Native San Luis Obispo Haven

In the spring of 2008, we worked with Mary Lou Wilhelm and her husband, Richard Root, to replace their front lawn with a mostly California native landscape. The water bill was getting to be too much, and more importantly, Mary is a conservationist at heart. “My husband loves lawn, so I had to let him have a patch of it. But that’s in the back, and my garden is right where I can see it in the front.”

Over three years later, Mary and Richard’s California natives are in the midst of their autumnal transition: The summer flowers are fading, and the winter blooms are preparing to emerge. The vibrant yarrow, lacy elderberry, and Red Mountain sage have wound down their blooming season and now contribute simply foliage and structure. Lingering coral-colored California Fuchsia strike a contrast with the golden seedheads of autumn moor grass and the rich green of the ‘Dark Star’ ceanothus. Layer after layer of foliage comports the eye from swirling sesleria through the brambly branches of salvia clevlandii, to the rich green of the Arbutus ‘Unedo’ and the shooting spires of the Lindheimer’s Muhly. Even in its state of seasonal flux, the plants’ overlapping profiles contrast and complement another, creating depth and pockets of rich texture.

“I haven’t watered the garden once [in 2011],” says Mary. “It just rained, so I didn’t really need to.” Mary’s not referring to the recent sprinkles in October--she’s talking about the seasonal rains from 8 months ago. “That’s what you get with a native garden,” she says. “After mine was established, I haven’t needed to do much except enjoy it.”

Director of Library Services at Cuesta College for 20 years, Mary’s passion for record-keeping and documentation translates, in a way, to her garden. As in the restoration and maintenance of books, her objective with her garden is to maintain California natives as a viable and important element in the gardening community, and to restore our water table to healthier levels. “Water is a very precious resource,” she says, “and it’s limited.” As Mary washes her vegetables, she saves the rinse water and carts it outside to water plants. Her showers are deliberately short, and her roof’s downspouts route into a serpentine underground channel, sinking rainwater throughout the garden. Next on her list is a laundry-to-landscape greywater system. “Think about all the countries where they’re carrying water on their heads,” she says. “We could be there too, and we need to be careful.”

Supporting the California native landscape means embracing the highlights of the season for a time and then gracefully allowing them to slip into dormancy. The first of the velvety magenta hummingbird sage flowers have begun to emerge, and will peak in December and January. Further into the rainy season, tiny California Lilac and manzanita flowers will clothe the shrubs in a colorful blanket of purple and white. “The garden brings wonderful bird, bee, and butterfly activity throughout the year,” notes Mary, “which is encouraging.” Of the herbs sprinkled here and there through the planting, Mary says, “I like variety. I love the natives, but it’s good to have a mix. Sometimes I just like to throw some seeds into the earth and see what happens.”

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