Learning from the Master Gardeners


Garden Features


Drought Tolerant


Edible Garden


California Natives


Drip Irrigation


Pesticide Free


Rain Garden


Reclaimed/Recycled Materials


Sheet Mulching


Lawn Conversion


Lawn-Free Landscaping


Permeable Surfaces


Wildlife Habitat

I moved to this house in January 2018. The long-neglected front and back yards gave me the perfect opportunity to convert the area to more water-conscious plantings.

I gradually sheet-mulched a large weedy stretch in the backyard for my vegetable beds, and I also planted bare-root fruit trees. A few months later, inspired by the North Marin Water District’s “Cash for Grass” program, I converted the straggly front lawn, too, installing mostly California native plants after extensive sheet-mulching.

Front Garden

My front garden includes yellow monkeyflower, tall blue bog-sage, purple penstemons, pink -flowering currants, and California fuchsias. I’ve also lined the main walkway with two kinds of native grasses to see which one is ultimately happier in that spot. In addition, deer-grasses are growing alongside island snapdragons, Santa Barbara daisies, and blue-eyed grass. Although not California natives, the succulent-looking calandrinias from Chile are thriving here, their cheerful fuchsia-colored flowers bobbing along the front walkway.

Everything is hand-watered, requiring relatively little irrigation until late summer. The native plants don’t want a lot of water, and the thick wood-chip mulch from a neighbor’s tree pruning helps keep everything humidified, even on a hot and windy Novato afternoon.

Back Garden

My backyard now has five raised beds for vegetables and eleven young fruit trees. Last summer I planted two pineapple guava trees that I had purchased from the Master Gardener’s booth at the 2019 Marin County Fair. These lovely drought-tolerant trees provide fragrant edible flowers in spring and delicious fruit in late fall (assuming you didn’t eat all the flowers in the spring.)

To give further visual interest to this mostly flat backyard, I created two large earth-mounds for the olive trees that were a gift from a dear friend. The earth- mounds also support native grasses, ceanothus, coffeeberry, salvias, lavenders, and lemonade bush. Wildflowers grow there too. A native ground cover (Phyla nodiflora) creeping up the mounds needs no water at all; it was already established throughout the yard and it thrives. Bees love its tiny purple flowers and I love its vibrant summer green. I do try to keep it weeded, especially in the early spring.

Rain Garden

A small rain garden stretches below one of the backyard mounds. After our epic rainstorms last year, I decided to experiment with passive rain collection, and this long oval, about eighteen inches deep and filled with coarse mulches, is the result. It’s planted with rushes and seep monkeyflower. We haven’t really had enough rain this year to test it out, but I like the look and will keep it there in any case.


The gardens provide habitat and shelter for pollinators like bees, butterflies, and other insects, along with hummingbirds and songbirds. Lizards and tree frogs show up from time to time, and of course pesky squirrels and gophers. (My fruit trees are planted in gopher baskets, and the raised beds are lined with hardware cloth to thwart gnawing. This seems to work.) I would never use poisons in my yard, though I’d consider setting traps if I had to.

Long-established oak trees here and in the neighborhood provide important habitat for all kinds of birds. I considered putting up an owl box until one sad morning I found a beautiful young owl dead near my bird-feeder. It had been poisoned, probably unintentionally, probably over time. Owls hunt rats and gophers. They can’t defend themselves against any poisons the rodents may have eaten. I decided against putting up an owl box.

Fire Prevention In Dry Weather

I’ve started to modify my relatively young garden to adapt it against fire and ember danger. Some of my neighbors are doing the same with their gardens.

As the fire experts recommend, I’ve created a “Zero Zone” by surrounding my house with a five-foot bed of river pebbles and removing all flammable materials away from the perimeter. It’s simple, it looks pretty good, and it’s both fire-resistant and drought-proof.

I’ve also reduced the density of plantings beyond the 5’ perimeter. I replaced the tallest sages from the front yard with two large ceramic planters, now filled with a variety of succulents. I didn’t want to create a “fire ladder” anywhere near the trees, and those 7-foot beautiful sages were doing just that. I also limbed up every tree to the Fire Department’s recommended height, and took out part of an aging front hedge. (Next year the whole thing will go.) Not sure what I’ll put in its place; maybe a low-growing ceanothus. More research for next season — always something to learn!

A garden is both a consolation and a teacher. This year we all struggled, not only with the pandemic, but also with thick wildfire smoke in our air. We owe deep gratitude to all who keep us safe from these dangers.

But I’m grateful for all the healthy vegetation that is thriving in my yard, and for all the food I grew here last summer. I had such a bounty of tomatoes that I had to borrow a friend’s food dehydrator to keep up with it all, and I canned a few dozen jars as well. This was a very good problem to have, and one that I hope to have next summer, too!

About the Gardener

Favorite Plants

Prunus spp


Large group of evergreen and deciduous shrubs and trees that includes many ornamental species as well as others that produce edible fruit.


