Adopt a Native Plant

Native plants make good neighbors.

I did not always appreciate the beauty of native plants and how integral they are to the wellbeing of the communities in which they reside, but I do now.

A native plant is a plant or tree that is adapted to live in the soil and climate of a particular region (small or large) and that can co-exist with neighboring plants and animals without being killed off or taking over. Native plants are good for the environment because they do not require extra inputs like water, synthetic fertilizers, or pesticides. They help nourish the soil, prevent erosion, maintain biodiversity, and provide habit and food for local wildlife and people.

It was not as if I woke up one morning thinking “Wow, native plants are beautiful. I need to learn more about them.” The appreciation for native plants just sort of crept up on me after several years of living in the Monterey pine forest of the California Central Coast.

I am originally from Southern California where my spouse and I doggedly defied the hot dry climate by maintaining not one, but two turf grass lawns. We also tended two dozen rose bushes, a few hydrangeas, and a bed of azaleas. The venerable old oak tree in the corner of the backyard might have been the only native plant on the property.

As you can imagine, moving from a manicured yard to a wild one took some getting used to. What you might call a weed, we call grass. Plant and tree seedlings volunteer to live wherever the wind blows their seeds or an animal deposits them. Birds visit daily to avail themselves of our birdbaths and deer cruise through in search of food and sometimes to hang out.

By observing the land surrounding our house and nearby open spaces, I saw that some plants seemed to flourish growing with a variety of different plants, while other plants seemed to be trying to hog a whole area just for themselves. I realized that I did not know much about native and invasive plants and that even our tiny piece of land might need a hand to be at its best.

I set out to educate myself by reading, joining the California Native Plant Society, and participating in events that provide me with opportunities to learn about native plants.

In October, my spouse and I attended the fall session of the Chumash Kitchen series being held at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. The Chumash people have lived in this area for thousands of years so what could be better than learning about native plants from Violet and Jeanette, two Chumash women who live here now. That day it was all about oaks and acorns. I came away informed and inspired to write Thanksgiving – We are All Connected.

We pick up the thread of the Chumash Kitchen story on a cool February morning that quickly turned into a hot day.

The Chumash Kitchen

The winter session of the Chumash Kitchen began with the group gathering outside and forming a rough circle so that Violet could give us a rundown of the morning including a few hints about the native foods we would be enjoying at breakfast and lunch.

I had left my sweater inside and was feeling a bit chilled but there was no way I was going to break the circle to go get it. I forgot I was cold after Violet introduced her father, Fred, and he began telling stories about growing up in this area. Fred is a good storyteller and I think he could have entertained us indefinitely, but Violet gave him a gentle sign that he needed to wrap things up so we could all go eat breakfast.

Breakfast consisted of tasty rice, egg, and mushroom dishes made with locally harvested and foraged ingredients. I bypassed the coffee urn to try some tea made with cedar and Yerba Buena. The tea was both warm and refreshing with a slightly minty taste and a cedar fragrance.

We Meet a Toyon

After breakfast, the group set out across the grass of the adjacent park to a nearby campground to meet a plant commonly known as Toyon and called Qwe’ by the Chumash people. In the midst of winter, this 12-foot tall Toyon was glorious with evergreen leaves and branches laden with tiny ripe red berries.

Chumash Kitchen Group Photo in Front of a Toyon
Chumash Kitchen Group Photo in Front of a Toyon at El Chorro Regional Campground in San Luis Obispo, CA – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

Easily passing the conversation back and forth, Jeanette and Violet shared information about Toyons, which are native to California and especially enjoy growing with oak trees. Besides being beautiful, we learned that Toyons provide habitat and food for a wide variety of wildlife as well as food, medicine, tools, and fuel for people.

Jeanette talked about how the Chumash and other indigenous people have been tending wild native plants and trees for thousands of years by gathering seeds, planting, weeding, pruning, transplanting, harvesting, and sometimes burning. When pruning a plant or harvesting from it, Chumash people give an offering of some sort, which could be a drink of water, a pinch of tobacco, a prayer, or even a piece of hair.

The Three Yerba Sisters

With the sun now bright and hot, we walked back to a cool shady area on the botanical garden grounds to learn about three California native medicinal plants and then go meet them. As Jeanette and Violet talked about the healing properties of Yerba Buena, Yerba Mansa, and Yerba Santa, they stressed that using plants for medicinal purposes is not like taking pills.

Pharmaceutical pills usually address a narrow range of ailments, have specific dosages, and are uniform in size, color, and ingredients. A plant may have many medicinal uses as well as be a source of food for people and wildlife and it is a living being so each plant in the family will have similar traits but none will be exactly alike. It is important to get to know the plant and to help care for it, after all, it is giving a part of itself for your benefit.

Yerba Santa Plant Growing at San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
Yerba Santa Growing at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

After learning about the Yerba sisters, Lindsey from the botanical garden led us on a joyful walk through the garden to meet the plants.

