California Native Plant Society

Native Plant Gardening: Getting Started

Starting a Native Plant Garden


LA/SMM Chapter Plant Sale in Encino. Photo by Betsey Landis

Before planning your native garden, there are a number of important questions to address about your particular site and location. Taking the time to evaluate your site conditions by working through these questions can help you avoid planting natives that won’t thrive in your particular soil or climate conditions. Walk around your site as you go through the questions, and be sure to record the answers to use in your search for the right plants for your garden. Read on, or click here for printable copies of these guides.

Planning a successful garden – important questions to answer!

  • How much sun is there? (Full sun, dappled shade, full shade)
  • How hot is the site? (Over 100◦ F frequently, rarely)
  • How cold is the site? (Below 32◦ F frequently, rarely)
  • Snow coverage? Ice? (Never, seldom, for long periods)
  • Water sources? (Automated, spray, drip, hose, bucket, marsh, desert, etc.)
  • Wind? (Frequent, seldom, from one direction, strength)
  • Air pollutants? (Duststorms, sandstorms, salt air, smog)
  • Elevation? (Below or at sea level, up to 5000 feet, above 5000 feet)
  • Topography? (Flat, hillside, streamside/curbside/drainage channel, cliff-face/skyscrapers, knolls, etc.)
  • Soil? (Clay, sand, silt, gravel, rocky, loam, planter’s mix, contaminated)
  • Soil pH? (Acid – less than 6, alkaline – greater than 8, neutral – 7.)
  • Soil drainage? (Poor - water takes hours to drain into soil or drains too fast, good – water drains into soil in about 10 to 15 minutes, no standing water)
  • Proximity to walls? (Concrete/stucco makes soil alkaline, wood siding may rot, aluminum or glass walls may reflect too much heat or light, large root systems may tear up foundations)
  • Proximity to underground structures? (Deep-rooted shrubs & trees penetrate sewers, septic tanks, joints in water mains)
  • Proximity to permanent plantings? (Street trees, hedges, windbreaks, golf courses, etc.)
  • City or homeowner association regulations or guidelines? (May restrict the types or species of plants used in front yards or in landscaping, though variances may be granted).

Once you have completed the site questionnaire, it’s time to begin the process of selecting your plants. You can use the steps outlined below to guide your process.

Selecting the appropriate native plants for your garden

  1. Go to a park with native plants, a native plant botanic garden or a wild area with native plants near where you live or search the web for websites of local native plant nurseries.
  2. Look for groupings of native plants – trees, tall and small shrubs, perennials, annuals, grasses and vines – that live in about the same conditions as exist in your garden site, i.e. same sun, temperature cycle, weather, elevation range, soil, soil drainage, topography.
  3. Always ask at the nursery:
    • where the native plants came from,
    • how big they grow (both above and below ground),
    • how much space they need,
    • when to plant them,
    • what soil and pH is best,
    • whether or not you need to fertilize them,
    • how much sun or shade they need,
    • how much water?

      Note: Questions are good, and ignorance is bad when choosing which plants suit the site. Do not plant an alpine flower in a sea-level front yard or a desert shrub by the Pacific Ocean!

  4. Note that the amount of water required will be less for native plants in general, except for native plants growing naturally in wet areas and for native plants in containers.
  5. Automated watering is not recommended for native plant gardens unless the native plants are in containers or come from marshes. Generally deep-watering once per week for the first three years establishes healthy native plant root systems in gardens, then no water unless soil is dry at root level.
  6. Plants in containers will require weekly watering unless the climate is naturally moist. Winds around skyscrapers dry out balcony or rooftop container plantings as well as covering them with dust, so these plants need more attention.
  7. Native plants often have extensive root systems. If a native plant is to be planted in a container, ask how long it takes that native plant species to outgrow the pot.
  8. Using a range of container sizes, a native plant community may be designed with shrubs, annuals, and perennials to attract butterflies and birds.
  9. During hard frosts or wintry weather cover the plants (unless snow is covering them) and insulate the containers to keep the roots from freezing (unless the native plant roots endure freezing naturally).
  10. Locally appropriate native plant community structures, which may include trees, tall shrubs, small shrubs, annuals, perennials, grasses, and/or vines are perfect for attracting local and/or migratory fauna - providing welcome resting, nesting and feeding opportunities.

Urban Native Plant Gardens
© Betsey Landis 2006

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