  • Apricot, nectarine, peach, and plum trees are all classified as having low-water use in Sonoma and Marin counties. Consult local nurseries for available types and specific growing requirements.
  • Carolina laurel cherry (P. caroliniana, 20-30’ x 15-20’) is an upright, evergreen shrub from North Carolina to Texas where it grows as an understory plant. Its small, white flowers in spring are followed by small black fruit. P. c. ‘Compacta’ (10-15’ x 6-8’) is a popular smaller form.
  • Hollyleaf cherry (P. ilicifolia, 10-25’ x 10-25’) is an evergreen shrub from central California to Baja California. Creamy white flowers in narrow spikes in late spring to early summer are followed by fruits that attract many species of birds. Can be used as a hedge or screen, as well as for erosion control.
  • Catalina cherry (P. ilicifolia spp. Lyonii, 30-45’ x 20-30’) is native to the Channel Islands.
  • Water: LowModerate
  • Light: Full Sun
  • Soil: Well Drained
  • Foliage: EvergreenDeciduous
  • Leaf Color: BronzeGreenPurple
  • Flower Color: PinkPurpleRed
  • Blooming Season (s): Spring
  • Fruit Color: OrangePurpleRed
  • Bark Color: Brown

Rhus spp

Lemonade Berry, Sugar Bush

Diverse group of resilient shrubs and trees, including several that are native to California, that provide form, foliage, and habitat value.

  • Lemonade berry (R. integrifolia, 4-20‘ x 4-20’) is native to coastal Southern California and Baja California. This evergreen shrub provides white-to-pink clusters of flowers in late winter and early spring followed by sticky, reddish fruits. Lemonade berry is more suitable for coastal climates, whereas sugar bush will also grow in hotter areas.
  • Sugar bush (R. ovata, 4-10’ x 4-10’) is native to dry slopes away from the coast in Southern California and Baja California. Similar to lemonade berry with more reddish flowers and leaves that are often folded down the center.
  • African sumac (R. lancea, 15-25’ x 20-30’) is an evergreen tree from South Africa with willow-like leaves and graceful weeping habit.

Note: The infamous poison oak was previously classified within the Rhus genus, but has since been reclassified to the more appropriate sounding Toxicodendron diversilobum.

  • Water: Low
  • Light: Full SunPartial Shade
  • Soil: Well Drained
  • Foliage: Evergreen
  • Leaf Color: Green
  • Flower Color: PinkWhite
  • Blooming Season (s): SpringWinter
  • Fruit Color: BlackRed

Ceanothus spp & cvs

Ceanothus, California Lilac

Ceanothus is a group of fast-growing, evergreen shrubs that vary from groundcovers to small trees, many of which are native to California. They provide a spectacular display of flowers in spring that will attract a multitude of pollinators. Flowers are followed by seeds that provide food for birds. The clusters of tiny flowers range from white to deep violet. Plants perform best with good drainage and minimal irrigation once established. Some do best in cooler coastal climates, but many thrive in hotter inland climates. Pay close attention to the mature size when selecting ceanothus to ensure that it has sufficient space for its natural form.

Groundcovers: C. ‘Centennial’ (2’ x 8’), C. gloriosus var. gloriosus ‘Anchor Bay’ (2’ x 8’), C. griseus var. horizontalis ‘Diamond Heights’ (variegated, 1’ x 4’), C. griseus var. horizontalis ‘Yankee Point’ (3’ x 12’), C. maritimus (2’ x 6’).

Shrubs: C. ‘Blue Jeans’ (6’ x 6’), C. Concha (8’ x 8’), C. ‘Dark Star’ (6’ x 8’), C. ‘Joyce Coulter’ (4’ x 12’), C. ‘Julia Phelps’ (8’ x 10’), C. cuneatus (8’ x 8’), C. thyrsiflorus ‘Skylark’ (4’ x 6’).

Large shrubs: C. ‘Frosty Blue’ (10’ x 12’), C. ‘Ray Hartman’ (15’ x 15’), C. thyrsiflorus (20’ x 20’), C. t. ‘Snow Flurry’ (white flower, 20’ x 20’).

  • Water: Very LowLowModerate
  • Light: Full SunPartial Shade
  • Soil: Well Drained
  • Foliage: Evergreen
  • Leaf Color: GreenGreen - Dark
  • Flower Color: BlueWhite
  • Blooming Season (s): SpringSummer

Pistacia chinensis

Chinese Pistache

Together with crape myrtle, Chinese pistache is a ubiquitous street tree in Sonoma and Marin counties due to its modest size, attractive foliage, fall color, and ability to withstand heat and drought. May be invasive in riparian areas. P. c. ‘Keith Davey’ is a sexed male that will not produce fruit.

  • Water: Low
  • Light: Full Sun
  • Soil: Well Drained
  • Foliage: Deciduous
  • Leaf Color: Green - DarkYellow
  • Blooming Season (s): Fall
  • Fruit Color: Red

Recommended Resources

Nature's Best Hope

By, Douglas W. Tallamy. Published February 4, 2020. This book is a fine guide to a homegrown habitat.

Gardening Tips


Birds Love Native Plants

California native plants, wherever you can put them!  If you love birds, these are the plants that will encourage, nurture, and shelter them.