How Does Your Garden Grow?

By Maya Argaman

Whether your growing space is a yard or a patio, It’s important to take the time to know it before planning your native garden. Gauging your site conditions will help you choose the right native plants for your garden and bring beauty and pollinators to your site! 

Choose plants that are suitable for your specific environmental conditions. Are you near the Central Coast? Los Angeles? Central Valley? Each region has a different climate and growing conditions. As many people say: Don’t fight the site! Read on for four essential factors to consider.

White sage (Salvia apiana) Photo: Water Use Classification of Landscape Species (WUCOLS) team

Climate

California is generally characterized by wet winters and warm, dry summers, with lots of variability throughout the state. The conditions in your microclimate, such as wind exposure, summer fog, salt exposure (if close to the coast), frost date, snow (if any), are important factors in selecting plants. Choosing plants that are well adapted to your local climate will ensure that they thrive.  

Sun Exposure

How much sunlight does your garden receive? To fully answer this, you need to watch your site and note how the sun and shade move throughout the day. Note that the quality of sun exposure also varies: Cool morning sun and hot afternoon sun have different intensities. Full sun is 6+ hours per day, part-sun is 5 to 6 hours, and part-shade is 3 to 4 hours. If you have less than 3 hours of sun per day, consider plants for shade. In the future, as plants grow they’ll cast their own shade, changing the sun-shade exposure.

Tip: Spend a full day taking photos of your garden every hour, so you can track how the sun moves and how much direct sunlight your space has. 

Soil

Soil is a lot more complex than people may think. No matter the type, all naturally occurring soil has good qualities. Whether your type is loamy, sandy, or clay, native plants can thrive in it. It’s just a matter of finding the right plant for the right soil. 

To understand what kind of soil you have, test it throughout the site, not in just one spot.

CNPS strongly urges you to test your soil for composition, minerals, and legacy issues (past owners’ soil treatments). You can purchase a soil test kit at your local hardware store or garden center. Soil tests should assist you in making informed decisions about soil amendments. To learn more about soils, click here.

Water

Native plants generally require much less water than non-natives, which is a good thing. Whether you are working with a new site or an existing garden with plants, it’s important to hydrozone, which means to group plants with similar water needs.

When planting a new area, be sure to have the most water intensive plants closest to your home. Create an “Oasis Zone” of watering 30-50 ft. from your home, where it’s best to have your thirstiest plants. Beyond this point, hardy natives should be planted that can survive (after establishment) on rainfall alone. Also plants in containers need more water because their roots can’t grow deep into the soil and absorb moisture–they can only absorb moisture that’s in their container. To learn more about watering native plants, click here

Visit a public garden for inspiration. Here, the Martha Walker Garden cared for by the Napa Valley Chapter has features like this California grape (Vitis californica) trellis Photo: Elizabeth Kubey

Get Inspired!

Now that you know your climate, sun exposure, and soil, it’s time to visit your nearby wilderness areas, public native gardens, hiking trails, and local native plant nurseries to learn about the plant communities in your area and what plants naturally thrive in your specific climate and region! Once you know your specific site conditions, choosing your plants and planning your garden can be really fun. Remember that planting season is in the fall, when cooler weather and rainfall make it easier for plants to succeed. Enjoy!

2 Comments

  1. What zone are you describing as “wet in winter and warm in center”?
    I live in zone 9b and it’s seldom wet and summers are long, dry and hot! My roses bloom on Christmas and my peppers and tomatoes are grown as perennials.

    1. The observed long-term weather pattern of the entire state of California is generally described with wet winters and dry, hot summers, with lots of variability in microclimates depending on where you live. Thanks!

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