California is blessed with an especially rich and varied palette of native plants that thrive in yards and gardens. Gardening with natives can be much easier than exotics, which may account for their growing popularity across the state. The keys to success are selecting appropriate plants for your location, site preparation and proper maintenance.
Among the many benefits of gardening with natives is the reduced amount of maintenance required once your plants are established. Since native plants are well adapted to the local climate, they need less supplemental irrigation and fertilizers than their exotic counterparts. They are also more resistant to pests and diseases, and are less likely to require pesticides. Using native plants in the landscape is a much greener option because you can save water and reduce the amount of chemicals used in the environment. Native plants also provide important habitat for wildlife, including some of California's threatened and endangered animals.
Look for plants that grow naturally in conditions similar to your garden. Fortunately, many California natives grow over large geographic areas and will tolerate a wide range of temperatures and soil conditions. Find spots in your garden with microclimates where your plants will grow best. For example, plant shade loving mountain plants along a cool northern exposure and locate coastal natives in exposed sunny spots.
Ideally, the plants you choose will originate in a soil condition that is similar to your own. Most native plants will require few, if any, soil amendments as long as drainage is adequate. Water regularly for the first season after planting, and then only enough to prevent wilting. Many native landscapes can be sustained on available precipitation alone, once established. Fertilize lightly in early spring with half the recommended amount of balanced plant food. Prune natives sparingly, if necessary, to remove dead wood and give them shape in late summer.
Where to Find Native Plants
You can see California natives in the landscape in many public gardens, including the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum, East Bay Regional Park District's Botanic Garden, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, UC Berkeley Botanic Garden and Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Look for local nurseries that specialize in natives or carry good selections of native plants. If you don't find the plants you are looking for at your local garden center, be sure to ask for them by name anyway. Consider joining a local native plant society. Often, native plant enthusiasts are happy to share cuttings, seeds and advice. Many groups also hold annual plant sales.
Never take plants from the wild. Removing live plants from their native habitat degrades the ecosystem and may be illegal. Most wild plants do not survive when transplanted. If you collect your own seeds, be sure not to collect from wild plants protected under the Endangered Species Act.