Are California Natives Hard to Grow?

Plants are only hard to grow when their water, sun or soil requirements are not met. The obvious fact is that all native plants are perfectly adapted to the locations in which they naturally occur. Gardens in southern California are typically irrigated and fertilized creating a very different environment from the one most California natives are adapted to. For this reason natives sometimes have a difficult time in garden conditions.

For a successful native garden, group plants with similar needs. Select plants that are adapted to the sun, soil and water conditions of your garden. And remember, the most common reason for failure is over watering. The following gardening tips will help:

10 Gardening Tips

  1. Plant when your soil is cool and moist - late fall through winter.
  2. Select plants that are compatible with your garden conditions and practices.
  3. Select healthy plants.
  4. Group plants with similar requirements.
  5. Choose plants that will fit their space when they are mature. To give your garden a full look, use annuals or short-lived perennials between the new small, young plants.
  6. Provide supplemental water until plants are established. Once established (1-2 years, depending on the plant), do not over-water! Many California natives will need supplemental water during dry winters but do well with limited summer irrigation.
  7. Do not fertilize or amend soil. Most California natives prefer lean soil. Rich soil can lead to excessive growth that is hard to maintain in the heat of the summer.
  8. Maintain your garden. Prune and pinch plants to keep them looking neat and keep up with weeding.
  9. If some plants do not make it, consider it a learning experience and try something new.

What is the Best Time of the Year to Plant Natives?

The best time to plant your California natives is when temperatures cool and after the first rains, generally in late fall from late October to early November. Soils are still warm but are not too hot for tender new roots. The cooler, moister weather is less stressful for the new plants and less favorable for soil pathogens that can infect them. You can plant through the winter as long as you give your new plants time to develop enough of a root system to carry them through the long, hot summer. Use the following table to help you schedule your planting session, but remember to take into account your weather conditions:

Annual seeds:late October to December
Trees and Shrubs:late October to the end of February
Subshrubs and Perennials:late October to late April
Riparian plants (water-lovers): all year, though best from late October to the end of February.

Be sure to attend Rancho Santa Ana’s Annual Fall Plant Sale on the first weekend in November. You can speak with knowledgeable people who are interested in helping you select the right plants for your garden from the thousands of native plants available at the sale.

What do I need to do to succeed with native plants?

Plant in the Late Fall Through Winter
The best time to plant your California native plants is when temperatures cool and after the first rains, generally in late fall from late October to early November. The cooler, moister weather is less stressful for the new plants and less favorable for soil pathogens that can infect them.

Choose Plants Adapted to Your Conditions
Select plants adapted to your garden soil, sun and water conditions. Many California natives, especially chaparral, scrub and desert plants, prefer lean soils so it is best to avoid fertilizer and soil amendments.

Group Plants With Similar Needs
Remember to group plants according to their growing needs. Place sun-lovers together – in the sun. Plants that shrivel and wilt with summer watering should be placed away from lawn and other irrigated areas – and don’t forget your neighbor’s sprinkler.

Think Design
Think about design when placing your plants. Read books and magazines, look at pictures, visit gardens, attend classes and spend lots and lots of time staring at your own garden. Create a scaled drawing of your garden to help with placement. If you feel insecure about designing your garden, consult a landscape architect or designer. Remember creating gardens is not the same as decorating interior spaces. Plants change over time and so your garden is never static, it is never finished.

Leave Enough Room for Plants to Grow
Native plants often look small and scrawny in pots, though many grow rapidly. The six inch tall twig in the one gallon pot that you purchased at the nursery will reach its estimated adult size, so leave room. Proper spacing will result in a more beautiful and easier to maintain garden.

Use Temporary Fillers to Create a Finished Look
Proper spacing can leave the new garden looking bare. Use annuals or short-lived perennials, like monkeyflower, to fill in between immature young plants. Include hardscape, such as benches, paths and fountains, to give your young garden a finished look.

Enjoy Your Garden
Learn from your mistakes and enjoy your successes!

How often should I water my native garden?

A: The short answer to this is: The watering schedule that your plants like. The green industry has spent time and money developing plants that will accept a wide range of growing conditions. Many require frequent irrigation throughout their growing season, and in Southern California, this often means all year. Native plants from our region, in contrast, are well-adapted to our dry, hot summers and wet, mild winters. Some dislike summer water, some are adapted to a range of conditions, and some are very particular about when and how much water they want. Keeping this in mind, the following principles will help you understand your plants’ water needs.
  1. Know where your plants grow in the wild.
    Use this information to determine when and how to water. For chaparral and scrub plants, water during the winter, if rains are scarce. Once established, many scrub plants will look better in your garden with an occasional summer soaking. Others are fine with no summer water at all. Desert plants are adapted to an occasional summer deluge, so give them a good soaking every now and again during the summer. You are likely to be rewarded with a flush of new growth and flowers. Avoid watering desert plants during cold weather, especially if you have poorly drained soil.
  2. Roots grow where the water is.
    If you water for 10 minutes every day, your plants -including turf grass- are likely to develop shallow root systems since only the top inch or less of the soil will get wet. If you are using drip emitters, make sure they apply water evenly throughout the root zone. You will probably need to move the emitters out and add more as the plants grow. Remember to apply water where you want the roots to grow.
  3. Watch and get to know your plants and garden.
    This is probably the most important principle. Gardening is a process and plants are living organisms. Get to know your plants and they will tell you when they need water. Wilting, for example, is a sign of water stress. Still the story is more complicated than just water when they wilt. For some plants wilting is a sign of extreme drought stress and they may not recover. Others wilt during the heat of the day and perk up in the evening and morning. These probably do not need water. Others wilt when they have been kept too wet because their roots have rotted and are unable to take up water. Your only hope in this case is to stop watering - let the soil dry out and wait to see if the plant recovers. Only experience with your plants will allow you to understand what they need to be most healthy.

    Watering will become less of a mystery when you get to know your plants as individuals and as part of a whole system. Although this is not a simple or satisfying answer, especially to garden novices, it is the real answer. There is no one watering schedule that will work for every garden. It depends on the type and age of plant, soil type, winds, rain, buildings, topography and the whole community of plants in your garden – just to name a few of the many considerations. Not only will you be more successful by getting to know your plants and garden, but you will benefit from the added tranquility and balance that are the primary purpose of gardens in the first place.