— Tips on Starting a Native Garden in Los Angeles —
March 8, 2018
We’ve all heard it’s a good idea to replace a lawn in favor of something less thirsty.
To learn more about cultivating a uniquely Californian garden, we spoke with Neighbor2Neighbor’s handpicked native landscapers.
Steve Siegrist of Steve Siegrist Design
“I am in love with the effortless biodynamic that arises almost overnight in a native garden. You have native fruits and flowers, a tiny little water feature, and suddenly you have everything: lizards, bees, ladybugs. Watch the animals show up!
“Lawns and hedges are graveyards to me. There’s no life in them. In my own spot, I’ve got all kinds of birds nesting now, and green lantern beetles. Beehives come and go. It’s amazing how filled with life a native garden is.”
Mix natives and succulents
Native gardens are cyclical, just like the flora in the mountains near us. Sections will be dormant at different times of the year. To ensure there is color throughout your landscape, mix succulents and natives, or other plants that are not necessarily native, but drought tolerant. You’ll get beautiful aloe blooms in November and December. The hummingbirds stay, the bees stay, and everyone is happy.
Install an irrigation system
Even though you are using less water, an irrigation system still provides a consistency that the plants thrive on. Don’t be afraid to spend a little more on a system that will give each section of your garden exactly what it needs. The plants can adjust to almost any condition, but require regular watering. With hand watering, it’s much easier for the plants to go into shock.
Keep a steady schedule and stick to it
Choose the days of the week when you are going to water and keep those days forever! Instead of adding or taking away watering days as the seasons change, just increase or decrease the amount of time you water. Of course, if it rains you can shut off your system.
“With natives, you just have to let them go crazy... Give them room to grow!”Ulysses Aban
Ulysses Aban of Happy Earth
“Native plants are purely Californian. The textures and colors give you a completely different palette from anywhere else in the world. The greens are softer and more peaceful. It’s about the subtleties—the smaller flowers and the way they dot the landscape. The garden becomes a meditative experience.”
Have an open mind
The situation here in Southern California is different than in the rest of the country. People expect native plants to behave like other kinds of plants, and they don’t. So we need to throw the old ideas out the door!
- The time of planting is different. With natives, it’s best to plant in the Fall, although you can also plant up to early spring.
- Hold back on frequent watering. Water less often, but more deeply each time.
- You absolutely don’t need soil amendment. Don’t even think about fertilizer or soil. And no pesticides. Just put the plants in the ground! You can, however, use some nicely shredded mulch. It does wonders in soil building for plants and beneficial fauna. A good 3-4" layer is best.
Be willing to self-educate
Check out the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens, the California Native Plant Society, or the Theodore Payne Foundation. Research where the plants come from and how they are affected by light and water. And you can always speak with me!
Let the plants go wild!
With natives, you just have to let them go crazy. You don’t cut them back a lot, maybe twice a year to keep your garden looking tidy. You’re not out there trimming every other week. Make sure to space the plants out properly. Give them room to grow!
Debbie Enders of True Gardener
“Planting natives makes us stewards of our own personal green space. It’s been great to see native plants, so critical for our ecosystem, celebrated by flora enthusiasts and inquisitive homeowners alike.
“Nowadays, on nearly any block, you will likely encounter a front yard filled with fremontodendron, ceanothus of all types, fragrant salvia Clevelandii, native milkweed and so much more—with seasonally gorgeous blooms, colors, textures and heights. Even the dormant times seem full of promise. I get so much joy from our increased home stewardship of this exquisite botanical world that draws us closer into life.”
Take your stewardship seriously
If you can hand-water—even a small, circumscribed area—do that. Don’t over-water, but perhaps give your plants just a drizzle. There’s evidence that plants respond positively to human interaction.
Keep your eyes peeled
Native plants are not yet as plentiful as conventional landscape plants are, largely because they are not so propagated by tissue culture. But don’t be surprised to find a heuchera sanguineum or a winsome native sage hiding out at an Armstrong’s, Lowe’s, Home Depot or OSH. Stranger things have happened…
Give seeds a chance
Many of us have not had the success we would have liked planting seeds directly in the ground. A seed tray can help, with good soil surrounding the seed, bottom and top. Water as required, remembering that sometimes seeds take a bit more water to germinate. Don’t give up—it might take awhile before you see a sprout!
“If you look at nature, you see a lot of visual patterns and that’s what we perceive as beautiful. Repetition is pleasing to the eye.”Margaret Oakley Otto
Margaret Oakley Otto of Theodore Payne Foundation
“There is such an interesting relationship between the natives and the insects, that have co-evolved in Southern California. If you don’t plant native milkweed, for example, you won’t get the California Monarch caterpillars. Mama butterfly will only lay her eggs on species that her baby caterpillars can eat.
“The California Sister Butterfly is another example. Her caterpillars can only digest the leaves from southern California oaks.
“In nature, everything feeds something. Nothing goes to waste and everything has a purpose. When you use native plants, you are helping feed something else—so many things that you couldn’t even guess!”
Get to know your garden
Before you choose plants, know your soil type. Go outside and touch the dirt. Feel how much light and sun come into the different areas of your yard. Once you are familiar with your garden conditions, you can select the natives that will thrive.
Design with simplicity and repetition
While we want to participate in the ecosystem, we also want our gardens to look nice. My advice is to choose a small selection of plants, not too many different kinds. If you look at nature, you see a lot of visual patterns and that’s what we perceive as beautiful. Repetition is pleasing to the eye.
Have a maintenance plan before you start planting
Although native plants need less maintenance once established, your garden will still require consistent care! A sound watering plan is necessary. Mulch the ground to retain moisture, and prune the plants into the shapes you want them. Your garden will thrive under your steady tending.