Plants for Parkways

Make a difference in your neighborhood

Parkway planted with native plants. Credit Maya Argaman.

Thank you for your interest in the California Native Plant Society’s Plants for Parkways Program. Parkways are also known as median strip or lawn strip.

For water districts, turf removal programs have been a solution to lower water used for irrigation, as well as to increase biodiversity, reduce maintenance, remove chemical input from the landscape, and create beautiful spaces. The Parkways Program gives people the resources to convert their parkway from turf to a native landscape at no cost to them, and with big results for the water districts, customers, and native plants. Below is information to assist you in starting a program.

In addition to the information provided below, CNPS is glad to partner with you to find and work with a nursery to carry the plants in each pack and have them available either for pickup or delivery by the customer, develop additional and/or regionally-specific parkway or lawn plans to support additional goals, or work with you on organizing the program and ongoing management.

The Benefits of Native Plants

The California Native Plant Society has carefully chosen appropriate native plants for your region. We will gladly work with you to identify the appropriate California native plants for your location. These plants are uniquely adapted to thrive in your climate and offer the following benefits:

A bee heading towards a beautiful San Gabriel flannel bush (Fremontodendron 'San Gabriel') flower for pollen. Photo: Linda Richards
Credit Linda Richards
Support for pollinators and wildlife

Many native butterflies, bees, and birds are endangered, due in part to habitat loss. Native plants provide much needed sources of food and shelter for these local insects and birds.

Credit Doreen Jones.
Credit Doreen Jones.
Water conservation

Once established, many California native plants require little irrigation beyond normal rainfall, saving you time and money. More time for you – While no landscape is maintenance-free, California native plants require significantly less time and resources than traditional turf-dominated landscapes.

Credit Devin Cook
Credit Devin Cook
Reduced run-off and pollution

With native plants, you can skip the harmful pesticides and insecticides. Native plants have developed their own defenses against many pests and diseases.

Credit Richard Jones
Credit Richard Jones
A sense of place

Create a landscape that celebrates the beauty of California, allowing you the opportunity to connect with nature in your very own yard.

Parkway Designs

Understanding The Design

Following one of the landscape design plans will help you create a beautiful parkway filled with appropriately spaced plants. The designs in this guidebook are presented in plan view (or bird’s-eye view) to help you see how to properly place your plants. All the designs include an 18″ step-out area along the entire curbside of the parkway and a path through the parkway every 6′.Each plan is designed for a 10’ long by 4’ wide space.

Note: If your parkway strip is longer than 10′, you can simply repeat portions of the design to fill the remaining space. The number of plants you receive will be based on the size of your parkway. Other features in these designs include stepping stones for the step-out area and path, and mulch. Step outs can also be granites or wood chips, depending on your area norms.

Choosing Your Design

Each of the design plans features an artful mix of low-growing groundcovers and shrubs with varying textures and colors for year-round interest. In order to choose the right plan for your unique space, first review the regionally appropriate plants associated with the design plans. Then, choose the plan that best suits your aesthetic preference and landscape needs, and choose the associated types of plant from the regional list.

Site Prep for Native Plant Parkways

Turf Removal

Removing your lawn completely is the critical first step increating a beautiful and long-lastingnative plant parkway. There are many effective ways to remove turf, but choosing the proper method for your site will depend on a close analysis of what type of turfgrass you have.

Depending on where you are, you’re most likely to find a mix of perennial grasses and the inevitable presence of different weed species. The best way to identify what you will be working with (or against) is to dig out a sample and take it to a landscape professional to help ID your sample.

Sheet Mulching. Credit Kristen Wernick.
Credit Kristen Wernick.

Turf removal: more methods and information

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Turf Removal Methods:

Sheet Mulching
Sheet mulching has many advantages and is a low-impact approach to removing your lawn.
Layers of organic weed barrier (such as cardboard), compost (optional), and a 4”-thick layer of mulch will create a barrier that kills grass, prohibits weeds, and fortifies your existing soil — all without having to haul material off to the landfill. It can be done any time of the year but is best to do when the lawn is actively growing. You’ll typically need to leave the sheet mulch in place for at least 1-3 months for cool-season grasses, and 3-8 months for warm-season grasses.

Pros: Simple and effective. Minimizes weeds, improves soil structure, increases plant health, no gas emissions, and no hauling of green waste. Can be done any time of the year.

Cons: Requires advance planning and takes time.