She also gave us some background about the botanical garden, which showcases plants and trees from five Mediterranean climates like our own.

We headed back to the event center for a sumptuous lunch prepared by Violet and a talented group of volunteers.

Bountiful Lunch

The day before the event, a hardworking group of volunteers had done some of the meal prep work, which included removing two itsy bitsy seeds from each Toyon berry that had previously been picked and dried.

Chumash Kitchen Lunch Plate Full of Delicious Food
Chumash Kitchen Plate Full of Delicious Food – Photo Credit charmainecoimbra.com

After the food was blessed, our plates were filled with delicious looking and smelling food. A creamy gravy with ground bison was poured over rice. This was accompanied by sautéed greens and roasted root vegetables with a Toyon vinaigrette.

Chumash Kitchen Chocolate Crepe with Toyon Berries
Chumash Kitchen Chocolate Crepe with Toyon Berries – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

For dessert, we were treated to a chocolate crepe topped with rose hip infused whipped cream and a lovely handcrafted chocolate rosette.

A sweet syrup made with Toyon berries was dotted around the plate and drizzled over the top.

The dessert looked almost too good to eat, but we did eat it and it was scrumptious.

Full of information and replete with delicious food, we were sent off with a tiny Yerba Buena seedling of our own to get to know and tend.

Yerba Buena Seedling from San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
Yerba Buena Seedling from San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

Get to Know a Native Plant

Meeting the Toyon was an auspicious occasion for me.

Even though I have seen hundreds of Toyons while living on the Central Coast, I had not met one until last December during my first native plant walk with the California Native Plant Society. Toyon was the very first plant pointed out on the trail. Later in the month, my spouse and I planted two Toyon seedlings in our yard as part of our tradition of planting two trees each year during the Christmas season.

I felt blessed to have had the opportunity to meet a grown-up Toyon that had been living at its location for many years and was obviously thriving. Better yet, was learning about Toyons from two Chumash women whose ancestors have been living with Toyons for centuries.

Over the past couple of months, I have developed a special affinity for Toyons that I cannot explain. When we got home, I filled up a watering can and gave the two small Toyons growing in your yard a drink and a few words of encouragement.

You can help native plants flourish in your community by adopting a native plant or two.

Learn about native plants at your local botanical garden, native plant society, or nursery. Select a native plant that appeals to you. Locate a suitable place for the plant to live in your yard. Get to know your native plant and tend it. Alternately, introduce yourself to a plant or tree living in the wild and adopt it.

Featured Image at Top: Toyon with Ripe Red Berries at El Chorro Regional Park Campground in San Luis Obispo, CA

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Life after Cancer – Gardening

Gardening can help you reconnect with your life.

On the last day of cancer treatment, I think every patient should receive a medal and a garden trowel. The medal is to acknowledge the horrific journey you have just completed and the trowel is to encourage you to get outside and do some gardening.

Cancer treatment can save your life but it is a brutal experience. I know this because I have been through it. I am a breast cancer survivor. At the end of my treatment, I was grateful to be alive! I was also feeling beat up, worn out, and emotionally traumatized. I needed to recover from cancer treatment.

Gardening has been a surprising and vital part of my healing process. I am sharing my story here in hopes that it may help you if you are coping with cancer or another serious illness or you love someone who is.

My Cancer Treatment is Over, Now What?

For those of us fortunate enough to survive cancer treatment, there is life after cancer.

After I completed treatment, I felt as if I had crossed some kind of ephemeral bridge that disappeared into the mist as soon as I stepped off it at the other end. There was no going back to the old me. The only choice was to move forward into uncharted territory.

As far as I know, there is no roadmap, with the destination “you are recovered” marked on it with directions on how to get there. At least I did not receive one. How do you begin recovering from a devastating life-altering experience?

You start by doing something, anything.

I did things like gradually increasing my daily walking and resuming my healthy eating habits. Volunteering gave me a sense of empowerment that helped me get back to my work, which is trying to convince you, me, and everyone else to live more lightly on Earth.

Taking up gardening again both soothed my soul and healed my body.

You may not realize that gardening is good exercise. Almost any kind of gardening requires physical activity like moving around, carrying stuff, and using tools. These activities can help you regain your strength, energy, and stamina.

Gardening has intangible benefits, too. It can refresh your spirit and reconnect you with your life. The act of growing something can remind you that you are part of nature, not separate from it.

Besides reconnecting me with my life, gardening gave me a feeling of doing something worthwhile. By healing myself, I was healing a tiny spot on Earth.

Gardening Helped Me Heal after Cancer Treatment

At its most basic, gardening is about helping something grow with your own hands.

Hanging Basket with Plants and Flowers
Hanging basket with plants and flowers – Photo iStock/Antony Kemp

Close your eyes and picture yourself gardening. What comes to mind? Do you see yourself pruning roses, digging a hole for an oak tree sapling, harvesting bell peppers, taking out your lawn, or _____?

I saw myself spreading mulch on our drought-stricken patch of land in the Monterey pine forest of the California Central Coast.

