Free Market Gardening

[Tim Hyland, president of the CNPS Santa Cruz Chapter, presented our May 1998 program on gardening with natives. For those who were unable to attend the meeting, he shares his ideas here. – Ed.]

It seems that any discussion about using native plants in a landscape begins with the basic question, “Why bother?” With all the wonderful plants to be found in a nearby nursery, why not use them? What more could you ask for? Well, as it turns out, that seemingly limitless selection of plants adorning most retail nurseries has gone through a rigorous selection process driven by forces most gardeners never think about.

The first question someone running a nursery has to answer about a plant before carrying it is whether it will sell or not. After all, that is what nurseries are in the business of doing. Sure, you can make some money on books, greeting cards, and garden art, but those plants out there are not for show; they have to move or you will soon be packing up and doing that very thing yourself.

What a plant costs, and therefore how well it sells, is at least in part determined by how easily and quickly it will grow in a container – not the ground, mind you, but a six pack, or a three inch, gallon, or five gallon plastic pot. If it takes too long to reach a size that people are willing to buy, or if it refuses to be propagated on a large scale, it will never make it onto the wholesaler’s list and so it will not be available to you, the plant-buying public.

If the plant grows okay, then it has a somewhat less obvious test to pass. Does it bloom at the right time? When I ran a nursery once upon a time, I had an opportunity to buy a few five gallon containers of shooting stars from someone who specialized in bulbs. They were gorgeous, their graceful arching stems topped by clusters of the most elegant pink, yellow, and white flowers you could imagine. I had been lusting after plants just like them on hillsides near my home. I would buy them, put them up at the front of the nursery, and sell them all in a week, I was sure. Unfortunately for my plan, one of the charming things about these beauties is that they are usually reaching their peak bloom sometime in February, which is not exactly the height of the gardening season. By the time most people have emerged from their houses to once again contemplate the soil and what they would like to see growing in it, shooting stars are no more than clusters of small tan seed pods atop narrow stems rising from small rosettes of yellowing leaves. I never sold a single one of those pots.

This helps illustrate the most challenging criterion that any plant likely to be found for sale must meet. It has to look good in black, not in an evening gown or tuxedo, but in a black plastic nursery container. There are any number of charming plants that look wonderful in a garden and atrocious in a container. No matter their garden worthiness, you will not find them for sale. And, speaking of garden worthiness, you will notice that it is not the first thing a purveyor of plants is thinking about. Sure, one needs to offer a few bomb-proof plants for the commercial landscaper and folks with admittedly black thumbs, but showy flowers and unusual form rule supreme, even if they decorate a plant that the nursery person knows almost no one will ever be able to grow.

Native plants undergo selective pressures as well. They have been out there making deals with pollinators and pacts with birds for thousands of years. They have worked out bargains with rodents and fungi. Some are expert at dealing with salt spray and shifting sand; others excel on serpentine or heavy clay soils. They have radiated into a remarkable variety of forms that put all but the most fabulous nurseries’ plant lists to shame. They have woven themselves so tightly into the fabric of the land that they are inextricable from it.

So why invite them into your garden? Because there is only one reason you find them inhabiting every dune and bluff top, every creek and marsh, and it has nothing to do with someone making a living. They like it here. Without any of the products found in the garden section of your local hardware store or special fertilizers, they thrive. If you are looking for plants that will do well here, they are all around you, not in the nurseries but on hillsides and bluffs. Half the fun is finding out what they are.

You will be able to obtain many of them at the Yerba Buena Chapter plant sales every Fall.