Sod Removal
If you plan to remove a large area of sod, you may be able to rent a mechanical sod cutter at a local tool supply house. It requires some strength and control to run, and you may want to hire a professional if your turf area is large enough to warrant its use. If you want to do the job yourself, each motorized cutter comes with its own operation manual that contains specific directions for using that machine. So, always read those directions before you begin and exercise caution and safety when operating.

Pros: Clean and easy

Cons: Uses mechanical petrochemical-based engines. Cut sod and soil will need to be disposed of. May disturb the soil and remove important topsoil and biology. Not effective for warm-season grasses such as Bermuda.

Solarization involves heating the soil by covering it with a clear plastic tarp for four to six weeks during a hot period of the year. The plastic sheets allow the sun’s radiant energy to be trapped in the soil, heating the top 12 to 18 inches and killing a wide range of soil borne pests, such as weeds, pathogens, nematodes, and insects.

Pros: Relatively quick and effective. Sterilizes top 1 – 1 ½“ of soil, so several years of weed seed banks are destroyed.

Cons: Kills beneficial soil life and doesn’t work well in cool climates. It needs direct sunlight in order to raise the temperature and requires several months of a plastic-covered yard. Not effective at eliminating burr clover, vetch, sweet clover, nut sedges, Bermuda grass, or bindweed.

Watering Native Plant Parkways

Native plants have adapted to California’s unique climate, characterized by hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. That means native plants like to receive the majority of their water in the winter months and require less in the summer months. Once established, native plants need little supplemental irrigation beyond normal rainfall. Keep these adaptations in mind as you consider watering your native plant parkway. You want to mimic California’s climate for your parkway, while providing enough water until establishment

Before considering irrigation options, first observe your parkway to see what type of irrigation system you have. Turn the system on to check its condition. You may need to plan for some repairs or changes to your system depending on which watering approach you decide to use.

You’ll want to consider the amount of foot traffic and activity your parkway will encounter. For example, do you see yourself checking on your parkway and observing the plants on a weekly basis? Is your neighborhood a high-traffic area where people park alongside parkways and pass through these landscapes on a daily basis? These are important factors to keep in mind as you decide which irrigation approach is best for you and your parkway.

Small creek created for irrigation. Credit Dennis Mudd.
Credit Dennis Mudd.

Watering California Native Plants

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Watering Methods:

Check the watering schedule and required methods at your local municipal water district to ensure you’re watering at the appropriate times.

Hand Watering
If you enjoy a hands-on approach to gardening, we recommend hand watering with a soft rain nozzle. This will allow you to enjoy time outdoors, observe the health of the plants on a regular basis, and apply water based on the plants’ observable needs. Hand watering the irrigation berms of each plant is especially helpful during the first month after planting, as it helps ensure that water is reaching the root zone of the plant.

Another option is micro-spray. This approach minimizes runoff and overspray, while still mimicking natural rainfall. Micro-spray may not be the best option, however, if you or your neighbors have to travel through your parkway on a regular basis. Be careful to keep tubing away from high traffic areas to avoid tripping and damage.

Drip Irrigation
Finally, drip irrigation can be used to water your parkway. Drip irrigation does help to reduce runoff and only water where needed. However, it doesn’t mimic natural rainfall for the plant roots. It also must be moved away from the crown of the plant as the plant grows larger to encourage widespread, deep roots. Last, drip systems can pose a tripping hazard in a high traffic area and be easily damaged. Once covered by mulch, it can be hard to see this damage or other problems. If used, be sure to secure the drip line down with garden staples and take a picture of where you laid the line down before covering with mulch.

Installing Native Plant Parkways

Now it’s time to do the fun part — installing your parkway! Any major repairs to your irrigation system should be complete, and you should have your stepping stones, plants, and mulch onsite ready for installation.

Stepping Stones

Parkways are suggested to have an 18″ step-out area along the entire curbside of the parkway, as well as a path through the parkway every 6′. (Check your local ordinances to determine requirements.) Installing your stepping stones can be done in a few easy steps:

  • Remove the top 2″ of soil in the 18″ strip and pathway area to create a level surface.
  • Place the stepping stones with 2-5″ between each stone. Allow 2-5″ between the stones and the curb.
  • Pack the soil you removed around the stones to help keep them from moving in the future.
  • Carefully test each stone to make sure that it is flat and level, and not rocking or loose.
Native plant parkway with stepping stones. Credit Ann-Marie Benz.
Credit Ann-Marie Benz.