Moving a Mountain of Mulch

Mulch nourishes the soil and helps it retain moisture, which is especially important if you live in a dry climate with low rainfall as we do.

In our town, tree and landscape maintenance services will deliver mulch consisting of wood chips, leaves, and pine needles free. You then provide the labor to move and spread it out.

In previous years, I had spread literally tons of mulch around our yard.

Gardening in our yard involves a lot of walking up and down sloping ground so a wheelbarrow is not practical. I had purchased a 17-gallon plastic tub with handles (the kind you put ice and beverages in at a party). After shoveling mulch into the tub, I would carry it to a location in the yard and dump it. After I covered some section of land, I spread the mulch out with a rake.

The work was hard and strenuous, but it paid off. More tree seedlings survived each year, native plants established themselves, and the soil was dark and rich where the mulch had biodegraded over the years.

Just before my cancer diagnosis, I had received a truck full of mulch that had been strategically placed in piles around our yard.

I had not made much progress when chemotherapy quickly sapped my strength and energy. There was no way I could move the mulch with a shovel and a tub. I could have asked my spouse or perhaps I could have hired someone to do it but I wanted to do it myself—so the mulch sat, and sat, and sat.

As the end of my treatment came into view, I could not imagine how I would ever have the strength to push a shovel into a pile of mulch with alone carry a tub of it more than a few feet. This was a depressing thought. I felt defeated.

Then one day, I realized that there was another way to move the mountain of mulch. I could do it a little bit at a time with a garden trowel and two small pails I already owned. This seemed like a questionable idea, even to me, but I decided to try it.

Each day that I could walk uphill in our yard, I used my trowel to fill the two pails with mulch, then I walked to an area that was crying out for protection and dumped the pails. On days that I felt especially energetic, I did it twice.

As you can imagine it took me many months to move all that mulch but I did do it and I enjoyed doing it.

Being outside was refreshing. I could feel the breeze and hear the birds twittering in the trees. I was doing something worthwhile by helping this tiny piece of land heal. The simple act of moving the mulch from point A to B was empowering for me. It showed me that I could and would recover.

A mulch mountain project may not appeal to you so let us look at some other gardening activities.

Gardening Can Help You Recover from Cancer Treatment, Too

Everyone’s situation is different. You could be a novice who has never grown anything in your life or a seasoned gardener looking for a way to re-enter gardening.

I hope one of the suggestions below will appeal to you or help you come up with your own gardening idea.

Container Gardening

Not everyone has a yard or wants one. Many homes, condos, and apartments have a patio, terrace, or a balcony. These are good places for experimenting with growing plants, flowers, or food in pots and other containers.

Fresh Parsley, Basil, and Oregano Growing in Pots
Fresh parsley, basil, and oregano growing in pots – Photo Credit iStock/Mkucova

Are you a fan of cooking with fresh herbs? Then try growing a few from seeds or already potted plants. Do you wish you had a rose garden? Then start one on your patio with a few rose bushes that are suitable for containers (ask at your local nursery). Would like some color on our balcony? Try your hand at creating your own planter with small-scale flowers and plants.

You can do a lot of gardening with a garden trowel, a pair of clippers, a bucket, a watering can, and a pair of gloves.

Native Plant Gardening

Native plants and trees are adapted to living in the climate of the regions they originated in and they do not require a lot of extra inputs like pesticides, fertilizers, and extra water.

Are you interested in giving native plants a whirl but not ready to make a big commitment? Ask your local nursery for suggestions and then select a plant or two to try. Are you tired of caring for your turf grass lawn or paying someone else to do it? Consider taking the plunge and removing your grass then growing native plants or seasonal foods. Are you interested in attracting birds, bees, or butterflies to your yard? Ask for native plant ideas at your local nursery, botanical garden, or native plant society and then add some native plants to your garden.

In addition to the equipment listed under container gardening, you will probably need a shovel, a tub for carrying soil, weeds, and plant clippings, a weeding tool, and possibly a rake.

Public Gardening

If you do not have a place to garden at home or even if you do, you might enjoy volunteering at a public garden. This also gives you an opportunity to work and learn alongside other people in your community.

People Planting Vegetables in a Community Garden
People planting vegetables in a community garden – Photo Credit iStock/Rawpixel

Are you interested in growing some of your own food but do not have a place to do it? Look for a community garden in your area where you are either responsible for your own plot or everyone works together collectively. Do you enjoy visiting a botanical garden where you live? Become a volunteer gardener and help with weeding, raking leaves, pruning, watering, and transplanting seedlings. Would you enjoy helping kids learn how to grow their own food? Find an elementary school in your area with a food garden and volunteer.

These are just a few of the ways you can get involved in gardening.

I hope you envision gardening as part of your life after cancer. Gardening is a delightful way to heal yourself and reconnect with your life while contributing to the greater good.

Featured Image at Top: Wood handled garden trowel pushed into soil – Photo Credit iStock/malerapaso

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