Plant a natural fence wildlife will love

Native shrubs can provide a fence like privacy screen while also proving habit and food for birds, pollinators and other critters.|

Question: My house is on a corner lot in a housing development, on a street that gets busy during commuting hours. I’d like to plant a hedge near the sidewalk to muffle the traffic noise and provide some privacy. Can you recommend any California native shrubs I could use for this hedge?

Master Gardeners: We applaud your desire to plant natives! Choosing native shrubs as a hedge increases the biodiversity that supports the natural world around your home.

Many shrubs traditionally used in local landscapes as hedges, such as privet or pittosporum, may give some shelter to insects, birds and other wildlife. But by using native plants for hedging, you are adding food sources to the habitat space in your garden. The blooms and berries of natives at the end of the growing season offer a vital link in the food web of our local ecosystems. Almost all insects and pollinators seek out a few native plants to lay their eggs. Native plants also provide a food source for their young.

Most shrubs native to Sonoma County are drought-tolerant. Once established in your garden, they perform well without regular watering, fertilizing or soil amendments. The species you choose depends on the size and appearance of the space you want to fill and how quickly you want the hedge to develop.

Do you want a visual screen or a physical barrier to minimize foot traffic from humans and deer? An evergreen shrub such as toyon could provide a year-round visual and sound barrier plus shelter for wildlife. Shrubs that are winter-deciduous, such as Ribes spp. or Sambucus spp., can provide a physical barrier and food for wildlife but with less privacy and noise suppression.

To optimize biodiversity, choose multiple species for the hedge rather than a long row of a single species. Consider using two or three evergreen native shrub species to populate your hedging space, and maybe include a winter-deciduous native species. By choosing multiple native species with differing bloom times, you support the widest array of pollinators, insects and birds. Plus, you add visual interest.

You may want to plant the shrubs in a staggered fashion rather than a straight line. Then, as the hedge develops, you can prune or even remove a shrub or two if it gets too large or dense. Remember many California native plants mature slowly and may take several years to fill the desired space.

The following native species are readily available at most local native plant nurseries and provide a variety of options.

Heteromeles arbutifolia (toyon, California holly, Christmas berry): This glossy-leaf evergreen shrub is likely at the top of every list of native hedge candidates. Called toyon by the Ohlone people, this hardy species grows in most regions of the state. Toyon has a modest rate of growth and a moderately dense canopy. A new planting can grow to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide in about five years. In the spring and early summer, it’s covered with small lightly scented white blossoms. As summer ends and winter approaches, it develops small berries, or pomes, that turn a vibrant red. These ripe winter fruits are a great source of food for wildlife, particularly birds. When you have an established toyon in your yard, you can expect visits from both cedar waxwings and mockingbirds.

Toyon prefers a mostly sunny location and performs well in all types of local soils. As with many California natives, toyons grow best in soil with good to moderate drainage. Plant them with the top of the root ball slightly above grade to keep the roots from suffering during our wet, cool Sonoma County winters. Toyon responds well to a little pruning in the late spring to control its size and shape, rejuvenate growth and encourage a bushier, more attractive plant.

Ceanothus spp. (California lilac): California is home to dozens of Ceanothus species and hybrids. They are all evergreen and sport a springtime burst of mostly blue and violet blooms. Ceanothus species and hybrids can vary from low-growing ground covers to small trees. Make sure you know how large the Ceanothus will get before you bring it home. Some gardeners mistakenly believe Ceanothus is short-lived, but that may be related to the care they receive in home gardens. In reality, Ceanothus plants are quite drought-tolerant. Once established, they need no additional water.

Some Ceanothus hybrids are more forgiving to the home gardener. ‘Julia Phelps’ grows to an ideal hedge size, 6 feet tall and wide at maturity. ‘Concha’ is another good choice that is slightly smaller at 4 feet by 4 feet over the same growth period. Both produce a brilliant show of deep blue spring blooms with a sweet waft of fragrance, attracting many spring pollinators. Plant them in full sun, though in the warmest locations some afternoon shade might be preferred.

Frangula californica (coffeeberry): The fruit of this shrub has seeds that resemble coffee beans. Coffeeberry is an evergreen native to much of California, with leaves and stems that have a reddish tint. In the springtime, it produces clusters of very small yellow flowers that many home gardeners don’t even notice but small pollinators love. The fruit of coffeeberry starts green in the summertime, then turns red and almost black when fully ripe. Birds greatly enjoy the ripe fruit. Some coffeeberry can get quite large, but you can easily prune them. Because the cultivars ‘Leatherleaf’ and ‘Eve Case’ are both smaller, they are good choices for the home garden hedge. A bit of afternoon shade may benefit this native in your home garden.

Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’ (manzanita): Evergreen manzanitas are frequently used in the home garden as specimen plants. Gardeners often prune away the lower branches to expose the architectural beauty of the shrub structure and its remarkable smooth bark. The densiflora species, endemic, or native, to Sonoma County, has a dense canopy with leaves that are bright green, with white to pink urn-shaped blooms in the spring. Manzanita fruit also serves as food for birds and other wildlife. The ‘Howard McMinn’ cultivar is easy to grow, even if you have little experience growing manzanita. It can grow in a range of soil types and will tolerate infrequent summer drip irrigation. You could effectively use this cultivar as a hedge by simply not removing the lower branches. ‘Howard McMinn’ is a relatively slow grower and may be 8 feet tall and wide at maturity.

If you want to incorporate winter-dormant natives in your hedge, you might include Ribes sanguineum var. ‘glutinosum’ (blood currant, pink-flowering currant) or Sambucus mexicana (blue elderberry). We invite you to visit the following websites for more information on these and other California native plants to help in your selection and planting success:

Contributors to this week’s column were Bill Klausing, Tim Coyne, Pat Decker and Karen Felker. The UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County, sonomamg.ucanr.edu, provides environmentally sustainable, science-based horticultural information to Sonoma County home gardeners. Send your gardening questions to scmgpd@gmail.com. You will receive answers to your questions either in this newspaper or from our Information Desk. You can contact the Information Desk directly at 707-565-2608 or mgsonoma@ucanr.edu.

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