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8 Things to Know About Gardening with California Native Plants

California native plants are a beautiful and ecologically smart choice for many gardens. Read more to know if they're a good choice for you!

Over the past 20 years or so, native California plants have been seeing a resurgence. More and more people are recognizing their value and adding natives to the gardens. There are more than 6,000 native plants in California, some are endemic to our area, found only here in our golden state. About half of those are suitable for the home garden. If you are planning on adding California natives to your landscape, or still considering if they are right for your garden, here are some things to think about.

Just because a plant is native to California doesn’t mean it will do well in your area.

California is a big area. We have many different climates, soils, ecosystems and conditions. We have coastal sage scrub, chaparral, upper montane-subalpine forest, alpine forest, riparian forests, mixed evergreen forests, redwood forests, coastal dunes, and salt marshes, just to mention a few. Each of these experience their own conditions and have plants that thrive there.

A species that’s native to the alpine forests would likely do well in a Tahoe garden; or one native to the coastal sea bluffs would thrive in an Aptos garden. It’s unlikely the same plant would thrive in both areas. Don’t waste your effort and resources on trying to persuade a plant that would naturally thrive in the foggy, shaded understory of the redwood forest sure to not wither and die in your 115 degree dry heat of the central valley.

I know that not all of my readers of local here in California (and btw, don’t ever call it Cali), so you might not be familiar with our different ecosystems. Here are just a few found in our state: high desert scrub north of Mt. Shasta, sea cliffs of Big Sur, alpine lake of the Sierras, oak grasslands of Sonoma County, and the riparian zone of the Redwood forest. If you have varied ecosystems in your environment, then these tips are still relevant to your corner of the world.

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A California native plant doesn’t always mean it’s drought tolerant. 

As mentioned, there are lots of variation to our climates in California. The majority of the state experiences Mediterranean conditions: wet (well, in theory), relatively mild winters, and hot, dry summers. Somewhere along the line, native plants seemed to become synonymous with drought tolerant, but that’s just not true. Many of our plants ARE drought tolerant, and they thrive, and some depend, on the fact we get no rain during our summer months. But some,like those found in coastal forests or riparian zones, need regular moisture. This doesn’t mean you should grow them, just think about what time of ecosystem the plant comes from and if your garden can provide a similar place.

The Aquilegia formosa (Western Columbine), for example, is naturally found in moist woodlands. My home is much to hot and dry for it to grow naturally, but I have some planted on the shady north side of my house and with regular water.

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All plants, drought tolerant or not, need moisture in order to get established. Usually, this means 2 years or so of water. Drought tolerant doesn’t mean no water; it means it can deal with periods of no water. So if we are in a time of drought, and it never rains, our plants will die. They will outlast the water sensitive like hydrangeas and lawns, and some need very very little to thrive, but they can still die of thirst. If we don’t get regular rains during the winter, even once established, you may need to supplement water.

Native plants will give you a sense of place. 

California is one of only five areas in the whole world with a Mediterranean-type climate. Why would we want to fill it with plants that can be found anywhere? By creating a native garden, you create a place that has a strong identity and character. I like to equate it as the appeal of a small town; you love them for their uniqueness, not their big-box stores that can be found across the country where every strip mall looks the same. I can think of no easier way to feel at home than be surrounded by ceanothus, manzanita, and of course, our state flower, Eschscholzia californica. 

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The best way to attract native bees, and native wildlife, is to garden with native plants. 

The life-cycles of our native bees have evolved in relationship to the flowering cycles of our native plants. So have birds and butterflies. There are hundreds of non-native food and nectar plants that we can grow in our garden to support bees, butterflies and birds, but the plants that evolved alongside our wildlife are the best choices to meet their nutritional needs.

Spring is the peak bloom season for many of our native plants, some starting as early as mid-winter. This provides valuable forage for bees, both native and not, and hummingbirds, while the “traditional” garden may not yet have woken up.

The honeybee that we love so much, and who’s plight gets so much media press, is not native to California. They were brought to America by the colonials, way back when. In no way should we stop protecting them, but there are other bees that also need help: our native bees. With the rise of Colony Collapse Disorder, and other challenges facing honeybees, their future is unsure. We still have a need for pollination, and about 35% of our current pollination is provided by native bees. In order for us to have the foods that we are used to, I believe that it is crucial that we support our native bee populations.

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October is the best time to plant native plants. 

For those of us in the Mediterranean-climate areas of California, October is the best time to plant shrubs, trees, and perennials- and this includes natives. The combination of warm soil from the summer heat and cooling air temperatures encourage root growth. The  shorter days with cooler temperatures ease stress on transplanting, and (hopefully) the rains will soon be upon us, easing the burden of watering.

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California native plants are beautiful, but may require an aesthetic shift.

It is not fair, or correct, to say that California native plants are dull or boring. With careful design, we can see brilliant washes of color year round. However, the majority of California’s native landscape has a seasonal dormancy that is dominated in muted tones of gray, silver, amber and olive.

Many people, if accustomed to the year-round greenery or bright colors from pony-pack annuals, may think a native garden is boring, unkept, or if completely uneducated, dead. When planned correctly, a garden with natives can have year round interest, but if you are expecting the same look that comes from using standard landscape plants (which are mostly Asian [and water intensive] varieties) you will be disappointed. We need to recognize the uniqueness of our native plants, acknowledge they are creating their own aesthetic, and accept the quite beauty of their cycles.

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The needs of native plants must be considered. 

The key to success with native plants is to place them in conditions that is similar to their natural growing zone. Many of our native plants can be easily combined with other plants and will thrive in the ‘average’ conditions of gardens. Others, however, will not, and need exact requirements. Some, like oaks and manzanita, are actually harmed by summer irrigation. Flannel bush (Fremontodendron) and ceanothus must have good drainage, and will not live if placed in soggy spot. Some conditions you can be modified, like giving shade or irrigation, or planting on mounds to increase drainage, but plants that can’t handle frost won’t do well in areas where it snows; species that need summer fog won’t do well in inland valleys.

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There is a native plant for any garden. 

As mentioned in California Native Plants for the Garden, “natives offer a palette as diverse and varied as the people who have made California their home”. There is a plant to fill any structural role in your garden, and there are species of trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, perennials, bulbs and annuals.

If your garden offers particular challenges that many standard landscape plants would struggle in, such as heat, salt, clay, boron, etc., using native plants is likely your best bet for a successful garden. There are plants that have evolved over eons in response to our unique climate and soil, you just have to do some research to find what would work best for you.

Some plants, however much you love them, area also not suited for the your garden or the cultivated garden. Instead of trying to force mother nature in to a box she won’t fit in, spend time in the wild to enjoy native plants growing in their native environment.

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For my own garden, and when I’m designing with natives for a client, my go-to resource is the book California Native Plants for the Garden, by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien. As more and more people are interested in gardening with natives, more nurseries are carrying them, and more people are writing books about how to use them. Make sure to check out your local nursery and your bookstore to see what they offer!


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