Plant Community Garden Design

By Laura Camp and Rob Moore

When designing a California native garden, plant selection is probably the one aspect people find most exciting–and daunting! At this juncture it’s good to pause and consider questions such as “What plant community do I live in?” and “How do I go about identifying this community?”

Identifying this natural ecosystem is the first step in the plant selection process.

This step requires one to look at the design process from a different perspective—that of emulating the natural ecosystem or plant community that existed prior to the development of the home and neighborhood where the garden is to be designed. Identifying this natural ecosystem is the first step in the plant selection process.

What is a plant community?

Bee seeks out nectar on Black Sage (Salvia mellifera) in coastal sage scrub garden in Southern California Photo: Laura Camp

A native plant community is an array of plants found in a naturally occurring ecosystem. Plant communities typically support certain types of wildlife species that have adapted to or with them over time – sometimes over thousands of years. Generally speaking, most of the densely populated areas in California (primarily those in the southern part of the state) are located in the coastal sage scrub plant community. Inland areas in southern California such as Riverside and San Bernardino have their own version of this plant community referred to as interior, or Riversidian sage scrub.

There are many other specific climates to be considered depending upon where in California you live. Examples include northern oak woodland, northern juniper woodland, central oak woodland, yellow pine forest, Douglas Fir forest, valley grassland, and Great Basin sage, to name a few.
Look around the neighborhood where the garden is to be designed, and take note of areas that haven’t been developed. Do stands of intact native plant groups still occur naturally? Note what plants are growing there, and how they grow together. Another clue is to look for native plant volunteers popping up in people’s ornamental landscapes. These indicator plants offer insight as to what will easily grow in your particular neighborhood.

Re-creating your plant community

A chaparral-themed garden featuring yellow-orange flowered Fremontia (Fremontodendron californicum) and, in the foreground, gray-leaved Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri)
Photo: Laura Camp

Some naturally occurring communities, such as vernal pools, are extremely complex and are not easy to create in one’s own backyard. However others, such as coastal sage scrub, chaparral or oak woodland, given the right soils and growing conditions, can be constructed in your backyard by assembling the individual plants, grasses and shrubs that make up that landscape in the wild.

Plant communities typically support certain types of wildlife species that have adapted to or with them over time. A local plant community ecosystem, given the right soils, is the best guide to the plants that will look beautiful, thrive in your geographic area, and will be guaranteed to attract the local pollinators.

Take a tip from Mother Nature – make California’s native plant communities the starting point when choosing plants for your new garden!

For more information on vegetation communities, explore more at calscape.org


Rob Moore and Laura Camp are members of the CNPS Orange County Chapter. Laura is the general manger of Tree of Life Nursery. Rob specializes in designing ecologically balanced gardens/landscapes in Southern California where he is the owner of California Native Garden Design

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