Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Native lilacs in UC Davis’ New Front Yard series

Ellen Zagory sees examples every day; city gardeners are embracing the concept of the “New Front Yard.”

“Reducing water use doesn’t mean brown and dry,” said Zagory, the UC Davis Arboretum’s horticulture director. “By using careful plant choices, we can celebrate our region and create at home our own regional landscapes.”

This concept of right (low-water) plants in the right (drought-stricken) place is at the heart of the New Front Yard, the arboretum’s current series of water-wise plants. Today, the Arboretum Teaching Nursery on the UC Davis campus will offer these plants to local gardeners during its first public sale of the spring.

“In Davis, it’s become a big thing,” Zagory said. “We’re seeing a lot of sheet mulching (as people remove lawns).”

But what will replace that grass? As the name suggests, the New Front Yard features a palette of free-flowering California native plants that make attractive easy-care landscaping. Besides using less water than turf and most traditional landscaping, these shrubs, trees and groundcovers attract beneficial insects and support bees and birds.

Re-planting a drastically different landscape takes time, consideration and water. Even drought-tolerant plants need regular irrigation to get established.

“There’s concern that it may take too much water to establish a new landscape,” Zagory said. “Although, it’s less than a lawn.”

City lawns do serve a purpose; turf is better than plain dirt. Besides its potential beauty and landscape uses, the grass helps cool its surroundings.

“People are really worried about bare earth and a heat island effect,” Zagory noted. “We don’t want people to just kill their lawn and walk away.”

Use this spring for research.

“As you develop your low-maintenance, low-water landscape, take time to enjoy the colors of spring and early summer and look for new ideas for plants to extend your landscape’s seasonal interest,” Zagory said. “Spring is a great time to be out in the garden – both your own and those of plant-minded friends. Take a pad or a smartphone and note the colors and blooms you like the best and plan to add them to your personal patch of earth.”

Lilacs in particular are enjoying a spectacular spring bloom, thanks in part to early December’s string of sub-freezing nights.

“The cold snap was good for them,” Zagory said. “In my own garden, my Lavender Lady (lilac) has more flowers than it’s ever had.”

Drought-tolerant California native lilacs – ceanothus – smell like their namesake but are unrelated to true (and thirstier) European or Asian lilacs, which are varieties of Syringa (such as Lavender Lady). Several ceanothus are part of the New Front Yard collection.

Our drought-tolerant native lilacs are having a knock-out spring, too.

“Our Concha (ceanothus) is absolutely solid blue – amazing,” Zagory said. “You can hardly see any green (leaves), there are so many flowers.”

The onslaught of spring lilacs all at once may be weather-related, too, but tied to spring warmth, not December cold.

“It was cool, cool, cool, then we had this warm spike,” Zagory said. “The buds that were developing all came (open) at once. It creates this illusion that they may be blooming more than normal (because all the flowers open at the same time). But it sure is stunning.”

Gardeners will get other benefits from December’s deep freeze.

“Cold also is good because it knocks down pests that can become real pesky,” said Zagory, noting some invasive insects are killed by sub-freezing temperatures.

But watch out for aphids – especially after recent rain.

“The rain will make it horrible for aphids this year,” Zagory said. “But we’ve been seeing a lot of soldier beetles, too. They’re pretty good aphid-eaters.”

Adding flowering native plants to your landscape helps attract these “good guys” to protect and pollinate the garden. Said Zagory, “Early flowering California natives like redbuds are followed by later blooming toyon and coyote brush; these are especially attractive (to) many insect visitors.

“Miner bees will use early spring flower nectar and pollen for energy and to feed their young,” she added. “Spring plants provide food for beneficial insects, like early emerging pollinators such as native bumblebees as well as aphid-eating insects like ladybird beetles, soldier beetles, lacewings and hover flies that provide free, natural pest control in the garden.”

Save water and money, too? That makes those California lilacs smell even better.