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How to grow native plants in containers

September 24, 2010 |  6:44 am

Cleveland-Sage

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont displays the ravishing beauty of California's wild plants. But the setting is so operatic, it can be hard to imagine this flora on a smaller stage, say, a patio or apartment balcony.

Unless you happen upon a nook where native plants are potted up for a more intimate performance.

On a foggy morning, a hummingbird swoops in for a sip of Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii, above). Impatiently, it probes the whorls of the petite lavender flowers. This sage is usually a sprawling shrub, but confined to a 5-gallon teal pot, the crisp reiterations of dainty leaves and blossoms have the restraint and precision of a Baroque concerto.

Many of Rancho's pots are tall. Low-growing species are raised 3 to 4 feet off the ground, offering a bird's- or bug's-eye experience of these intricate plants.

Buckwheat Soon, a bee drops down on the poufy head of a buckwheat, Eriogonum, right. The insect delicately handles some of the 20 or so teeny blossoms crowded on the grape-sized flower head.

Contrary to what you might think, many native plants will grow in containers — at least for a while.

They may look like dwarf versions of in-ground plants, says Bart O'Brien, Rancho's director of special projects, “because you're limiting their roots; it's like they're growing in a rocky environment.”

The effect can be lovely, like stunted subalpine trees or bonsai.

Keep reading for more on container natives ...

Western-azalea The container garden allows the Rancho staff to coddle plants that need special care. O'Brien inhales the spicy-sweet fragrance of a western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale, right).

Despite being indigenous, this showy, white-blossomed beauty is difficult to grow in California gardens. In the Southland, it roots in cool mountain spots.

“This plant likes acid soils, rich in organic material,” O'Brien says. “In a pot, you can control the soils; and it does need more water.”

Containers can also provide the good drainage that species such as the Cleveland sage require.

Many California natives are dormant in summer, so potting allows you to rotate them to recesses of the yard when they're not at their best. It's an especially good strategy for the pricey native bulbs and corms.

“Almost all of them will proliferate really quickly in pots,” O'Brien says, “then you can plant some out in the garden and if the snails get them, you'll still have backups.”

Horticulturist M. Nevin Smith, author of “Native Treasures: Gardening With the Plants of California,” recommends growing brodiaeas in pots to protect them from gophers, raccoons and other critters that find them delectable. Pots can also fortify plants placed into the ground, he says, discouraging digging animals. Top the pots with wire mesh.

Container-Natives-Firecracker2The firecracker flower (Dichelostemma ida-maia, left) is among the easy-to-grow corms. In a broad oval pot at Rancho, firecracker stalks rocket out of bundles of bunch grass; clusters of the strawberry-red flowers hang in the air like bundles of yet-to-explode pyrotechnics.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when staging native plants in pots. Chiefly, they will not be drought-tolerant. Don't water bulbs after they die back, but do provide regular water and some shade to most plants. Clustering containers will save you time and frustration with the hose.

In inland areas, select thick pots to insulate roots or slip one container into another and fill the gap with gravel. Light-colored pots also help to keep roots cooler.

To fill pots, O'Brien recommends mixing ample perlite — up to 50% — with potting soil. Use a cactus mix for succulents. Fertilize when plants look like they need a boost.

Enjoy the floral cantata.

-- Ilsa Setziol

Photo credits, from top: Los Angeles Times; Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times; www.laspilitas.com; John Longanecker

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