Planting Native Plants in the Spring

Q: Can I plant natives in my garden during spring?

A: There is quite a bit of debate about whether it is appropriate to plant natives year around. The best time to add California native plants to the garden is in the late fall through winter. This is especially true for those of you who live in the hotter inland areas. Consider planting perennials, grasses, and shade-loving and riparian plants. Avoid plants that cannot tolerate summer water such as flannel bush (Fremontodendron species) and some of the manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.) and wild lilac (Ceanothus spp.).

Why native plants?

In Defense of California Native Plants

Early explorers and settlers were awed by the variety and profusion of wildflowers throughout the state of California. Hillsides were painted in gold, red, yellow, blue and white flowers. Shrubs like California lilac decorated the landscape in blue and white. In the heat of the summer, the wonderful smells of the soft gray salvias and sagebrushes spiced the air. The landscape was abuzz with bees.

Yet as immigrants arrived, homesick for eastern woods and English gardens, they created landscapes of familiar plants. Developers, trying to entice newcomers, created landscapes reflecting a tropical paradise, rather than our own California paradise. With the ready availability of water for irrigation, gardeners tried their hands at plants from all over the globe, with remarkable success. The result of all of this is that today gardens and landscapes across the country exhibit the same kind of conformity as shopping malls. Thirsty impatiens color our gardens, just as they do those in the wet, semi-tropical climate of Florida.

Welcome Birds and Butterflies Into Your Garden

Landscaping with native plants not only gives us a sense of place, it welcomes native birds, insects and butterflies to our yards and parks by creating useful habitat. Consult the National Wildlife Federation website ( ) for more information on creating backyard habitat.

Save Water

Many non-native plants, particularly those from wet, tropical areas, only thrive in our mild, Mediterranean and desert climates with the constant addition of water. Although the cost and wisdom of using water in this way may be questioned, the inconvenience of this dependence on water is a significant consideration. Put simply, you can go away in August without worrying that all of your plants will be dead if the sprinkler system fails. Check out the Be Water Wise website created by Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for more water conservation tips ( ).

Create a Beautiful Outdoor Space

Landscaped spaces, like gardens and parks, are made primarily for people. Taking into account environmental concerns certainly makes sense, but the beauty of California native plants makes a compelling argument for their presence in our gardens. The wonderful smells of our Mediterranean-type plants, the soft colors of the foliage, the variety of flowers, and the welcome presence of butterflies and birds makes the California native garden the perfect garden.

Getting Started

How to Convert Your Yard to a Native Paradise

By Barbara Eisenstein

There is always work to do in my garden but the work at hand is removing turf from a 6 foot wide, 90 foot long strip between the sidewalk and the street. The days of watering, mowing and edging the parkway are coming to an end. I would like to remove every piece of turf from my entire yard, but family and concern for the large, old trees that have existed in our landscape for probably 50 or more years, stop me. Rather than abruptly changing the watering and maintenance regime, I have chosen an incremental approach to converting my yard into a more easily sustainable landscape, one that is peaceful, environmentally sound and welcoming to native plants and animals. 

Three Approaches

There are as many ways to create a new landscape as there are gardeners. In the following article I will present three major approaches to converting a traditional turf-dominated yard into a native plant garden paradise: 1) the clean-slate approach, 2) the bit-by-bit approach, and 3) the substitution approach. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

The Clean-Slate Approach

The clean-slate approach, described above, involves the complete or nearly complete removal of the original landscape to make way for a whole new garden of native plants. This is the most radical and daring approach. You are free to reinvent the garden without regard for the needs of existing plants. Results are immediate and may be quite impressive. On the other hand, failures may be big and obvious. This approach may make your neighbors particularly nervous as they wonder whether their neighborhood will begin to resemble an abandoned, urban wasteland. If your knowledge of gardening and native plants is limited, it would be wise to consult experts before embarking on such a large project. Landscape designers and landscape architects who specialize in natural gardens and California native plants can help you avoid problems and costly mistakes. As noted in the description above, the clean-slate approach is most likely to arouse both the interest and concern of your neighbors. You will need to work closely with them and your city officials to avoid misunderstandings that may lead to poor relationships and even legal action. Consult with city officials on local ordinances to preempt these kinds of problems. Hardscape, like benches, paths and signs, also inform others that you are creating a space that will be maintained and cared for. A confirmation letter, an updated program and directions will be mailed upon receipt of registration.

The Bit-by-Bit Approach

This less radical approach involves identifying portions of your yard that you will convert to native, habitat gardens. This may be a side yard, a corner of a larger garden, or, as in my case, a parkway between the street and sidewalk. (Be sure to check with your city regarding ordinances regulating how this land may be used and whether there are any restrictions on the size or types of parkway shrubs.) It is important that the section of the yard that you select can be watered according to the needs of your new plants. If you are going to use an automatic irrigation system, it should be on a zone of its own. Now that you have selected a small garden in your yard, you can experiment without risking the loss of your complete landscape. As you gain knowledge about which plants do well in your area with your maintenance practices, and which plants you like best, you can expand into other portions of the yard. Although you are limited by existing conditions dictated by trees and other plants in nearby spaces, you can modify your garden incrementally, learning and experimenting as you go. 


