Mastering the Garden: Making the Case for California’s Native Plants

As gardeners, we are drawn to the latest and brightest of the thirsty and exotic species for our gardens, always chasing the new and unusual. As our world warms due to climate change, water-starved lawns are being sacrificed for landscapes of rocks and cacti, or heat-intensive, spiky green plastic “lawns.” None of these alternatives are environmentally friendly.

There is another solution, which not only reduces water use, but also provides year-round color and interest to your landscape. Many Californians are now waking up to the beauty and benefit of our native California plants. This is a great time of year to start planning a similar transition.

Our native plants are special! There are so many to choose from. We live in one of the five driest Mediterranean climates in the world. California’s complex geology has created a large number of different soil formations. California’s flower country has about 2,600 endemic species found nowhere else on Earth. San Diego County has the greatest diversity of native species in California.

With so many native plants in California, you can design beyond the typical landscape: formal to informal, desert to forest, and even Japanese style. When recently asked if it was possible to create an English country cottage-style garden with California natives, the list of potential plants was astounding.

Many people wonder if they can mix native plants and exotic plants in their gardens. The answer is “Yes, but why?” Since indigenous people require different types of care, especially those with different water requirements, why do that? If you like native and other species, plant them in different parts of your garden. Keep the natives together, just like you would with the vegetables.

Plants that have evolved in our unique and challenging environment over the ages are difficult to care for according to their needs. Most California native landscape failures result from the use of traditional gardening methods, such as overwatering and overfeeding.

The secret to creating a native landscape of year-round beauty is to plant it with three-quarters evergreen perennial plants, trees and shrubs. Then introduce seasonal flowering plants where their leaves will die back or you can deadhead them.

Think ahead as you plan your original garden. This small shrub in a 1-gallon pot can grow to an enormous size, so read the label and provide it enough space until it reaches maturity. You will save money and a great deal of future work. It’s amazing how quickly 1-gallon and 5-gallon plants grow in your garden.

Some things to remember while planning your garden: Prepare the site. Remove old plant material and grass to expose the original soil. Forget fertilizers and supplements. Instead, use those on your houseplants and vegetables.

The best type of irrigation system is one that mimics nature. Small sprinkler heads wash plant leaves without saturating the soil during the summer, when plants don’t expect to be drenched. You can also hand over water and stay connected to your plants. If you want to keep your citizens alive for a long time, it’s best to avoid individual drip emitters.

Evergreen color and texture in native California landscapes.

(Lucy Warren)

Spend the money you save on small plants with good mulch. A 4-inch layer of shredded redwood bark mimics the original Duff and will last for years. Wood chips decompose more quickly. Desert and coastal plants are the exceptions, as they like inorganic mulch, sand and gravel.

Plant your plants in the ground at the same level as the soil line in the pot. Don’t dig the hole any deeper, dig to double the width of the pot. Remove the plant from the pot and place it in the ground. Then fill in soil around the edges. If the hole is too deep, fill it and dig a shallower hole next to it.

Once you plant your natives, water, water, water! On the same day and, hopefully, at the same hour. It’s the most water you’ll ever use. It provides moisture to the plant and, more importantly, stabilizes the soil around the roots. Indigenous people do not like air on their roots.

Watch the little plants. They will need more frequent watering as they settle into their new home.

Also pay close attention to ants. The strange Argentine ants that have invaded California have no natural predators. They will deposit scale and aphids on the roots of California natives, which will suck the life out of the plants. Conventional ant baits will kill the worker ants, leaving the queen to inject more. Therefore, you will need to treat with low doses of baits that the workers will take into the nest to kill the queen.

Enjoy your landscaping! The green space surrounding your home will help cool the earth. You will attract plants and help preserve rare and endangered animal species. Children love to play in the diverse landscape. You will be the envy of your lawn-addicted neighbors if you get more time to enjoy it.

Warren, a master gardener since 1994, is a garden writer and co-author of the book “The Drought-Defying California Garden: 250 Native Plants for a Lush, Low-Water Landscape” With Greg Rubin.

Get free home gardening tips at UCCE Master Gardeners of San Diego County Hotline, (858) 822-6910, or by email at

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