I learned about the low-maintenance care that native plants require about five years too late. During my first few amateur gardening years, I was naively determined to have the perfect English cottage garden. I felt it was my civic duty to counteract my suburban neighbors, who seemed to be a bit obsessed with boats, mufflers, disturbing gnomes and fake deer displayed on their front lawns. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) I, on the other hand, was obsessed with roses – especially hoity-toity English roses.
Native plants will give your garden gorgeous color that’ll survive California’s dry summers! (Please ignore the non-native Pride of Madeira in the foreground)
Photo Credit: Matt Bucholdz
Take a gander at one of my favorite California natives – Matilija poppy – the happy flower!
Photo Credit: Fat Beagle Farms Garden
Tagetes lemmonii will thrive in California, as well as in other subtropical areas of the US.
Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller
Make sure to place your native plants under their correct sun or shade requirements for an easy-care garden.
Photo Credit: Matt Bucholdz
But once my son was born and all my spare time was no longer spare, I realized I had less and less energy to maintain my needy garden. In a new-mother, sleep-deprived stupor, I tagged along with fellow Marin County Master Gardeners on a class field trip to visit Mostly Natives Nursery north of San Francisco. And that’s when my life changed forever. I blissfully drove home with a pickup truck full of native plants. Not only were the plants low-maintenance and user-friendly, their leaves had such rich and unusual coloring and textures! They were the perfect complement to my cottage garden theme.
And boy was I happy to learn that one of the greatest assets of native plants is that a good many are drought-tolerant with minimal needs! California natives are naturally adapted to the state’s dry summers and rainy winters. Since many of them require little water, most can survive on winter rainfall alone – once they’re established. (Newly planted natives need to be watered regularly for the first year, and sometimes two.)
Of course, simply being a native plant doesn’t necessarily qualify it as “low-maintenance.” The key to successful and easy native plant gardening is looking for those selections that are compatible with the zone you live in. (For example, San Francisco and West Marin are Sunset Zone 17, while most of Marin County is in Sunset Zones 15 and 16. You can find a map of climate zones in the Sunset Western Garden Book or at most nurseries.)
Another bonus is that these plants don’t have many soil requirements. While most natives need well-drained soil, don’t bother amending it. And fertilizer? No worries – none needed! As long as you’ve got adequate drainage, your native plants will adapt quite comfortably to their surroundings.
As for when to plant, the best time is in fall, so the winter rains will help get your plants established. The next best time is early spring – typically February and March. Of course, in mild winter climates, gardeners can enjoy planting new natives any time of year.
Don’t know where to start in your native search? Look no further! Here are a few well-behaved native plants to get your garden off on the right foot:
Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) gives you white, flat flower heads that last all summer and will easily come back for many years. This is one very low-maintenance plant.
Desert beard tongue (Penstemon pseudospectabilis) produces showy rosy-pink, tubular flowers on 4-foot stems!
Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum) is a drought-tolerant, fast-growing shrub or small tree with yellow, saucerlike flowers.
Island bush poppy (Dendromecon harfordii) is a grand multibranched shrub that grows up to 8 feet tall. It’s also got broad, yellow poppy flowers that peek out in spring. Once established, this is one of the most dependable ever-blooming shrubs.
Marigold (Tagetes lemmonii) – and I’m not talkin’ your everyday marigold! This free-branching, nearly trouble-free plant can reach 5 feet tall and produce lots of fragrant yellow to orange flowers almost all year long. (I love this plant! It’s definitely an overachiever!) Note that this plant is actually native to southern Arizona and northern Mexico, so it isn't exactly a California native - but it certainly does love most of the environments found in the state.
Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) has huge white flowers. This beauty grows 6 feet tall but can get untidy if you don’t take care of it. (I “heart” this plant, too!)
Monkey flower (Mimulus) is a fast-growing, short shrub that blooms all through spring and summer with fun orange or yellow bell-shaped, spotted flowers. It really attracts bees, loves full sun and needs minimal water.
Silktassel bush (Garrya elliptica) features long, white catkins that dangle off dark green leaves in wintertime. Expect this striking plant to grow slowly to 10 feet.
Wild lilac (Ceanothus) prefers sun but does fine in partial shade. The low-growing groundcover-type bushes or large tree-size varieties produce great blue to purple blooms.
So there you go – it’s time to get native! Head out to your garden center and pick up some of these fantastic plants before another hot, dry California summer takes a toll on your thirsty garden!