An Oak Woodland Garden in Novato

An Oak Woodland Garden in Novato

By Charlotte Torgovitsky


We live on Cherry Hill, a spur of Mt. Burdell that reaches out towards Deer Island. Our property is on the south facing slope, 225 feet above the wetlands that surround the island and Novato Creek. The woodlands are an interesting, hybridizing mix of Coast Live Oak, Blue Oak, and Oregon Oak; on the north slope of the hill there are also Black Oaks, Madrone and beautiful old drifts of California Fescue. Manzanitas grow on the crest of the hill in the sunnier places.

Next to our two acre property is about 50 acres of wildlands, including a meadow. Much of the land surrounding our home was used to graze cattle in the days of the Black Point Creamery; many of the typical oak understory shrubs are gone, but the meadow is still dominated by Purple Needle Grass. During the rainy season lots of other native plants show themselves amongst the meadow grasses; Ground Iris, Soap Lily, Blue-eyed Grass, Buttercups, Milkmaids, as well as a number of flowering bulbs such as Blue Dicks, Ithuriel’s Spear and Mariposa Lilies.

I love the setting, living next to open space, and all the wild animals; I’ve seen coyote, bobcats, and gray foxes, lots of birds of all sorts, and of course, the deer live here, too. Lizards and tree-frogs populate my garden and find lots of hiding places in the dry-stacked stone walls. Because of the proximity of wild land I’ve been careful to avoid including potentially invasive non-natives plants in my garden. The main intent of my gardening activities has been to re-introduce a natural bio-diversity, and thereby also enhancing the foraging opportunities in order to bring nature closer to home.

Native plants are the best at providing for native creatures since they co-evolved, and life cycles are closely aligned. My front garden border is about 70% native plants and 30% drought-tolerant Mediterranean species that help extend the season of bloom through every month of the year. Plantings under the native oaks are strictly natives; and once established get no water other than the rain.

Photos by Bob and Mieko Watkins

Manzanita ‘Sentinel’ blooms in early January, just as the mason bees emerge from their nests.

Ribes aureum is under-planted with Salvia spathaceae which creates an effective barrier against the deer, who love to nibble on the Golden Currant, but hate the smell of this Salvia even more!

March begins a succession of bloom in my sunny front border; the dry, sunny slope is ideal for many of the chaparral species.

April – Cobweb Thistle grew in this spot for a number of years; now it shows up in various parts of the garden where it seeds itself in.

May – Bright colored drifts of nectar-rich flowers bring in lots of insects, which, in turn, bring in lots of birds and other creatures.

June – Gravel pathways, dry-stack stone walls, and boulders create a heat sink. The birdbath provides water and wonderful insight into bird behaviors.

July – I allow wildflowers to seed themselves in wherever they please; Madia elegans is one of my favorites, and it’s also favored by the Goldfinches, which relish the seeds.

August – Madia blooms all through the summer and into fall, when little else provides nectar.

August – Calamagrostis foliosa has seeded itself in, creating a drift around the birdbath.

Salvia clevelandii frames a view from the top of the garden looking towards Big Rock Ridge.

Coyote Mint provides nectar throughout the summer.

Douglass Iris grows in light shade, without irrigation, under the oaks. These were started from seed; it is about three to four years before the plants start blooming.

Heuchra hybrid ‘Old la Rochette’ is very hardy; this drift gets no water in summer.

Salvia spathaceae covers the ground at the front edge of a hedgerow planting. This photo was taken during the rainy season.

Summer is the dormant season in California; brown is the color of a California summer! As soon as the rains start this patch of Salvia spathaceae greens up again.

Redbud blooming in March, brings in all sorts of creatures.

Redbud blooming in March, brings in all sorts of creatures.

Redbud blooming in March, brings in all sorts of creatures.

Coyote Mint blooms most of the summer, providing nectar and pollen for a variety of insects.

Coyote Mint blooms most of the summer, providing nectar and pollen for a variety of insects.

Coyote Mint blooms most of the summer, providing nectar and pollen for a variety of insects.

CA Towhee in a Holly-leaf Cherry; the flowers attract insects, and the fruits are loved by the birds.

Sparrow in Ceanothus, which provides nectar, pollen and seed; and serves as a larval host plant to a number of Lepidopteran species.

Scrub Jay in Toyon, a plant that provides valuable resources in summer and winter.

The Golden Currant flowers attract bees – and I’ve noticed that bee flies are also attracted by the flowers!

I love to sit and watch all the activity at the birdbath!

I have mounted nesting boxes all over the garden, at the edges of the meadow and in the woodlands. Western Bluebirds have been using this box for several years to raise their young.