Taking the time to plant correctly will ensure proper establishment and long-term success of your parkway. There are a few important steps to follow when planting California native plants:

  • Place the plants in your parkway according to the plan you’ve chosen.
  • Dig a hole where you placed each plant. The hole should be as deep as the soil level of the plant in the can and twice as wide. Place the plant next to the hole so you don’t forget where it goes.
  • Fill the hole with water, and let it drain completely. Depending on your soil type, the water may take anywhere from a couple of minutes to a few hours to drain. This important step will help get water into the root zone of the soil for your new plants.
  • Level the surface in the 18″ step-out area.
  • Pack soil around the stones.
  • Fill the planting hole with water. Don’t skip this important step!
  • Once the water has drained completely, check the depth of the hole to see if it has changed. If the depth has increased, take a small handful of soil and backfill so that the soil level in the pot is even with the surrounding grade. This will keep the plant from sinking too deeply in the hole. If the hole is too shallow, remove soil from the hole until the soil level in the pot matches the surrounding soil. This will ensure the crown of the plant (where the stem meets the soil) doesn’t dry out.
  • With one hand supporting the crown of the plant, gently tip the plant sideways or upside down and remove the can. You may need to gently massage the can to loosen and remove it.
  • Place the plant in the hole and fill the hole with the soil you dug up (backfill), breaking up any large clumps as you go, and filling in the space well to avoid large air pockets or spaces. Be sure that the crown of the plant is level with the grade of the surrounding soil.
  • Once the hole has been filled, gently press the soil surrounding the plant to get rid of any remaining holes or air pockets.
  • Create a berm with the remaining soil 6″ away from the crown of the plant. This will help direct water to the plants’ roots while it is getting established. After the first few months, these berms can be flattened or removed.
  • Water the plant well by filling the irrigation berm and letting the water soak in a couple of times.
  • Support the crown of the plant when removing the can.
  • Create an irrigation berm to direct water to the root ball during establishment.
  • Fill the irrigation berm with water.
Planting oak seedlings. Photo: Elizabeth Kubey
Credit Elizabeth Kubey

Planting California Native Plants

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Installing Mulch

After you’ve placed the stepping stones and planted all your plants, you can lay your mulch. Mulch naturally decomposes over time, recycling nutrients through the soil for the benefit of your plants, and helps retain moisture in the soil.

  • Apply a 2-3″ layer to the top of the soil.
  • Be sure to keep the mulch a couple of inches away from the crown of the plant (where the stem meets the soil).
  • Fill in the spaces around the stepping stones with mulch.
  • If you have overhead spray, be sure not to cover the pop-ups to prevent clogging.
  • Give your parkway one last soak with a soft rain nozzle to help everything settle in.
  • Mulch adds nutrients and retains moisture in the soil.
Mulch and monkey flower. Credit Jim Wadsworth.
Credit Jim Wadsworth

Mulching basics for California Natives

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Long Term Care of Native Plant Parkways

Now that you have a beautiful native plant parkway, let’s review some tips to help your garden thrive:

To help your plants get established, water like nature. Water deeply and infrequently. Soil should become moderately dry between watering so the roots are not prone to rot. A general rule of thumb is to water 1x week for the first month, then every other week for the second and third month. By the fourth month, you should only be watering 1x month. After about six months to a year, the plants should be reaching establishment, and you can often wait longer between watering.

Be sure to watch your plants and make sure they aren’t drooping or turning yellow. Overwatering and underwatering can show these similar signs. You may need to dig a few inches down into the root zone of the plant to check the moisture of the soil so you know how to adjust your watering. Remember that native plants are adapted to winter rainfall and summer dry periods. If summer watering is really needed, water only once a month with a deep soak on a cool day. Check the moisture of the soil if plants are drooping or turning yellow.

As needed, replenish mulch to create a 2-3” layer. You should only need to do this about once a year. Make sure to choose 2-3” wood chips that have a consistent look with minimal green material. If you prefer a more decorative aesthetic, local garden centers offer a wide variety of options. Avoid synthetic rubber mulches or varieties that have been dyed, as they may contain harmful chemicals or materials.

Native plants require minimal pruning if the garden is designed well and plants are spaced appropriately. If necessary, most trees and shrubs may be pruned right after flowering. Remove no more than 10 – 25 percent of live foliage at a time. Pruning young trees can establish good structure later, but try to preserve the fruits for decoration — and for wildlife.

Pests and weed control
Healthy native plants have fewer pests than traditional landscaping plants. Learn to recognize good pests from bad pests, and practice integrated pest management to help you choose the best pest control method. Remember that a munched leaf is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a sign you are feeding local insects, like our western monarchs, that depend on native plants for their survival.

Funded by Foundation For Sustainability and Innovation and developed in coordination with the Long Beach Water Department.