Kris Ethington’s San Clemente Garden

CNPS Garden Ambassador:  Kris Ethington

CNPS Orange County Chapter
Garden Location: Front and back yard
Garden Size: 8,000 square feet
Year Planted: December 2017


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I love the responsiveness of gardening with California natives. Nature is there, right in front of you – you just need to take a break and sit for a bit.

Longtime wildlife habitat gardener, Kris Ethington, recently decided to transform her entire landscape into a habitat extravaganza by planting California native plants.  A remodel of the house provided the perfect opportunity to haul away the old, existing landscape, and to let the lawns dominating the front and back yards die away.  Now, this stunning cottage style native garden is home to a variety of pollinators and wildlife.

Kris, who has always loved nature and biology, chose California native plants for her garden because of the multiple benefits they offer – habitat, attracting wildlife to her yard, conservation of resources, beauty, resilience, ease of maintenance, and nature in general.  She has learned from her garden that if you plant it, they will come.  “I love the responsiveness of gardening with California natives.  Nature is there, right in front of you – you just need to take a break and sit for a bit.”

In particular, Kris enjoys the quiet time of mid-morning or the late afternoon. Watching the butterflies sipping nectar in the morning after a night of rest nearby, or lizards and butterflies capturing the last of the day’s warmth in the late afternoon. Or the birds foraging in the plants and soil looking for insects and seeds. All seasons are wonderful, each its own unique pleasure, she says.

Kris especially enjoys sharing her experiences and inspiring others.  Her garden gets a lot of attention from neighbors, and a number of people have taken photos and asked for personal tours.  Immediate neighbors have appreciated it too – they love the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) in full bloom.

In addition, Kris has shared her garden on multiple tours, including the 2018 OC-CNPS Garden Tour and 2018 San Clemente Garden Tour.  Not only that, her garden was the Grand Prize Winner for the Roger’s Gardens California Friendly Garden Contest in 2018!  Kris is planning to share her garden on future tours, so be sure to check the CNPS Calendar of Events for upcoming dates and events to see this beautiful native plant garden in person.

Kris’s favorite California native plants

About the garden

Garden Location: Front and back yard

Garden Size:  8,000 square feet

Year Planted:  December 2017

Lawn Removal (method): We had both front and back lawns, but when we remodeled the house, all the existing landscape was removed and hauled away.  Any remaining lawn died on its own during the remodel.

Design and Installation: I provided the concept drawing and a landscape designer created the hardscape conceptual plan in CAD for the hardscape installers to follow. I researched and selected the plants and installed the landscape.

Style Inspiration: My passion for butterfly gardening in general directed my cottage style gardening inspiration with native plants growing close together, at 2 or 3 height levels, and with abundant flowers. I found that plants grow faster when planted near each other and wildlife prefers a bit of wildscaping!

Go-to Native Plant Nurseries:  Tree of Life Nursery, primarily. They are wonderful, have lots of opportunities to attend free and informative lectures, and are located near me. I gained early inspiration and attended educational talks at Roger’s Gardens for their CA Friendly Gardening Program. I’ve also purchased seeds on-line from Theodore Payne Foundation for years.

Irrigation:  I hand water deeply every 3 weeks outside of rain events; however, some plants will require less over time like Manzanitas. I use a rain wand for gentle but high-volume watering and cover the mulched areas in between plantings as well. For the first 3 weeks after planting, I water weekly to insure the nursery root ball doesn’t dry out. During a dry winter, I provide supplemental water.  For our current wet winter (2018-2019), I have suspended supplemental water.

Maintenance:  I am an avid gardener, so I do the maintenance. I prune perennials and shrubs according to their season, primarily in fall or early winter and mostly to keep them in check in size relative to nearby plants or reduce interior woodiness. I try not to plant things that require constant effort other than enjoyable deadheading. I experienced a good number of weeds the first spring following planting during a rainy winter but kept after them with hand pulling – they’ve been minimal since then. I mulch newly planted areas lightly with cedar by the bag and cover in-between spaces to keep the weeds down and help quickly establish plants.

Wildlife Spotted: Yes! We have a fountain for the birds and there are nearby wild canyons. Our native garden supports the wildlife near us. Here’s what we’ve spotted:

  • Birds – hummingbirds, warblers, bushtits, scrub jays, phoebes, kingbirds, mockingbirds, towhees, swallows, orioles, finches, Doves, owls and raptors.
  • Butterflies – Monarchs, Marine Blue, Gray Hairstreak, Cloudless Sulphur, Gulf Fritillary, California Tortoiseshell, Pale Swallowtail, Giant Swallowtail, Anise Swallowtail, Painted Lady, West Coast Lady.
  • Bees – honeybees, native bees including mining, digger, sweat, and bumble bees; and hover flies and wasps.
  • Also, ladybugs, beetles, skinks, lizards, rabbits, skunks, and raccoons.

Favorite Element: The passive rainwater harvesting – dry stream with dry well is my favorite planted area. Its focal point is the Austin Griffiths manzanita (Arctostaphylos ‘Austin Griffiths’). The stream appears to jump or run under the small patio and continue to the other side where there is another dry stream and more lush plantings.

