Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Wildflowers could be secret to water-wise garden

California poppies fill the backyard of an East Sacramento home. Such “tamed wildflowers make sense for a water-wise garden, says expert David Salman of High Country Gardens.
California poppies fill the backyard of an East Sacramento home. Such “tamed wildflowers make sense for a water-wise garden, says expert David Salman of High Country Gardens. Sacramento Bee file

When looking for water-wise alternatives, try growing more plants native to California’s Central Valley and Sierra foothills. Drought tolerance is in their genes.

That’s the recommendation of David Salman, founder and chief horticulturist for High County Gardens. His New Mexico-based company is the go-to source for many native plants (especially those that flourish in western states), thanks in part to his personal crusade to popularize “tamed” wildflowers.

“People are finally coming around to native plants,” Salman said in a phone interview from his company’s Santa Fe headquarters. “I’ve been growing these plants for over 30 years.”

This month has been spectacular for wildflowers in many parts of California. In particular, areas scorched by wildfires last year are now ablaze with brilliant blooms. Prompted by well-timed winter rains, bright yellow flowers covered vast swaths of the Valley floor. Familiar poppies painted green hillsides with bold splashes of California gold.

While the sight of hills covered with orange poppies or vast fields of tidy tips may thrill springtime wildflower seekers, many homeowners shy away from planting natives in their own landscapes.

“It’s been a real uphill battle for people to be accepting of native plants,” Salman said. “Regionally, some people hate native plants. They think they’re weeds. They actively dislike them and do whatever they can to get rid of them. That sort of attitude is difficult to overcome.”

This weed vs. wildflower debate goes beyond planting poppies. It has real impact on pollinators and birds that need those flowers and later seed as a food source to survive.

“Texas, Oklahoma and other agricultural states actively spray herbicides in roadside ditches,” Salman said. “They’re actively eliminating native plants from fields and unused areas. That’s why so many animals – birds, bees and beneficials – are in trouble. California is still fighting that fight, too.”

That anti-weed attitude is coupled with another phobia, he said. “When you say ‘insect,’ people think ‘spray.’ We need to promote native insects, too.”

California’s prolonged drought has brought new interest in natives, Salman noted. “The past five years, we’ve really seen a lot of interest towards planting natives. It’s not just the drought. People are interested in helping pollinators. Planting native plants provides a food source for bees and butterflies.”

But a learning curve comes with native plants. They can seem finicky. The truth is they can’t stand being spoiled. Too much summer irrigation can kill them – or turn them into garden thugs, choking out other plants.

Gardeners need to adjust to the plants’ needs, not the other way around, Salman said. While they expect water in winter (hopefully from rain), many plants native to the Central Valley need little if any summer irrigation. That’s their normal. That also makes them ideal for low-water gardens.

“Most people don’t understand California natives,” he said. “People are used to turning on the sprinklers every other day, and these plants can’t survive all that water.

“Interest in California natives is (growing) too slowly, in my opinion,” he added. “People are slowly realizing that drought is the norm. It makes sense to plant a resilient water-wise landscape, so you don’t lose your yard every time there’s a drought.”

Salman is concerned that many suburban homeowners will resort to rocks over plants, turning greenbelts into desert.

“The knee-jerk reaction to drought is to rip out lawn and pour in gravel,” he said. “You can use that gravel as mulch, but not as a barren space. It heats up and creates a heat island effect.”

For the Sacramento area, Salman suggested such water-saving natives as hummingbird trumpet, native salvias (such as Mojave sage), monkey flower, desert willow, ceanothus and native grasses (such as deer muhly). These plants also are ideal for rain gardens; they can survive storms in winter and long periods without rain in summer.

“It sounds like an oxymoron, but you can create a non-irrigated rain garden – that’s a rain garden that survives on what water it gets,” he explained. “It’s important for people to realize it doesn’t rain in the summer in the Central Valley. But you can store water in the soil. If you give your rain garden some additional summer irrigation, it certainly expands the range of plant choices.”

Growing native plants has more benefits than saving water; it helps the whole ecosystem, he noted.

“A lot of wildlife is in crisis, too,” Salman said. “We need to start looking at our landscapes as not just a pretty space but as a habitat for songbirds, bees and butterflies.”