Blue-eyed grass is like an old friend, it says “California” as well as any plant can and it is perfectly adaptable to almost any local garden (November 5, 2010)

Sunday morning I'll set off early. Soon, I'll be rolling down Laguna Canyon Road, then heading out with my pack, a couple of quarts of water and a sandwich. I'll hike up Bommer Ridge and then drop down into Emerald Canyon for the long, slow, beautiful walk all the way to Laguna Beach – then back. During those 10 miles on the trail I'll re-connect with where I live and where I garden, California.

In the gardening paradise of California it's easy to forget where we are. Our gardens are hosts to plants from Africa, Asia, South America and Australia. Tropical and desert plants co-mingle in this botanical Shangri-la that we call home. How fortunate we are.

Trumpet vines, boxwoods and lavenders are fine. Fuchsias, begonias and geraniums pay the bills. But, just so I remember where I am when I wake up each day, a little dose of sprouting fiddleneck, California sunflower and blue-eyed grass will be well received on Sunday. I will welcome the sight of elderberry, toyon and sugar bush, something like the smile and good feelings I get when reacquainted some old friends; friends who I haven't seen in a while.

The resinous aroma of sagebrush filling the air, the coarse touch of scrub oaks brushing my arms and legs, the sticky foliage of monkey flower on my fingers, the twisted architecture of old sycamores; the lush, soft greens of polypody ferns and the taste of miner's lettuce will be talking to me. They speak a language that is unique and sometimes subtle, but needs no interpreter. The conversation will be silent, but the message will be clear: This is California's Garden.

Right now is the perfect time of the year to plant California's native plants and reconnect with where you live and where you garden. The cool, moist months that lie ahead will ensure their planting success, allowing the young native plants to be thoroughly rooted before our warm, dry summer arrives.

If you are considering incorporating some of California's plants into your own garden here are a few simple rules to follow:

1. Plant in the fall and winter. Since our local native plants are predominately cool-weather growers, this is the best season for planting.

2. Mulch liberally. A surface mulch is useful for just about all the plants in your garden, and our native plants are no exception. Shredded redwood or cedar bark is certainly my favorite. Use it liberally, about three or four inches over the surface of the soil.

3. Eliminate weeds before you begin; this is the best strategy. With heavy mulching, seeds won't have much of an opportunity to sprout.

4. Disturb the soil as little as possible. This may surprise many of you, but most California native plants do not need or want their soil amended. As long as your earth drains reasonably well, and you've chosen the right plants, just dig a hole and plant. No planting mix, no rototilling, no back breaking work.

5. Fertilize lightly or not at all. Native plants are accustomed to low fertility. At most, a light application of a mild organic fertilizer toward the beginning of their growing season should be all they need; any more could do more harm than good.

6. Combine plants that have similar water and other needs. Our native plants grow in a huge array of environments, from moist meadows to dry hillsides. Soils range from rocky washes to lowland clays or moist streamsides. Organizing natives, along with other compatible plants, into communities that enjoy similar soil, water and sunlight will eliminate failures and make your native experience more rewarding.

7. Do not over-water. Most local native plants are accustomed to receiving water in the cool half of the year. Applying too much water during our warm summer months is a recipe for problems.

8. Start off with foolproof but beautiful plants. By choosing wisely, you will find many native plants that are incredibly adaptable to a wide range of garden conditions and can easily be blended with other plants already existing in your garden. Begin with easy, foolproof natives, saving the challenging species for a later time.

One of the fastest growing segments of gardening is the incorporation of native plants into our gardens. Water conservation, wildlife opportunities and significantly lower maintenance costs, are all reasons native plants are becoming more popular in home gardens. A few of our native plants incorporated into your garden will help give your garden a sense of place.

So if you're hiking down Emerald Canyon in Laguna Beach and you see someone talking to the oaks or smelling the sage, that might be me. I'm not peculiar, I'm just saying hello to some old friends. I'm reminding myself of where I live and where I garden — in California.

RON VANDERHOFF is the Nursery Manager at Roger's Gardens, Corona del Mar.

Ask Ron

There are some spectacular trees with bright orange flowers in the median strip of PCH in Corona del Mar, just a little south of MacArthur Blvd. What are they?

Brooke,

Corona del Mar

I get this question often at this time of year. They are African Tulip Trees (Spathodea campanulata). As their name implies, these originate from tropical African and are sensitive to frost. The clusters of huge orange flowers are upturned and cup shaped. In their native environment these open flowers collect rainfall and thus provide a source of fresh water to the areas native birds and other wildlife. Although uncommonly grown here, African Tulip Trees are essentially evergreen and are relatively easy to grow in a warm coastal garden.

ASK RON your toughest gardening questions, and the expert nursery staff at Roger's Gardens will come up with an answer. Please include your name, phone number and city, and limit queries to 30 words or fewer. E-mail stumpthegardener@rogersgardens.com, or write to Plant Talk at Roger's Gardens, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar, CA 92625.