Galvezia ‘Firecracker’ is a Tree of Life introduction from 1986.

Mike Evans grew up exploring the hills of Southern California. Whether he was hiking or observing wildlife, the natural SoCal landscape served as the backdrop to much of his life. The charming beauty of the area’s native plants became fixed in his mind.

“I grew up playing outdoors and developed a deep appreciation for nature in general and the natural environment of California,” Evans says. “I was able to combine those fields of interest into a business.”

He worked at nurseries, both wholesale and retail, and learned how to propagate. In 1979, Evans founded Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, about an hour north of San Diego. His crop of choice: the native flora of the Southern California landscapes he so dearly loves.

His choice wasn’t completely based on emotion. In fact, he made a rather shrewd business decision by choosing natives to grow and sell.

“When we started, natives were the product of hobby nurseries and backyard growers, at least in Southern California,” Evans recalls.

Tree of Life Nursery is now the largest native plant nursery in the state, he says.

While many pundits tout the drought tolerance and water conservation traits of natives, Evans wants people to plant natives because of their beauty, the propensity to attract wildlife, to support pollinators, and because of their authenticity and natural ability to survive and thrive – what Evans calls “ecologically appropriate.”

“The native plant look is much more subtle, and has a completely different look than the so-called ‘norm,’” he says.

In recent years, the California drought has put the spotlight on natives. And municipalities, water districts, landscape professionals, retailers and extension personnel are driving home the fact that natives conserve water.

“Drought tolerance is certainly a benefit and a good reason to consider natives, and we market that trait. But once you see the other reasons to have them, you’re hooked and the water conservation is a bonus,” he says.

Even with all the talk of using natives, there’s still a lack of education in the trade and in the public.

“Native gardens are nearly self-sufficient, and they only need supplemental water about once a month or less, sometimes as little as four or so good waterings a year,” Evans explains. “But only a handful of people really believe it. They still think they need to water these plants once a week. It’s almost too simple.”

There are so many California water districts calling for the removal of turf and replacing it with natives. In theory, this is good news, but it’s creating what Evans calls “the ugly syndrome.”

“This practice of paying people to rip out lawns has created what I call ten random succulents on drip, swimming in a deep sea of mulch,” he says.

Read Evans’ blog post on the subject here:

Evans and his business partner Jeff Bohn actively promote the proper use of natives, teaching water districts, cities, landscape professionals and the general public the ecological message of natives.

“We’re spreading the message to put in beautiful, native plants in a functional and sustainable garden. And then they’ll wonder why it took them so long to plant this way.”

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