Exotic plants may give some gardeners a thrill, but Penny Nyunt believes that the rewards are greater when you choose a species closer to home.
Nyunt is part owner of Santa Margarita’s Las Pilitas Nursery, which her parents, Bert and Celeste Wilson, started in 1975 when Bert was studying chemistry at Cal Poly and working part-time as a landscaper.
“He wanted to use native plants but couldn’t find any,” said Nyunt, “so he started some in his backyard.”
Today, the five-acre family farm grows anywhere from 500 to 1,000 species of California native plants. It also features demonstration gardens, including a large area of dryland oak understory plantings that is sheltered by ancient oak trees.
The Santa Margarita nursery, along with a second nursery in Escondido, are now run with the help of Penny, who has a degree in biology from Cal Poly, and her brother Ian Wilson, who has a degree in math. Ian used his technical skills to redesign the nursery Web site, www.laspilitas.com,which began offering an extensive range of plants by mail order five years ago.
“Someone from any area in the state can find something that could be found growing within a few miles of their home,” said Nyunt.
Las Pilitas customers come to the nursery not only for the variety of native plants, but also for the family’s expertise. Nyunt can tell you which types of manzanita are native to Morro Bay or Nipomo, teach you how to turn a yard into a grassland, or identify which plants are appropriate nesting habitat for a certain species of local bird.
The nursery Web site also has a host of information and tools, including planting guides and an interactive garden design program. There are instructions on how to plant specialty gardens such as erosion control, shade, and even fragrant gardens with aromatic native plants like evening primrose, nightshade, California wood strawberry, and Jeffrey pine.
There is plenty of information on plant maintenance. However, the best feature of native plants is that they need little maintenance at all. Native plants that are from your own climate zone, or one that’s drier, can survive on rainfall alone — although a little irrigation makes them more lush.
“Most people don’t want their garden to look like the hillsides in summer,” Nyunt explained. “They want it to look like the hillsides in spring.”
Once plants are established, she recommends turning the hose and drip lines off — even during the summer. At the most, provide periodic summer misting with overhead sprinklers that simulate morning fog — just five minutes, once a week. More aggressive watering may kill the plant.
Nyunt doesn’t even recommend soil amendments. Rather, she suggests finding a plant that is accustomed to living in the type of soil you already have, be it sand or heavy clay.
“If you choose plants already appropriate for your area, it will mean fewer diseases, less care, and a longer life for them,” she said.
Las Pilitas Nursery handles wholesale sales during the week, but is open to the public on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s at 3232 Las Pilitas Road in Santa Margarita, phone 438-5992.