Natives for the Garden
California native plants can be enjoyed at any time throughout the year, but the very best time to get them started in your garden is in the fall at the beginning of the rainy season. Planting time in our Mediterranean climate can be extended into very early spring, but as soon as the end of rains is in sight and warm weather sets in, success in establishing new plants dwindles.
Because California natives growing in the wild receive nearly all of their annual moisture during our long winter wet season, plants new to the garden respond best when first exposed to winter moisture. Fall planting promotes extensive root development needed to push spring growth. Plants become established early on and are then able to persist through the droughty summer months with minimal irrigation.
In general, for natives to grow well, they need excellent drainage in lean, rather than highly fertilized, soil. Few can survive soggy conditions that cause crown and root rot. Compacted soil may need to be amended or mounded above grade to ensure good drainage. To preserve soil moisture, mulch with leaf litter, chipped bark, or other organic matter, but keep it several inches away from the crown or stem.
When you acquire a new plant, learn its cultural requirements. Site location can be a challenge but is often critical to survival. Many species that grow natively in stream or coastal environments are moisture-loving and need supplemental irrigation throughout the dry season. Natives to inland locations may resent deep shade whereas those from forested habitats rarely appreciate harsh afternoon sun.
Although a native plant may be evergreen, it very likely will experience a period of rest or dormancy at some point during the year, often during hot, dry summer months. Many grasses turn brown or golden; some flowering plants have fewer or no blooms; others lose their foliage partially or completely. In some instances, you can counteract a summer dormancy by giving a bit of water, but once plants are well-established, many actually suffer rather than thrive with extra moisture.
Natives, as with any plants, do require periodic attention, such as occasional deadheading to prolong bloom, judicious pruning to maintain shape, and some occasional water during winter dry spells and unusually hot summers.
One of the great joys of planting California natives is observing the interdependent relationships they have developed over the centuries with butterflies, birds, bees and other insects. These plants constitute both homes and livelihoods for wildlife as they provide vital leafy shelter, layers of natural niches, and year-round flowers and fruits.
Suggested species for the garden
Of the thousands of native California plant species, here are a few favorites for Sonoma County. For a longer list of recommended natives, return to the home page and click on “Recommended Plants for Sonoma County” in the menu column on the left; the, click on “Native Plants.”
Arctostaphylos species (manzanita)—numerous evergreen shrubs and ground covers, chaparral plants with a wide growing range; in general, do not tolerate alkaline soils; handsome bark, blossoms, and berries; many bloom in winter. Once established, these plants add a lush element to the landscape and garden.
Armeria maritima ssp. californica (sea thrift)—slow spreading grass-like tufts excellent for rock gardens; may need light shade in hottest locations.
Ceanothus species (wild lilac)—evergreen shrubs and ground covers. Those with small, dark green, crinkly leaves are the most drought tolerant and deer resistant. Those with larger glossy foliage benefit from summer irrigation and shade inland.
Cercis occidentalis (western redbud)—can be grown as a large shrub or small tree with lilac-mauve spring blooms lining branches; often shows colorful fall foliage. Remove dead or twiggy branches; clean up seed pods as they drop.
Erigeron glaucus (seaside daisy)—low, evergreen perennial that needs some water and shade during hottest months; great butterfly plant for its 1-in. lavender, white, or rose-colored daisy-like flowers that bloom virtually year-round.
Eriogonum grande var. rubescens (red-flowered buckwheat)—one of many Eriogonum species suited to dry, sunny sites; 1-3 ft. high sub-shrub with showy, dark rosy button-like flowers. Deadheading helps appearance.
Festuca californica (California fescue)—fast winter growth of 2-ft. clumping grass with variously green or bluish green leaves then tall, tawny stalks and seed heads; mostly dormant in summer but benefits from infrequent irrigation; best in in shaded sites that emulate native woodland habitat.
Festuca idahoensis (Idaho fescue)—low-growing compact grass clumps of narrow bright green leaves but may be tinted blue or gray. Clumps look best when divided and replanted every few years.
Heteromeles arbutifolia (toyon or Christmas berry)—a beautiful large shrub 6-12 ft high and wide with leathery dark green leaves, attractive bark, white flowers in summer, and red berries in fall/winter; best in large gardens; can be trained as a small tree; deer resistant after the first 3-4 years.
Lavatera [Malva] assurgentiflora (mission malva or rose malva)—grows fast to 5-10 ft. with large, maplelike leaves and showy blossoms; in bloom nearly year-round, oftentimes with irregular branching that may be improved with pruning.
Mimulus [Diplacus] aurantiacus (sticky monkey flower)—lower stems become woody with age. Cut back top growth once or twice annually to lowest emerging buds to maintain compact growth; many hybrid cultivars available.
Penstemon heterophyllus (blue foothill or California penstemon)—evergreen perennial that tolerates some heavy soil but demands excellent drainage; loose growth to 1-3 ft. with blended electric blue, pink and purple tubular flowers in spring and summer; drought tolerant but responds to infrequent watering.
Philadelphus lewisii (wild or western mock orange)—deciduous shrub reaches 10-12 ft. with arching branches that bear fragrant clusters of white blooms near tips; requires summer irrigation.
Rhamnus californica (coffeeberry)—evergreen shrub to 6-8 ft.; dark green foliage with reddish stems and red berries turning black; reasonably deer resistant, drought tolerant after established; good for hedging or screening.
Ribes sanguineum (pink-flowering currant)—dazzling pendent clusters of flowers, white to deep pink to cherry red; black berries in fall; give light shade in inland gardens, full sun near the coast. For more information on ribes, click on Ribes spp.—Currants and Gooseberries.
Ribes viburnifolium (Catalina perfume or evergreen currant)—a low-growing shrub with glossy green leaves frequently used as a 3-ft. ground cover; foliage and stems have a spicy fragrance, small clusters of maroon flowers late winter to spring. Pruning encourages density.
Salvia clevelandii (California blue sage)—3-5 ft. high and sprawling wide; height and spread vary among cultivars; likes hottest, driest, sunniest spot in garden but looks best with infrequent summer watering; vibrant violet-blue whorled, fragrant flowers. For more information on sages, click on “Salvia—Native Sages,” and “Salvia—Ornamental Natives.”
Zauschneria [renamed Epilobium] species (California fuchsia)—a widely variable perennial or small shrub favored by hummingbirds as it breaks into spectacular bloom in late summer and early fall with brilliant salmon to red-orange tubular flowers; dormant in winter.