Native home gardens: Taming the wild things

By Jennifer E. Beaver
Staff Writer

A few weeks back, I wrote about my struggle to appreciate native landscapes. The column was inspired by our home’s inclusion in the Lawn-to-Garden Incentive Program ( sponsored by the Long Beach Water Department, which will pay $2.50 per square foot to replace thirsty lawns with select drought-tolerant plants. Evidently there is a lot of interest, because many readers responded.
Of particular interest was an email from friend Jim Wilkie, a science teacher at Gompers K-8 School in Lakewood. Jim suggested that I take a look at the native gardens at Prisk Elementary and Hill Middle schools to get an idea of how beautiful and intriguing these landscapes could be. I visited and was captivated by the wild, untamed shapes, bright and soothing colors, hum of happy bees, and fresh, spicy-sweet scents.
Aside from being located on Long Beach school campuses, these gardens had something else in common: Mike Letteriello. Mike designed and maintains both gardens with help from students and teachers. Long before native plants became popular, Mike was collecting and experimenting with specimens he discovered on trips to the Mojave Desert. His hands-on knowledge of how these plants behave makes him, in my book, a top-notch source of information.
I asked Mike for a few suggestions to achieve what I think we really want from natives in our home landscapes: controlled wildness. An oxymoron, yes– but necessary to keep these exuberant growers from taking over.
Ground cover: For a sunny area, try yarrow. You can trim it with a weed whacker.
Perennial beds (full sun): Coral bells, especially “Wendy” and “Rosada.” These need a little more moisture and some afternoon shade to look good. Monkey flower, including regular orange and different colored hybrids such as “Salsa,” “Eleanor,” and “Soquel.”
Accent plants: up to 4 feet: Agaves; dudleyas; “Hot Lips” salvia gregii. Up to 5–6 feet: ‘Howard McMinn’ manzanita, one of the easiest manzanitas for a beginner gardener; 6 feet plus: “Ray Hartmann” ceanothus, which can be trimmed into small tree
Grasses: Deer grass, a good complement to many gardens; fescues, especially effective when massed. 
Annuals: These are great for extra color: Poppies, lupines, Chinese houses, baby blue eyes, meadowfoam, Mojave bluebells, clarkia, tidy tips.

Want to go native and need a guide through the wild? Mike offers consulting services. Reach him at
If you design or install native landscapes, drop me a line at and I’ll include your contact info in an upcoming column.

Jennifer E. Beaver, a Wrigley resident, is a master gardener and author of Container Gardening for California.

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