Why Garden with Native Plants
Flowering bright green dudleya (Dudleya virens ssp. hassei) and bear grass (Nolina parryi ssp. wolfii) add texture and form to a vibrant native garden. Photo: David Fross
While California’s native plants have graced gardens worldwide for over a century, few of the landscapes designed for our state’s gardens reflect the natural splendor for which California is famous. By gardening with native plants, you can bring the beauty of California into your own landscape while also receiving numerous benefits.
Take advantage of water conserving plants in your landscape. Once established, many California native plants need minimal irrigation beyond normal rainfall. Saving water conserves a vital, limited resource and saves money, too.
In a garden environment, native plants do best with some attention and care, but require less water, fertilizer, pruning, less or no pesticide, and less of your time to maintain than do many common garden plants.
Native plants have developed their own defenses against many pests and diseases. Since most pesticides kill indiscriminately, beneficial insects become secondary targets in the fight against pests. Reducing or eliminating pesticide use lets natural pest control take over and keeps garden toxins out of our creeks and watersheds.
Native plants, hummingbirds, butterflies, and other beneficial insects are “made for each other.” Research shows that native wildlife clearly prefers native plants. California’s wealth of insect pollinators can improve fruit set in your garden, while a variety of native insects and birds will help keep your landscape free of mosquitoes and plant-eating bugs.
Support Local Ecology
While creating native landscapes can never replace natural habitats lost to development, planting gardens, parks, and roadsides with California native plants can help provide an important bridge to nearby remaining wild areas. Recommend native plants to homeowner associations, neighbors, and civic departments. You can also get involved with local land-use planning processes.
A colorful Southern California garden featuring flowering shrubs such as flannelbush (Fremontodendron
sp.) and island bush poppy (Dendromecon harfordii). Photo: Barbara Eisenstein
Where to Find Native Plants
Places to see native plants include national forests, state parks, specialty nurseries, arboretums and botanic gardens, and nature preserves, as well as in books and on websites. Several premier gardens open to the public are East Bay Regional Park
Where to Buy Native Plants
Wild Collecting and Preserving Gene Pool Diversity
Collecting plants without a permit is illegal on California public lands, and wild transplants often have a poor survival rate.
CNPS encourages you to grow locally native plants to conserve and promote gene pool diversity. Locally native plants are available from restoration nurseries which propagate plants from local watersheds and track the source of their stock.
Visit a native plant nursery. Your local CNPS chapter is a great source for plant suggestions. Many have their own plant sales where members are eager to share their experience and knowledge. Make your selections, and then follow the supplier’s instructions for placing and caring for your new plants. Find more information at native plant nurseries and their websites. With a little curiosity and research, you can broaden your plant palette. Choose plants that flower through the seasons. Fill your garden with plants that display a riot of colors, have deliciously aromatic leaves, or attract specific wildlife. Plant a themed landscape such as a rock garden or wildflower meadow. Discover natives that are deer-or fire-resistant. In every garden, the right environment (sun, soil, water, etc.) must be found or created for plants to thrive. It is easier and advisable to select plants that suit the site rather than to modify the site to suit the plants. Like all gardens, even established native landscapes require some routine maintenance to look their best.
Like all living things, native plants grow best under natural and familiar conditions, also known as biotic communities. Common California plant communities include northern and southern oak woodland, valley grassland, chaparral, desert, coastal sage scrub and bluff, mixed evergreen, and redwood forest. Choosing plants that are native to your landscape’s community will help ensure their optimum health and performance.
Although most California natives can be planted at any time of year, it is best to put them in the ground during the fall and early winter. This gives them time to establish a healthy root system and build the energy for new growth and stunning floral displays in spring and summer.
Many native plants can survive with minimal supplemental water once they have become established (after two to five years). Proper watering can present a challenge when first becoming acquainted with native plants. Underwatering of young native plants is a frequent cause of death, while over-watering can cause root rot and kill more established species. Some native species can maintain a healthy appearance for much of the year while being watered only1–4 times per month. For a garden full of thriving native plants, check plant-specific watering needs from authoritative sources
Silver bush lupine (Lupinus albifrons), Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis), and wild lilac(Ceanothus sp.). Photo: Chris Lewis
Most native plants perform better without any fertilizer. Extra nutrients push plants to grow quickly, sometimes beyond naturally supportable levels, and can shorten their life span. Mulching can be a valuable practice in low-maintenance gardening. A layer of mulch slows water evaporation, discourages weed germination, and creates a favorable environment at the soil interface for beneficial biological bacteria. Adding organic matter to soil may be necessary where development has left an infertile top layer.
While many non-native garden plants are often pruned throughout the year to keep up with their water- and fertilizer-induced growth, for most native plants pruning once per year is sufficient. Check plant-specific pruning tips from authoritative sources as plant preferences vary. Give them room to grow by properly spacing them in your garden design. Crowded plants need more frequent pruning and care. For more information about how to prune your native plant garden, click here.