Grow Native! How Native Gardens Benefit You and the Environment

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Goldenrod and aster are just some native California plants that can brighten your garden and attract native wildlife. Photo courtesy: Rick Jackman

By Karen Bridgewater

Do water bills make your head spin? Do you wish more butterflies, bees and hummingbirds visited your backyard? Would you like a landscape that is easier to maintain, especially in the summer heat? If your answer to any of those questions is yes, then it is time to grow native!

If the idea of growing native plants makes you cringe, as you imagine a summer garden filled with dried-up plants, get ready for some good news. California is a biodiversity hotspot and home to more than 6,000 native plants. Native plants grow together in communities that need similar climate, soil type, sun and moisture. 

The California Botanic Garden, formerly known as the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, in Claremont offers guests an opportunity to observe native plants in their various communities and to see how they look at different times of the year.

Springtime bursts into color with a host of wildflowers that bathe our local hillsides. As summer heats up, buckwheat, golden yarrow and desert willow fill with blossoms and attract pollinators. California fuchsia, goldenrod and aster provide color throughout the fall. And when winter rolls in, the bright red berries of the toyon tree are a vivid contrast to the California buckwheat’s white blooms.

With careful planning, California native plants can brighten your garden throughout the year. In addition to flowers and blossoms, colorful leaves, bark and berries add visual interest during the various seasons. Some natives, such as the California lilac, coyote mint and matilija poppy, also treat the senses to an array of pleasant fragrances.

Lucinda McDade, PhD, executive director of California Botanic Garden, shares her knowledge and expertise for people interested in growing native plants.

What are the benefits of growing native plants?

Water savings

Water savings often persuade people to consider growing native plants. “Once your native plants are established, they essentially won’t need to be watered,” except for those that naturally grow in moist areas, McDade said.

Moving from a traditional landscape of lawn and non-native plants to a well-designed, native garden can cut your water bill by as much as 85%. Not only is this a good economic move, but it is also a sensible response to California’s growing drought conditions.

Compatibility with native soil

Plants that are native to our area are very well adapted. “They almost never need fertilizers or pesticides in order to grow well,” McDade said. Nor do they require soil amendments. 

Less pollution

Native plants do not need added fertilizers or pesticides and thereby eliminate chemical runoff into storm drains that end up in the ocean.

Preservation of biodiversity

Native wildlife prefers native plants to non-native plants, so growing them in your garden will attract the native insects and wildlife that depend on them. McDade said one of the best ways to bring pollinators into your yard is to “plant native plants that are pollinated by hummingbirds and butterflies or are the larval food for butterflies.”

For vegetable gardeners, planting natives that bloom at varying times will draw bees to your crops throughout the growing season.

Sense of place

Growing native plants connects us to the unique biological web of our region and strengthens our sense of belonging. As we learn about the vital relationship between native plants and wildlife, the importance of preserving the biodiversity of our surrounding ecosystem becomes clear. We can do this, one garden at a time, by growing native plants that provide food and shelter to our local wildlife.

What is wrong with growing non-native plants?

Most non-native plants are water-hungry and dependent on lots of supplemental irrigation, especially during the summer. They do not share the same relationship with wildlife and pollinators that native plants do and are less effective at attracting them to our gardens. Many, such as ice plant, are invasive. Some, like fountain grass and eucalyptus, are highly flammable. 

Do you have to go full native?

McDade says she is not an “absolutist” and prefers a more pragmatic approach.

“You can’t just replace your non-natives with natives and treat them the same way.” 

For instance, there are situations where people want to grow native plants but want to keep some grass for their children or pets. Since most natives, such as California lilacs, will not survive the frequent, supplemental watering needed to keep a lawn alive, the trick is to find native plants that can. 

What are the steps for growing a native garden?

1) Gather information

McDade advises people to take time to research.

“Look online, get a book, do some reading. Walk or drive around your neighborhood. Look for native plant landscapes and take pictures. Learn what you like and don’t like.”

In addition, visit native plant nurseries, such as California Botanic Garden’s “Grow Native Nursery,” ask questions of the staff and seek recommendations for your garden. 

2) Assess your space

Once you have a list of personal favorites, figure out which ones will grow best on your property.

Identify the soil type, amount of moisture and quality and duration of sunlight in the areas you want to grow. 

Soil. Fortunately, this is one time that our clay soil is not going to be a problem, as there are many native plants that will grow in it. 

Moisture. Will your native plants border the lawn where they will be exposed to frequent irrigation?

Sunlight. Look at the locations where you want to plant. Do they get cool morning sunlight from the east, or the dry, hot sun in the west? Do you have a southern exposure that receives sun all day, or a northern one that only gets indirect light or is in the shade?

Answering these questions will help narrow down your plant selection.

3) Plan

Identify what you want to get out of the native garden. Do you want to provide privacy, increase pollinators or create a meadow-like or even a desert environment? 

McDade advises people to start slowly.

 “Select a small section and start with a few, easy-to-grow native plants.”

When you plan your native garden, be sure to choose plants that share the same soil, moisture and sunlight needs. 

There are many online resources that can help. For instance, by inputting your zip code into the California Native Plant Society’s website calscape.org,  you can discover what plants are native to your area. 

Make sure to plan the placement of your plants based on the size they will be at maturity. One of the biggest mistakes people make when putting in native plants is placing them too close together. Although the planting area will look sparse initially, it will fill in.  If your placement is too close, plants will vie for nutrients and moisture in the ground. Some plants will crowd others out, creating the need for excessive pruning or even plant removal, resulting in extra work and wasted money.

Adding quick-growing native plants amongst slower-growing ones can provide the instant gratification needed to have “the patience to let your slow growers get established,” McDade said.

You can also sow native annuals, add rocks or temporarily place some potted plants in the area while your plants get established.

4) Prepare the site

Remove all the vegetation and weeds currently growing where you want to plant. 

If you install an irrigation system, use micro-spray emitters set away from the plants. 

Lay out hardscape such as paths or other landscape features.

Add a thick layer of mulch over the planting area to aid moisture penetration and retention. 

5) Plant

“October through December is the best time to plant your native garden,“ McDade said. “The days are shorter, it’s not as hot and if we’re lucky we get some rain.” That makes it “the least stressful time for a new plant to get established.”

6) Maintain your garden

Native plants need supplemental water once a week for the first year as they establish their root systems.

After that, they will benefit from once a month watering, especially during the summer. 

Never water during the heat of the day, as it can encourage the growth of pathogens that cause root rot. 

7) Enjoy!


Resources to get you started

Additional resources

Books

  • “The Drought-Defying California Garden” by Rubin and Warren
  • “The California Native Landscape: The Homeowner’s Design Guide to Restoring Its Beauty and Balance” by Rubin and Warren
  • “The California Wildlife Habitat Garden: How to Attract Bees, Butterflies, Birds, and Other Animals” by Nancy Bauer 
  • “Growing California Native Plants” by Marjorie G. Schmidt

Online resources

Garden planning
General information
  • Calfora: Huge database of California native plants, calflora.org
  • California Native Plant Society: Numerous links to information including how to grow native plants, what plants are native to your area and lists of nurseries that carry those plants, cnps.org
Invasive plant information:
Native nursery resources

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