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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Thursday - October 23, 2008

From: Santa Clara, CA
Region: California
Topic: Grasses or Grass-like
Title: Replacing junipers on slope with wildlife garden
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

Gradual replacement of Juniper with natives? We have a 10 foot deep slope with less than a 45 degree angle that is all covered with old, overgrown Juniper. It does not appear to serve any purpose for wildlife although it is holding up the slope well. The slope is on the north side of an apartment building. I would like to transition this to a habitat that supports wildlife better especially hummingbirds. There is already a bottlebrush tree that attracts hummers. What native plants do you recommend and are there any that can be planted over the old juniper root system which is so nicely holding the slope? I would like to not water it after the first summer. Oregon Grape has been suggested.

ANSWER:

To partially quote from a previous Mr. Smarty Plants answer (although this was on Juniperus ashei, native to Texas):

"Mr. Smarty Plants thinks that juniper needs a better public relations representative. The poor thing gets very little good PR! It is, after all, a native. It can be troublesome when it takes over completely land that's been cleared and abused, but it has many good features when properly managed. For one thing, birds love the berries, nest in its branches, and its bark is used in the nests of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. It provides shelter during cold winter weather and shade during hot weather. It can make a great windbreak or privacy screen for your property. It can even be coaxed into being a "regular" tree with some judicious pruning.

Mr. Smarty Plants recommends that, although you might want to remove some of your juniper, that you not remove all it. You could leave trees around the perimeter to act as a privacy fence and windbreak. You could also leave some dotted around the property as well. You could either leave them intact or trim off the lower branches for a more open feel. You can watch for young juniper plants and remove them so that your entire property isn't overrun with juniper."

There are about 15 species of  junipers native to North America; of those, Juniperus californica (California juniper), Juniperus communis (common juniper), Juniperus occidentalis (western juniper) and Juniperus osteosperma (Utah juniper) are all native to California.  Juniperus communis (common juniper) is probably not your plant, as it is a low shrub, commonly occurring near timberline in mountainous areas. 

You suggested the possibility of Oregon grape for this space. Mahonia aquifolium (hollyleaved barberry) (native to California) is one of several plants referred to as Oregon grape. The berries of this and other Oregon-grape species are eaten by wildlife and make good jelly. It is a low-growing shrub with spiny leaves, evergreen and attractive, so that is definitely one good possibility. 

We can understand your not wanting a monoculture, to add some other plant material that is more interesting. We're going to suggest, to start giving you some ideas, that you read three of our How-To articles on dealing with a large space, attracting wildlife and even helping with erosion:  Butterfly GardeningWildlife Gardening, and Meadow Gardening.  All three of these articles have Bibliographies of associated subjects, and you may be able to find the books you are interested in at your local library. It would also be a good idea to read our How-To Article A Guide to Native Gardening to help you understand why it is so important to use plants native to North America and to the area in which they are being grown when trying to attract wildlife. 

Another collection in our database is Butterflies and Moths of North America. This lists plants native to North America that attract butterflies and moths, either for nectar or for sheltering and feeding larvae. When you reach that site, "Narrow Your Search" by indicating California for the state and you will get a list of butterfly attracting plants native to California, from which you can choose some that should do well on your property. 

Finally, you appear to be concerned about erosion. Although both the juniper and the Oregon grape are helpful with controlling erosion, another excellent option is native grasses, as you probably noted when you read our How To Article on Meadow Gardening. We are going to go to our Recommended Species site, click on Southern California on the map, and select for Grasses or Grass-like plants under "Habit," which will give us a list of appropriate and attractive grasses for your needs. You can go to each species page and read about the benefits to wildlife and care in general. 

Grasses

Achnatherum hymenoides (Indian ricegrass)

Festuca californica (California fescue)

Melica imperfecta (smallflower melicgrass)

 

Pictures of Juniperus californica (California juniper)

Pictures of Juniperus occidentalis (western juniper)

Pictures of Juniperus osteosperma (Utah juniper)


Mahonia aquifolium

Achnatherum hymenoides

Festuca californica

Melica imperfecta

 

 

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