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Ditching the Lawn to Feed the Butterflies in Los Angeles

July 8th, 2008

I’ve dreamed of re-landscaping with native plants for ages. But, like our decrepit bathroom, we just hadn’t the time or energy to get around to it. Until now.

This is just a long-winded account of what we did to reclaim our yard, under the guidance the many online tips from folks at Las Pilitas California native plant nursery. Hopefully I’ll write up a full-fledged guide shortly.

We never really watered our weedy lawn much, out of environmental consciousness and a little laziness. It managed to survive pretty well until one drought year when it went really brown. So finally one day I saw a crew of gardeners ripping out a lawn up the street (to re-sod — ew), and I had em rip out our remaining grass. Then to make sure all was REALLY dead, I watered for months and waited through the rainy season for anything to sprout, spraying nasty, evil chemicals to dispose of the rest. Rampaging weeds and invasive grasses are a sure way to ruin a native planting before you even start.

After much soul-searching, we murdered our 40ft eucalyptus tree so that it wouldn’t destroy our new native habitat with its thirst for all moisture in the soil and constant rain of leaves, seeds, blossoms and bark. I will miss the shade and smell, but not the daily sweeping. Here in Santa Monica we are frankly lucky we didn’t get protested for chopping a tree, even if it is an invader from Australia. We offed it swiftly.

I did a modest amount of research and at first it was hard to track down NATIVE plants at the local nurseries. Everyone sells so called drought resistant stuff, but almost all of it is from the Mediterranean, Australia and Africa. The same handful of species is sold everywhere. It just doesn’t make sense — why not salvage a little of the local biodiversity with perfectly suited plants that need little or no care? I suppose it is just the economics of nurseries — they all get plants from the same national distributors and customers all ask for the same silly plants.

Finally I found this quite cool California native plant nursery with a brilliantly informative website (laspilitas.com) with easy online ordering and delivery. I picked out critter-friendly buckwheats, salvias, manzanitas and more. I carefully (more or less) diagrammed the mature sized plants across the yard. I contoured a couple of modest mounds into the yard. I even filled the Civic with 700 pounds of rocks to welcome the plants. The sprouts arrived by UPS, surprisingly tiny and a little smooshed. I planted the suckers as planned. Contrary to every gardening instinct (and against advice from our neighbor the professional landscaper) I followed the instructions from the native plant people – no soil amendment, no roto-tilling, no organic matter, no fertilizer, no composting. Just stuck the plants into the hard, minimally disturbed ground. Ok.

And now time to mulch. The one things the native plants do need is a few inches of wood chips to recreate the natural organic matter that would cover the ground in the wild. I carefully calculated how much I’d need and started looking for sources. It was gonna cost at least $500 to either buy the dyed crap they sell at Home Depot, or to get some nicer stuff delivered. It would cost more than I’d paid for plants and rocks! The City of LA also offers free mulch that you can pick up at several yards throughout the city, though I read reports that it often has a bunch of trash in it. Then I found a tree trimming company that would, for FREE dump FREE wood chips and it was completely FREE, including the FREE delivery. I was mighty excited about the free part. The minimum they’d deliver was a bit more than I needed, but I figured I’d easily find some spots in the backyard that could use a little mulch.

Now, in retrospect, I now know that they dumped much more than the minimum portion I’d requested. But when it arrived I had no idea. I had already assumed the pile would seem astonishingly huge – I have no point of reference. But as the pile slid out of the dump truck, I started to feel a little sick. The mountain was much larger than our car – longer, wider, higher. Which sounds kinda big, but, really, when it is in your driveway and you can’t park there any more or use your gate, and all of the neighbor kids want to climb in it and everyone who passes points and starts asking questions, it is impossibly big and seems like a big mistake. And it radiated that nice piny Christmas smell, but multiplied by a gazillion so that the off-gassing made my eyes burn for days, even inside the house. Neighbors were gawking and some passers-by were outright laughing, though I may have been suffering from a little paranoia.

So for a week (during a nasty heat wave) I frantically and desperately hauled wood chips around the yard trying to make the mountain get smaller and prove that I wasn’t a friggin idiot for getting it all dumped there. And, besides, I had to make room to park the car, and get the trash bins out of our gate. Thanks to Mr. Peterson, my neighbor, who witnessed the delivery and lent me a wheelbarrow. I guess I had thought I was going to use a bucket to spread the stuff or something. Yea, right.

Well the pile was a crazy hodge-podge of wood. The stuff on top that I spread on my yard first was too big—giant chunks of pine that were really bright colored and it made the yard look like I was getting ready to light a bon-fire. You couldn’t even see the plants. It was sad and embarrassing. On the other side of the wood pile I found stuff that was equally unacceptable – really papery dusty crap that had mixed with some leaves so it was composting and steaming. A woman actually knocked on my door concerned that the giant dangerous looking wood pile was spontaneously catching fire. Somehow, by accident, I realized that if I spread the composty stuff on top of the absurdly huge pine chunks, it made neither look too ridiculous. So I dumped another layer on the yard. Not bad. Then I spent another few days dumping woodchips in every free nook in the back yard. Finally in the middle of the pile I found some really nice, modest sized, reddish wood chunks, just the kind any normal, self respecting suburbanite would love to have in their front yard. But no more space. Oh well.

I managed to use about 2/3s of the damn pile. Really. It was amazing to see the pile actually shrink, against all odds, as I dragged barrow-full after barrow-full around the yard.

The remaining pile mocked me for another three weeks as I posted Free Mulch on Craig’s List and met about a dozen very interesting people who also like mulch.

Two weeks after the first application, the wood chips settled and the color and scent actually became pleasant. The plants nearly all survived (surpassing all hopes) and after only a couple of months have grown nicely, begun bloom and attract some beautiful native butterflies and birds. I just want to hang out in the yard and water it to show it a little love, but I can’t because it doesn’t need water and in fact it would kill it.

Entry Filed under: Animals, Design, Fun, Issues, Life, Los Angeles, Santa Monica

3 Comments

  • 1. farrokh  |  February 16th, 2009 at 12:33 am

    Your story is wonderful. I too have been looking for woodchips to cover my newly installed garden in Santa Monica. Any suggestion of where I can find small amount of wood chips in the area?

  • 2. MSGQuixo  |  February 16th, 2009 at 9:57 am

    If you want a small amount, it seems like Home Depot is probably the easiest, best quality. You can also pick them up through the City of LA at various sites.

  • 3. Faentur  |  September 14th, 2010 at 9:30 am

    I found the Theodore Payne Foundation to be a great resource for native California plants, too.

    http://www.theodorepayne.org/

    They’ve got lots of classes, too, and they’re close enough that I could drive there from Santa Monica and pick out the plants I wanted.

    I’m really bummed I didn’t see this post before I landscaped and mulched my yard; I bought all my mulch at Home Depot. It’s great but I could have got it for free! :\

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