By now most of us have heard the recommendation to plant California native plants for a drought-tolerant landscape. But this leaves quite a broad range of possibilities-how to decide which to plant where? We have gathered tips from local native plant professionals and our own programs to aid your choices and help you establish a thriving native plant garden.
Anyone who has travelled at around California knows we have a diverse state. Coast and mountains, stream corridors, and deserts all have different vegetation that has adapted to these specific conditions. Start your landscaping project by assessing your particular garden site, advises Kristen Hopper of Oaktown Native Nursery. She notes that sun exposure, slopes, and soil are all very important. Some plants can do well in the heavy clay soil common in the East Bay, but many need better drainage. A sloping site generally drains well, as do the sandier soils in some parts of San Francisco. Most native plants prefer lean soil, not highly enriched. Some of the most popular shrubs for gardens, such as manzanitas and sages, thrive in the wild on shallow, rocky, or gravelly soils. Check a good plant book, such as California Native Plants for the Garden by Bornstein, Fross, and O’Brien for sun and soil preferences of the plants you like. Working with the conditions you have is less resource intensive than trying to make major changes in your soil, and leads to healthier plants in the long run.
Drought-tolerant is not drought proof-all newly installed plants will need water until they are established. What exactly does that mean? A good rule of thumb as to when you can start watering a lot less is when the plant has grown two times its original size, or through two to three seasons, according to Bart O’Brien of East Bay Regional Park District. How much water, and when to water, are also important considerations. Late fall, hopefully after rains have soaked the soil, is the best time to plant, and it used to be that we could wait until late spring or summer to begin watering. Not so anymore; now we may need to water through dry spells in the winter to promote root development. Summer watering must be done carefully-warm wet soil encourages harmful microorganisms that can cause root rot. Let the top several inches of soil dry between waterings; this can mean watering more than once a week in sandier soils with high sun exposure, or only every two to three weeks in clay soil. Check the moisture content of the soil at the depth of the root ball of the plant. If dry, water slowly and thoroughly, so that water penetrates just below the root ball, to encourage the roots to grow deeper. Karen Paulsell of the Friends of Sausal Creek has put together great tips in “Watering Natives in Dry Time” which can be found on the California Native Plant Society web site. At some of The Watershed Project’s and SPAWNERS restoration sites, we have been successfully using DriWater, a natural gel product, to water plants through their first season.
Fall is a great time to plan and plant your native garden. The Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour is sponsoring a workshop series that can provide inspiration. All of the organizations mentioned here have plant sales this fall, check their respective web sites.
Native plants have evolved with our climate and periodic drought, so they are a great choice for gardens. In fact, in some places the drought has given them a competitive edge over introduced weeds, according to Laura Hanson of The Watershed Nursery (not affiliated with The Watershed Project). You may discover additional benefits of growing native plants; birds and native bees will show up in your yard, and you will likely become more aware of natural cycles of growth, senescence, and rebirth of California’s unique seasons.