It’s summer gardening season on Lake Tahoe — which native plants will thrive?
Special to the Tribune
Some people have a way with plants. I am not one of these people. I’ve killed a succulent. To make matters worse, I was living in San Diego at the time, where plants thrive.
You can grow pretty much anything on the Southern California coast, but the same cannot be said for our rugged and unforgiving mountain climate.
And yet, plenty of plants grow in our region. The key is knowing which plants will thrive and add beauty to your mountain home — and for the inside scoop, there’s no better resource than local nurseries and garden centers.
Eric Larusson, co-owner of Villager Nursery in Truckee, is a plant guy. As a certified arborist, his passion is backed by degrees in molecular biology, botany, horticulture and agriculture. He and his business partner, Rob VanDyke, believe in a scientific approach to gardening in the mountains.
“We get to geek out experimenting with everything,” said Larusson as he walked me on a tour of Villager Nursery. “We look at all the variables, such as where this plant is from — for instance the mountains of Iran. The temperatures really fluctuate there, but it never gets that cold and it’s really dry, so we’ll see how it does here.”
As Larusson puts it, his job is to kill plants so his customers don’t have to. “We’ve killed thousands of plants to figure out what grows well here. That’s my job, so we can offer been-there recommendations.”
Villager Nursery stocks plants from northern Greenland, Mongolia, Siberia, the Alps, Caucasus and Himalaya, among hundreds of other harsh climates you wouldn’t pick for a beach vacation.
According to Larusson, the top causes of plant demise in our region are underwatering, overwatering, freezing and wildlife.
FROM PANSIES TO PERENNIALS
While death by watering, or lack there of, can be attributed to user error, late frosts kill plants tended by even the most seasoned high-altitude gardeners. Larusson notes we had exactly six nights without frost in 1993. One solution? Choosing hardy and native plants.
For resilient, colorful annuals in our region that love full sun, Larusson suggests looking to pansies, calendula, violas, dianthus, English primrose and snapdragons.
“You could plant these flowers in February and they would be fine,” Larusson said.
Continuing his list with full-sun flowers that thrive in summer and can survive a light frost, Larusson suggests annuals such as calibrachoa, Sutera cordata, Victoria or Mystic Spires salvia, and Laguna lobelias. He also adds perennials like peonies and Geranium Rozanne, recognized as “Perennial Plant of the Year” in 2008.
“Often, beginners want to plan marigolds in April,” said Autumn Osmus, garden center manager at Nels Garden Center in South Lake Tahoe, “but the flowers turn black as soon as it freezes.”
Like Larusson, Osmus also recommends pansies, violas and perennials as hardy plants well suited for novice gardeners.
Noting her love of native plants, she suggests lupine, columbine, bleeding hearts and yarrow as flowers “you can’t kill.”
FINDING THE RIGHT MIX
Osmus outlines home gardening in three easy steps: soil, sun and wildlife protection. For soil, she stresses the importance of adding organic matter and organic compost to the soil, as well as adequate water, which varies by plant.
“In our region, our soil is basically decomposed granite,” she said. “It’s important to add organic matter to build up the soil before planting.”
For protection from local wildlife, Osmus recommends organic repellent or growing plants that naturally deter animals and pests. Organic repellents can consist of nasal and respiratory repellents, including some made from cayenne pepper, to repellents containing predatory urine.
Some plant repellents are poisonous, such as foxglove and Oriental poppy, but many natural plant repellents are herbs, including catmint, oregano and sage, which have the added benefit of spicing up your meals.
In addition to repelling pests and putting food on the table, mixing edibles and flowers can also create “companion plant” arrangements for symbiotic relationships. Borage, also known as starflower, attracts bees that help pollinate squash, while marigolds deter roundworms from tomato pants and carrots produce basil-aiding nitrogen.
TRENDING TOWARD EDIBLE PLANTS
Larusson has seen a cultural shift toward sustainable and edible landscaping in the past five years. While the industry saw small bumps in vegetable sales in the ‘80s and again in the mid ‘90s, both were short lasted. This time, he says, the recent trend toward planting edibles seems to be sticking.
If you have thriving shade-loving flowers in your garden and want to plant edibles, Larusson recommends Bulls Blood beets, chard, mesclun mix and Red Sails lettuce for their hardiness and color.
As I continued to tour the nursery with Larusson, I stop by a stunning orange flower I’m certain I would kill within minutes of owning.
Larusson tells me Lilium Parvum, known as Sierra tiger lily or Alpine lily, is actually extremely resilient. The lily is a native wildflower found in meadows around Lake Tahoe, and it survives extremely well in home gardens when provided adequate shade and heavy watering.
I had expected to find a short list of go-to mountain plants capable of surviving summer frosts and high levels of user error, but in these local nurseries I’m surrounded by the hundreds of flourishing flowers, vines, herbs and vegetables.
I think back to Larusson’s decades of research experimenting with plants from the harshest corners of the earth. If a plant can survive in Siberia, perhaps it can survive on my porch.