Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Planning Your California Native Garden


(Sidebar from my story "Going Native" in the May Issue of Arroyo Monthly Magazine. This version has been expanded for the blog. These photos are from my garden. )

First, I've got to brag: Look at these gorgeous mariposa lilies I grew this year! I picked them up last fall at the Theodore Payne Foundation, and planted them in spots where they won't get any summer water. Two other clusters didn't go, for reasons that elude me, but these did and I'm so, so happy. Okay, now your tips:
  1. Study up over the summer. This is not the time to start natives. But May is a great month to visit Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont to see the plants in a garden setting. Also, study your yard, especially for hot spots. “You really need to know the exposures of your garden,” says Louise Gonzalez, nursery manager at the Payne Foundation. “And your soil type. Do you have well-draining sandy-loam? Or clay soil that drains slowly?
  2. Read California Native Plants for the Garden by Bart O’Brien, Carol Bornstein, and David Fross. For plants from the other regions, try Garden Plants for Mediterranean Climates by Graham Payne.
  3. Take a class at the Theodore Payne Foundation. In fall, buy your native plants at the Payne Foundation, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden or Tree of Life Nursery (in Orange County). Most conventional nurseries don’t do a good job of stocking, caring for, or even correctly identifying natives. (One exception: Burkard’s in Pasadena.) For a cohesive look, landscape architect Guillaume LeMoine advises resist the temptation to buy one of each. “You can do a very good garden with five to seven plants. Frankly, my yard is a riot of many plants, but several do reoccur strategically.
  4. Start your plants in late fall. Generally, don’t amend your soil unless it is contaminated, and forget the fertilizer. You shouldn’t need pesticides, but will want a lot of mulch.
  5. Many of the plants are drought-tolerant, but need extra water in first few years to get established. “In general,” says Bart O’Brien of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, “winter is when they want water and can use it. Not in summer.” Some will stay greener with a deep soak once a month, but others don’t want any summer water once they’re established.
  6. Toss in some wildflowers. California poppy is one of the easiest to grow, and looks gorgeous scattered with blue lupines. I also love the bold pinks of elegant clarkia, the soft, large blooms of farewell to spring (clarkia amoena) and dainty baby blue-eyes (nemophila meniesii).

  7. Experiment with different irrigation systems. Louise Gonzalez says sprinklers or drip work equally well. Some gardeners recommend smaller micro-sprinklers. Bart O’Brien waters by hand. In my experience, you get more weeds with sprinklers.
  8. Let some plants go to seed before you prune them. Birds will flock to your yard. Many annuals will reseed, even some of your shrubs.
  9. Get your garden certified as wildlife habitat from the National Wildlife Federation. They'll send you a sign that lets passersby know about the food, water and shelter your yard provides.


  1. Your natives look so gorgeous! I redid my yard with native plants several years ago, and I'm so happy I did--although I wish I'd had all your good tips at the time. All your photos have made me excited for a trip to the Theodore Payne nursery this Fall. I just hope I can restrain myself when I get there.

  2. EAPPster,
    Oh, do tell us more about your garden! What grows well? What are your favorites?


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