number of other beautiful natives that Indian Paintbrush will partner with. Here is an example of the Indian paintbrush (Castilleja spp.) and Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum). Now this photo is in Oregon, but there are numerous Eriophyllum species throughout the west, just as there are Indian Paintbrush Castilleja species. So chose and experiment the best fit for your area. Take note in the photo above that this is not ideal garden soil, it's tough rocky and rugged. Tough plants indeed. Just give them what they require.
Other High Desert BuckWheat Varieties
Cushion Buckwheat Eriogonum ovalifolium
Image - Nicky Davis (2011 - Utah)
So many beautiful varieties of Desert Buckwheat which thrive in some of the harsher environments. Ideal for that blank rugged canvas mentioned in the O.P. 😉
Thyme Desert Buckwheat (Eriogonum thymoides)
Photo by Julie Zimmerman
Again, another Buckwheat which is low growing and use to harsh environments compared to average nursery grown garden choice plants from your local retail nursery.
Sulfur Flower Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum)
Image Bert Wilson - Las Pilitas Nursery
I've actually had tremendous success with this one. Once truly established it is tough and beautiful year after year. Planted several up in Anza where I use to live and they just thrived. I was also fortunate enough to have on my own property on Table Mountain the high desert interior native Buckwheat you can see below, which unlike the coastal one with greener leaves, has more of a blue green or gray green foliage and in many ways tougher. It has to be to take the extreme heat and cold. Pay attention below to Bert Wilson's teaching videos about Buckwheats in the link I've provided. Another advantage is Buckwheat's ability to act as an incredible beneficial insect magnet, especially those beneficial predatory insects to keep pests under control.
Interior California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum var. polifolium) - Sometimes referred to as Flattop Buckwheat
Image by Bert Wilson (Las Pilitas Nursery)

In conclusion, look and observe what's out there in Nature and replicate what you see on your own property. I recently read a biblical text which is perfect for this assignment. Irrespective of what religious background you hail from or even if you claim to be atheist or agnostic, this text is fairly neutral and anyone can apply it.
7 "However, ask, please, the animals, and they will instruct you; 
Also the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you. 
8 Or give consideration to the earth, and it will instruct you; 
And the fish of the sea will declare it to you."
Job 12:7-8
In times past scientists and engineers from the Industrial Revolution to the Green Revolution have advanced mankind much faster than they needed to. And with what result ??? Our planet is ruined because of an academic human dogma that has been proposed that Nature is badly designed and therefore Scientists can do better. Folks, this is why we have climate change, etc. Indeed, CRISPR co-inventer Jennifer Doudna has declared that the new genetic engineering tools will save us: 
"It won't be long before CRISPR allows us to bend nature to our will."
Seriously, bend nature to our will ??? 😕 Humans have been doing this from the beginning of their existence here on Earth. So instead of learning how nature really works and replicating that knowledge into our technology, innovation, land and natural resource management, our planet is now almost completely ruined because of greed and selfishness influenced by ignorance. However, in recent years, some scientists and engineers have, in a very real sense, allowed plants and animals to instruct them. The average human on Earth can also use common sense and learn and relicate what they see out there in Nature. And remember, despite what you've been force fed in school and scientific journals, you DO NOT have to be credentialed. Through study and observation, anybody can learn so much from the insects attracted to the list of plants I've provided you and that's only a fraction. They've all been endowed with instinctive wisdom, not by means of dumb luck and chance which in the end teaches us nothing, but an intelligence who has always cared from the beginning.

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