Tag Archives: native plants

Plant A Coast Live Oak Now

New growth on a coast live oak seedling in the winter.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Chinese Proverb

Rugged and beautiful, coast live oaks are the backbone of California coastal woodlands and chaparral. Found within 60 miles of the Pacific Ocean, they are perfectly adapted to summer droughts and winter rains. They can live as long as 250 years and grow up to 20 to 80 feet tall and 30 feet wide depending on where they are planted. Coast live oaks typically have a multi-branched trunk with smooth, thick bark that can become contorted and gnarled as it ages. The leaves of coast live oaks are evergreen and resemble holly leaves. The trees flower in the spring, and the acorns mature about seven to eight months later. Each tree has both male and female flowers. The male flowers have pendulous catkins. The female flowers are tiny, inconspicuous clusters.

If your yard has enough space, coast live oaks can be a focal point in a drought-resistant native garden that needs little care and will attract birds and wildlife. Companion plants include ceanothus, manzanita, California buckwheat, toyon, coffeeberry, and many other natives.

If your yard is too small, find some open space nearby that needs habitat restoration. Coast live oaks are one of the most important trees for wildlife. Native birds and mammals depend on their acorns and use the trees for shelter. Oaks are host plants to five native butterflies: California sister, propertius duskywing, mournful duskywing, golden hairstreak, and gold-hunter’s hairstreak.

With the recent stories of destructive wild fires and mudslides in California planting coast live oaks is more important than ever. The vast root systems of these tough natives help stabilize hills, prevent erosion and improve the watershed far better than most non-natives.  They are also exceptionally fire resistant  more so than most other oaks. They have very thick bark and reserves in their extensive root systems and can resprout even several years after a fire. One study found that after eight years, 96 percent have recovered.   (US Forest Service-Quercus agrifolia)

A coast live oak in Marin.

Winter is the perfect time to get a coast live oak started. Collect acorns from a local tree. Look for brown or green acorns that have fallen from the tree. The caps should separate freely and the acorns should not have discoloration, holes, or stickiness. Acorns don’t store well, so plant them soon after collecting them. It’s a good idea to start them in pots, the acorns about one to two inches deep. Protect the planted acorns from birds and squirrels. Transplant them after their first leaves appear, and water them every two to three weeks if it doesn’t rain. If acorns from a local tree are unavailable, check your local native plant nurseries for seedlings.

A two year old coast live oak seedling planted from a gallon container. Photographed in the winter. Notice the growth.

Pick the site wisely. Take care to find a spot where rainfall naturally drains but never where the roots will stay soggy year-round, as the roots are susceptible to rot and the mature trees do not like summer water.  A furrow in a hill, or an area with good, loamy soil can work well.

Oaks tend to grow towards the bottom of hills in furrows to catch the winter rains.

Plant them during winter rains when oaks do their growing. Be sure to pick a location with plenty of spreading room. If possible find a spot with nearby oaks. Mature trees form a obligate relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, so if you plant a seedling near a larger oak the fungi associated with the older tree will help the younger tree.

Dig a hole for your seedling twice as wide as the width of your pot and and least six inches deeper. Before removing the seedling from its pot, water it thoroughly. Turn the pot upside down and tap the rim to dislodge the root ball. Loosen the roots and place the root ball in the hole. Make sure the top of the root ball is level with the ground, then back-fill the hole. Water. Don’t fertilize or use potting soil, but do mulch around the base to keep weeds down. Water once a month for the first year, but don’t fertilize. Eventually the tree’s own leaves will form a thick mulch that will feed the mycorrhizal fungi that help the tree. Depending on location and rainfall the seedling will grow from several inches a year to up to 24 inches a year.

There’s a lot of of information about coast live oaks on the Web. Here are several recommended sources:

USDA NRS Coast Live Oak Plant Guide

California Native Plant Society- Coast Live Oak

US Forest Service-Quercus Agrifolia

 

More on starting a backyard native frog pond…

Another view of the pond. I'd love to get rid of the big flax plant in the back (it's not native) but the frogs hide out in it and stay safe from the marauding coons.

