Garden Q&A – Establishing Native Plant Gardens
CNPS Garden Q&A with Barbara Eisenstein, Native plant garden writer and consultant
Native plant garden writer and consultant
I’m new to growing native plants. What are the differences between growing common, non-native garden selections and native plants?
Some assume that because native plants grow in the wild without care they’ll be easy to grow in our gardens. Yet gardeners new to natives sometimes complain of losses in their early attempts with these plants, especially in comparison to common ornamentals.
To understand this paradox, consider where your garden plants come from and how they are grown. The goal of the commercial nursery is to produce a large number of healthy plants that are ready for sale as quickly as possible. Most nurseries propagate plants — both native and non-native — by cuttings. Once rooted, the object is to get them ready for market by growing them rapidly while controlling for pests. This is usually done in greenhouses or under shade cloth to provide ideal exposure, appropriate irrigation, and fertilizers and pesticides as needed.
Next, you buy this pampered young thing and transplant it into a new environment in which little is controlled. Hopefully it will get some regular water while it settles into its new home, but the soil conditions, exposure, heat, wind, and pests are no longer managed. Furthermore, the new caretaker may be unfamiliar with the plant and not know whether it is calling out for water or drowning in it.
This means we must balance between giving them enough water in summer to keep them alive and encourage some growth, but not so much that they rot out.
Plants native to our region have been selected over eons by nature to survive in our unique Mediterranean climate. Many are wonderfully adapted to withstand months of heat and drought. And therein lies the rub. These plants are often susceptible to pathogenic microorganisms that thrive in moist, warm soils. They accept the warm moisture in nurseries because the potting medium is free of pathogens. Once placed in our garden, disease-causing fungi and bacteria become active in warm, wet soil, and native plants adapted to hot and dry soil may succumb to disease.
The obvious answer, then, is to keep them dry during the summer. But alas, our new native plants are pampered, young things. They have been accustomed to an abundance of water through their short lives and are not ready for the real world. After a few years in the ground, once their roots have grown into the surrounding soil and they have acquired enough bulk to take them through the dry season, they will be healthiest in dry summer conditions. First, however, they need to become established. This means we must balance between giving them enough water in summer to keep them alive and encourage some growth, but not so much that they rot out. And it is this balancing act that is somewhat difficult.
To help these plants become established, planting in late fall to winter is best. This way, they do not have to survive extreme heat and drought right after being relocated. For the first year or two, you may need to water them a couple of times a month, but be sure to water them deeply and then allow the soil to dry out a bit. Try to water before the plants become drought-stressed. As they grow, you should water less frequently but thoroughly to encourage strong, deep roots.
Native plants are different than common, non-native ornamentals. However, with time and experience, most gardeners find that they really are not difficult to grow and require fewer inputs and less maintenance. We have excellent reasons to use native plants in our gardens. Not only can many of these thrive with little to no supplemental water, fertilizers, or pesticides, native plants have evolved with native insects and other animals, and therefore provide the best habitat. A native plant garden offers food and shelter for birds, lizards, and butterflies, along with solace for many, including the harried urbanite.