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Redwood Understory Garden Oasis in the Western Addition

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

By: Dale Danley

In the backyard of my home in the Western Addition, I get to play in about 400 square feet of dirt. Ten years ago, I started making a gradual switch to California natives, bringing home one or two plants at a time. With a few mature trees, and with tall buildings casting shade from the north and from the west, I knew I would have the best results with shade lovers. 

On visits to the redwood grove at Strybing Botanical Garden, I took photos and wrote down plant names to understand what makes up that ecological niche. I eventually established a sturdy ground cover of four primary plants: Western wild ginger, Pacific bleeding heart, Western coltsfoot, and Redwood sorrel, which now rule over the shadier portion of the yard. 

The sorrel and ginger seem to be especially symbiotic and last throughout the year (with a bit of irrigation and compost from the backyard bin). The bleeding heart is more mercurial: quick to sprout and flower, and then to flush a vivid orange and go crispy when the temperatures rise. The coltsfoot seems at risk of being squeezed out, but it thrives on the margins and is often the first one of the four to re-appear when an area is disturbed. For whatever reason, the coltsfoot has not flowered in all these years, but its soft, palmate leaves - often more than a foot across - make up for that. 

When I noticed that Sutro Stewards had made its nursery plants easily available for online shopping, and were even offering delivery during the Covid-19 shelter-in-place, I realized that I could add to my garden while making a small financial contribution to an important organization. The three new plants that I found for my tiny piece of urban habitat were Largeflower fairybells, California spikenard, and Star-flowered lily of the valley. I am already enjoying them, though I expect them to go dormant sometime this summer. For a gardener like me who takes an active hand, the challenge will be to let them go undisturbed for several months. The real thrill will be to see them re-emerge when the rains return.

You can find Dale on Twitter @habitat44

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