My backyard pond has gotten overgrown but this is what the frogs like best. I’d love to get rid of the big flax plant in the back (it’s not native) but the frogs hide out in it and stay safe from the marauding coons.

Last week I got a lot of interest in my backyard frog pond posting so I thought I’d elaborate with more photos and information. Having a backyard frog pond is a really a fun way to bring nature into your life. There’s nothing like the sound of frogs in the spring and who would have thought it possible to have have frogs in San Francisco? If it can happen here, it can probably happen in your backyard. It’s really not that difficult to set up, the main thing to remember is you’re creating a habitat, not just a pond.

Here's a Pacific Chorus frog singing his heart out.
Here’s what a Pacific Chorus frog looks like singing his heart out.  As loud as they are I rarely see them, they are tiny and they like to hide.
Here's the 60 gallon aquarium that I put the tadpoles in to keep them safe. I have a wire cover that I secure with heavy rocks.

Here’s the 30 gallon aquarium that I put some of the tadpoles in every season to ensure the raccoons don’t eat them all. I have a wire cover that I secure with heavy rocks.

Ponds also attract dragonflies that will lay eggs in the pond (they will eat tadpoles and eggs) Adult Dragonflies are carnivorous and love to eat mosquitoes.

Ponds also attract dragonflies that are nice to have around. One of their favorite foods is mosquitoes.

A frog feels right at home on a native monkey flower plant  (mimulus)

A frog feels right at home on a native monkey flower plant (mimulus)

The key to a successful habitat is providing a healthy natural environment that has everything your frogs need to survive. You may wonder why grow native plants–won’t any pond plant do? The best reason to grow natives is because they have evolved  along with the local animals and are perfectly adapted to each other. They are made for your particular weather conditions, soil and seasons. Natives attract the right bugs, birds and animals that live in your area and they naturally provide them with food and shelter. They are low maintenance and require little fertilizer, pesticides, or even attention.  It’s true the water loving native pond plants  will need  you to water them unless you have a naturally wet backyard, but they will be easier to grow and less invasive than other plants you find a nurseries. I learned the hard way to stay away from water hyacinth and duckweed, two nasty invasive plants that will choke the life out of anything else that wants to live nearby.

Here are some easy to grow natives…

Cow Parsnip a native perennial that has giant 12" leaves and flower stalks that can get 8' tall. It's easy to grow  and can tolerate dry or wet conditions.

Cow Parsnip a perennial that has giant 12″ leaves and flower stalks that can get 8′ tall. It’s easy to grow and can tolerate dry or wet conditions.

Monkeyflower (mimulmus) is a native that likes to have wet roots. I grow it in pots around the pond and in the pond. There are many varieties of varying size leaves.

Monkeyflower (mimulmus guttatus) likes to have wet roots. I grow it in pots around the pond. It spreads easily and has yellow flowers.

Scirpus is another native that likes to have wet roots. You can put it right in the pond.

Scirpus is another native that likes to have wet roots. You can put it right in the pond or in pots around the pond.

Here's a reason to plant natives: You'll attract crazy bugs like this native Green Sweat Bee on a California poppy.

Here’s a reason to plant natives: You’ll attract crazy bugs like this native Green Sweat Bee on a California poppy.

California Bee plant (Scrophularia californica) grows in 2-31/2' high clumps that pollinators love. It's an easy plant to add around the borders, it attracts insects and does well with or without water.

California Bee plant (Scrophularia californica) grows in 2-3 1/2′ high clumps that pollinators love. Add it around the borders, it spreads easily  and attracts insects. It does well with or without water.

Sedges (Carex) such as this wetland example are perennials that grow in clumps.

Sedges (Carex) such as this wetland example are perennials that grow in clumps.

Currants (ribes) are spiky border plants that do well with or without water.

Currants (ribes) are spiky border plants that do well with or without water and flower in the spring.