A third approach to native gardening is to substitute individual plants in your yard with native alternatives. The advantage to this approach is that you can do it with the least disruption to your existing landscape. The disadvantage is that each substitution must be compatible with existing conditions. Since most common exotic garden plants require more water than many natives, and they require the water to be distributed throughout the year, you may be limited to native plants with high irrigation needs, such as those commonly found near rivers, streams or other regular sources of water. This may not reduce your reliance on irrigation or significantly change your other maintenance practices.

Considerations for all gardens

Physical Conditions Regardless of the approach you use, it is essential that you know the physical conditions of your garden. You must know how much sunlight falls in the garden through all the seasons of the year. Buildings and trees cast larger shadows in the winter, and so some gardens will have full sun in the heat of the summer, and full shade in the winter. Dips and other variations in the landscape can result in microclimates – areas with different climatic conditions than those around them. Water availability, soil type and drainage are also important factors in selecting appropriate plants. Selecting plants that are well adapted to your natural conditions not only increases your chances of success, it can reduce costly maintenance for years to come.

Nature As a Guide

Look around your local area for remnants of the natural environment. For example, are there native shrubs growing in vacant lots or natural spaces nearby? Get to know the plant associations that may have occupied the land prior to development. Remnant, large, old oak trees may indicate that the land was once an oak woodland. Consult books or ask professionals to determine which other plants commonly grow in such a plant community. Coastal sage scrub and chaparral are two other plant communities that were once common in our region. Visit parks and join environmental organizations to learn more about Southern California plant communities.

Planting Tips


Although it is possible to plant your garden throughout much of the year here in Southern California, planting from late fall through early spring is likely to be more successful. The scorching heat of July through September is particularly stressful to new plants that have disturbed root systems. Additional water may help, but if you must plant at this time of the year, you may have to erect small shades to further protect the new plants. Planting your garden in the late fall allows you to make use of the winter rains. During dry years when there is little precipitation, you will have to water your new plants through the winter and until they are established and have developed significant root systems.

Soil Preparation

For those who are accustomed to common exotic garden plants, it must be remembered that California natives are adapted to our soil conditions, which is often less fertile than other temperate areas. It is usually best to limit your use of soil amendments and fertilizers, especially in heavy soils.


Adding mulch to your garden helps control weeds, reduces water loss, moderates temperature fluctuations, enhances water penetration into the soil, and cushions the surface reducing soil compaction. Organic mulches break down quickly in our hot climate and increase the soil fertility. For this reason it is best to use inorganic mulches such as gravel for desert or chaparral plants. If you do use organic mulches make sure to keep them away from the crown of the plant.


If winter rains are scarce, water deeply and frequently until your plants are established. As the root system develops, reduce supplemental watering. Be sure to check the soil near the root ball before watering. Sometimes the surface is dry while the soil near the root is moist. Do not water unless the soil at root level is dry. Deep, occasional watering encourages the development of a strong root system.

Spirit of Adventure

It is discouraging, not to mention expensive, to plant a garden and lose some or many of the new plants, yet each plant that fails provides you with new information that should help in your future efforts. If a plant dies in my yard, I usually replace it with something new, unless I am fairly sure about the reasons for its demise, and I believe I can easily correct them. It is my goal to find beautiful and interesting plants that grow easily in my garden, rather than spending lots of money and time nursing along plants that are not well adapted to their home. As such, I experiment with different plants and when I find ones that do well, I increase their numbers. Over time my garden evolves. All Gardens Require Upkeep A common misconception is that native gardens require little or no maintenance since they are comprised of plants that naturally occur in the area. But like all gardens, even a well-planned native plant garden will require upkeep. Remove spent flowers, dead branches, and dead or dying plants. Renew mulch as needed. For some plants it is helpful to pinch back buds to promote fuller and denser growth. With less water in your native garden, weeds may be less of a problem, but all gardens grow weeds and of course, it is best to keep on top of this problem.


Two years after the scene described above, my parkway garden is full of pungent, spicy and sweet aromas. A green lynx spider clutches her egg sac as she sways on the flowers of a tall bunch grass. Butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and lizards flitter and scurry through the garden. In the spring, the garden is full of dizzying color, while through the long, hot summer it is soft gray and tan, with occasional deep greens. I water it about once a month in the summer, and know that when I return from vacation, it will look as good as when I left.

Summer Watering Tips

Summer in Southern California is similar to the winter in the rest of the country. Colors are subdued and plants are slowing down, even going dormant. This is an adaptation to our long, dry season. To make it through the more than six months with no rain and high temperatures plants have developed many other adaptations too, including waxy leaves to reduce water loss, white hairs to reflect sunlight and capture fog and dew and extensive root systems. Some plants are annuals that complete their life cycle in one year, producing seeds in the spring that await more hospitable conditions to germinate and begin again. 

As the heat turns on and California native plants slow down, so should your watering.

During a plant’s first few years in your garden, anywhere from one to three, you must check it often. Water it enough to keep it going, since its root system is not fully developed, yet not so much that it puts on unsustainable, excess growth or succumbs to fungal and bacterial diseases. As your garden matures, it requires less attention. Depending on your plant choices, areas with established plants can be watered about once a month or less during the summer. Some plants like flannel bush (Fremontodendron species), should get no summer water at all.

Because conditions vary from garden to garden, and even within gardens, the best irrigation schedule is determined by watching your plants. Manually set each zone on the controller.

Beds with new plants receive water approximately once a week, although this depends entirely on how they look. If they are drooping and the soil near their roots is dry--water them. Make sure that the entire root system gets wet. New plants placed among established natives are watered by hand, as needed.

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