Biggest Challenge: Honestly, I haven’t had the typical challenges. I don’t have restrictions where I live, and my neighbors are fine with my ‘cottage’ style. The challenge when we installed the hardscape was to insist that the paver installers keep my native soil on the property. They would have removed it, and I would have had to import soil afterwards. We didn’t amend the soil for planting, so I fussed over keeping my 50-year-old soil for my natives and it worked!

Advice: Plant in the late fall and winter if you can. Also, while I do impulse buy from the nursery occasionally, I generally do a lot of research beforehand too.  If I don’t know a plant I want to buy, I look it up while I’m at the nursery to be sure it won’t be invasive or inappropriate for my location. Read the labels regarding area, soil, climate (coastal for us). While you should allow ample space for your plants to grow, I find it best to include the tall, mid, and lower plants in the plan from the beginning and plant them together. Plants do better when they can quickly establish Mycorrhizae. Be sure to use boulders of various sizes and berms to create the natural feel and varied elevations that go well with an authentic native garden. Mulch your plants at least initially. I use cedar mulch from bags.

California native plants in Kris’s Garden


CNPS Horticulture Team


  1. Looks great! My family is moving to La Cresta CA. The lot i’m on requires Ca. native plants. I’ve been researching.

    1. Thank you Tricia. You will love a native garden in your new home. It is so rewarding. I’m constantly learning new things from nature in my garden. Be sure to take advantage of informational lectures offered in your area. Theodore Payne Foundation is a great resource in that area. Enjoy!

  2. Hi Kris,

    You’re garden looks beautiful and you are an inspiration. I live in San Clemente in a rental house on a canyon in downtown San Clemente and am looking for ideas on how I can beef up the native plants in my yard without spending a lot of money. I would love to meet and talk about gardening and supporting the wildlife in our town. Does San Clemente/SJC have a cnps chapter? Please feel free to email me:



    1. Thanks Lori. The OC-CNPS chapter serves our area. It is a county chapter, meetings are at the Duck Club in Irvine on a Thursday night. I often attend and find them very informational. I am also a member of the SCGC in town. I would be happy to show you my garden in person and will email you.

  3. Hi Kris,

    Your garden is beautiful. I have a one year old garden and I have some of the native plants you have in the garden. Can you please share the names of the plants that have gray color foliage in your garden.


    1. Thanks Madhuri! I would be happy to ID some plants for you. Can you orient me to which photo you reference? My front slope photo shows a contrasting gray green plant along the paver steps which is Guadalupe Island Globemallow. Is that the one? I’d be happy to ID others, just let me know what photo you are referencing so I can break it down. Thanks.

  4. Hello! thank you very much for sharing that valuable information and your beautiful pictures! we just got a 5 acre property and I can’t wait to start planting! Our dream is to make it a California native mini forest so we can welcome bees and all kinds of insects and wildlife and become an ambassador and an example like you are 🙂
    Do you think it is necessary or recommended to get a landscape architect or with the landscape designer it would be enough? we don’t really need any structures just the plants and maybe like you said a few boulders. Thanks a lot!!

    1. Thanks Adriana, I am so sorry I didn’t see this comment before now. Congratulations on your property. I am so excited for you, planting natives and bringing nature up-close is so rewarding. I think having a landscape designer who has extensive native plant experience should be enough if you are mostly installing a Natural Garden with plants and boulders, etc. Just remember, there are only a few natives that would be appropriate or easier to get established in summer. Planning and doing the groundwork now with planting after mid Oct is the best time to install natives. Best of luck you you. You will love your landscape!

  5. Kris, thanks so much for all of the information here and for showing us your beautiful garden. We would like to do something similar at our property in Carlsbad, and I’m stumped where to find a California natives landscape architect. Do you have any references, or websites I could search? Thanks, Amy

    1. Hi Amy, I’m so happy my garden has inspired your future plans! I happened to just hear a presentation by Colin Dunleavy with Live Forever Landscapes LLC while at Tree of Life Nursery. I was impressed with his passion for the wildlife attracted by native plants, sumilar to my own. I’ve also seen one of his San Clemente coastal installations, though I’ve had no other relationship with him. TOLN has posted a listing of resources below. You should review them and see if the CNPS San Diego chapter has any similar listings. Jodie Cook is also based in San Clemente and may cover North SD county as well. You are welcome to visit my garden in person if that helps you further. Good luck to you!

  6. Thank you so much! I will check out the various references you mentioned. This helps a ton. I would also love to visit your garden sometime, once we get closer to implementing work here. We’re probably about six months out. I will be in touch as we get closer. Thanks a million!

  7. What Penstemon is shown in the photo with the Adirondack bench? I’ve never seen such a tall variety. It’s beautiful.

  8. Hi Kate, that is a Showy Penstemon there.
    That one was sowed by seed. I also let them go to seed and transfer the young plants around the garden. It was really impressive that year, and although a perennial, folks often treat them as biennials because they tend to be short lived, especially when they bloom that heavily. I love them and plant by seed or 1 gal, tucked into many locations even when they
    peter out in 2 years or so. Essential for the hummingbirds! That one was growing in my north facing front yard, borderline winter part shade full summer sun and here on the coast everything grows bigger than expected. The next year, this past Spring, the Desert Mallow stole the show! Seeded ones may not bloom the first year, but WOW, they are worth the wait!

  9. Your garden is so beautiful and inspiring! What type/variety of tree next to the white adirondack chairs…is that the Austin Griffith’s Manzanita?

Post A Comment