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How to Start Gardening with Native Plants

(My) Intro to California Native Gardening

Learning to love a California native garden is not something that will come naturally to all people. For some people, their landscape decisions are influenced by their desire to have flat recreation areas where they can kick around a soccer ball, sit with their friends and neighbors for a party, or lay out in the sunlight with a book. For others, having landscapes that look pleasing to the eye and require the absolute bare minimum amount of care is the defining factor.

I believe that regardless of the choices you have made for your garden, your priorities can be met by using native plants! In addition, the decision to incorporate native plants will have lasting benefits for all of us, friends, neighbors, and family for many years to come.

The Benefits: Water and Ecological Corridors


With our summers getting hotter and our winters getting dryer, future drought of worsening magnitude is almost certain to come. With that, we’ll bear witness to another cycle of brown, dry, crackling turf lawns. The neighborhood block will be in shambles! It will look like a post-apocalyptic nightmare, if the apocalypse is mainly concerned with neighborhood gardens (which I think would be a pretty manageable reality if an apocalypse were to come!).

To doomsday prep, or rather to prepare, you can start by planting some California native plants now. The California native plants, and especially the “local” native plants, are adapted to the seasons and climate in California. This means that the species you choose will hold up better and likely survive a future drought. So instead of investing thousands of dollars into redoing your turf lawn or non-drought tolerant landscape, invest now in cultivating your California native garden as a defense against the inevitable dryer future we have coming our way.

Poppies blooming! (Escholzia californica)

California native gardening can also function as an economic benefit for you, and an environmental benefit for many. By planting California native plants, you’re choosing species that are more accustomed to seasonal water, seasonal drought, and hot and dry temperatures. This means, although you should still provide the occasional water while establishing the garden, your garden overall will require much less water than a traditional lawn or non-native landscape. Your bank account will personally thank you, and quite frankly so will Valley Water. In fact, here in Santa Clara County, you can qualify for a rebate from Valley Water if you transition your turf into drought tolerant garden. Free money? Sign me up!

The final thought I’d like to impart on water and California native plants is that the plants themselves are trained for this - this is their big moment! Let them shine!

Building Bridges

When consulting with my friends and neighbors about their gardens, I always attempt to contextualize their decisions for their landscape in a broader ecological sense. What impact will your garden have on your local ecosystem? On your neighbor’s garden? On your block’s ecology? Whether it be one native plant in the landscape, or 100, the impact will still be realized and appreciated by all beings big and small. By planting native plants, including larger native trees if your property has room, you’ll be providing pollinator and wildlife corridors right in your own yard. Hummingbirds and California native bees are just some examples of pollinators that will flock almost instantaneously to your flowers when they’re blooming. And if you’re an avid birder, you may also see the return of certain bird species that you and your neighbors can enjoy locally! One of my favorite natural areas to view this corridor effect is Ulistac Natural Area in Santa Clara.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) berries at Ulistac

Humans thrive in a biodiverse environment, which means having a variety of plants and animals alongside us. Planting a California native garden will allow us to connect deeper into nature and deeper into wildlife right in our own backyards.

Getting Started, Avoiding Gate-keeping

You can start with one California native plant to see how you like it, or you can plant a lot and just go for it. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. If you’ve got a California native plant in your garden, then you’ve got a California native plant in your garden! While you’re considering dipping your toes into the world of native gardening, keep in mind that you may encounter some challenging obstacles around specifics, knowledge, Gate-keeping, requirements, rules, and know-it-all neighbors. These may all be possible barriers to dipping your feet into the beautiful oasis of California native gardening, but do not be discouraged or intimidated! Everyone can garden with California natives, and everyone should feel empowered to love their gardens!

Learning to Love

As we’ve already established, a garden at your home can do so many things to benefit your soul. Whatever information you may find out there in the world, whether it be from gardening classes, books, articles, or even failed attempts, try to remember to be gentle with your artistry, to trust in the process, and to remember also that your garden is a canvas. When used sincerely, it’s a tool for your artistic expression. It will, and it is intended to, make you feel. It will provoke all of the same joyful feelings we feel when we partake in the things that make us truly happy. A garden can sing, and it can perform the concertos of the songbirds, the rhythms of the hummingbirds and bees, and the rustles of the leaves in the wind. A garden can cook a delicious meal, whose aroma floats through the air and dances straight to your nose, smelling so sweetly of nectar and fresh leaves. A garden can paint all of its diverse colors across your eyes, smattering with reds, purples, yellows, and whites, in a stunning display. A garden can be deeply healing, nurturing you the same way that you nurture it. It will watch you grow, as the time passes around you, as the seasons change, and it will teach you to learn and to love alongside it.

A nice hummingbird sage flower (Salvia spathaceae)

Andy Frank

Certified Arborist, Garden Gnome

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