Gardening with Native Plants
Gardening with native plants can be very rewarding and save you time and money in the long run. Natives generally require less water and long-term maintenance. These rewards will be greater if your garden replicates conditions similar to their native habitats.
Natives grown in “typical” garden conditions may grow very nicely for a few years, but will probably be short-lived, or may “inexplicably” die one day. Natives grown as they are in nature may live happily and healthily with little involvement by you for 3 or 4 times as many years.
This varies by the plant. Please review the descriptions given below to understand a little about the plant, where it comes from, and try to place it in similar conditions. Avoid making assumptions about natives; just because a plant is native does not mean that it will naturally grow without any care, attention, or water in the most rotten conditions on your property.
Native plants vary by plant community which vary according to the environments they grow within (including temperature ranges, typical rainfall, soil types, sun exposure, etc.) You can assume the plant will grow in pH range of 5.0 to 8.0, unless stated otherwise in the plant description. Natives rarely thrive in a traditional gardening setting where the conditions of northern Europe, the US east of the Mississippi, and Asia are artificially created with soil enrichment and regular watering. California is a rich ecological island with many diverse plant communities, so identify which community you live within, and learn about its characteristics and native plants
A good place to find out more is to go to the California Native Plant Society’s web page (cnps.org) where you will find this kind of information and links to its local chapters.
In general, the conditions of California’s “Mediterranean” climate dominate the natural cycles of growth and dormancy here. Our growth period correlates with the late autumn – spring rains (winter), and our dormancy time occurs during the annual drought of summer. Plants native to this climate (except riparian communities where plants receive year-round water) are adapted to it and do not require summer water once they are established. Check the annual rainfall requirements in the plant descriptions and adjust any supplemental watering accordingly (if you don’t know your annual rainfall, call your county agricultural commissioner).
An important benefit of summer dormancy to natives is that pathogenic soil organisms are kept in check because warmth and water do not tend to occur together here. When you water during warm seasons, the possibility of soil diseases greatly increases, and these plants are not capable of combating them because it’s not normally needed.
Native plants also need to be transplanted near the onset of the rainy season as they enter their growth period, so they can establish a root system before the following drought period. Most natives are pretty adaptable to diverse soil conditions, but only if it has good drainage.
Before you plant, do a test to check your drainage. Dig a hole 12” deep and fill it with water. If it drains out within a half-hour, the drainage is good-excellent. If it drains out with 1-2 hours, it’s good. Longer, and plants requiring good drainage will not do well.
Do not attempt to amend the soil to improve drainage – it never works. Either create a “raised bed”, find another location, or switch to a native plant that naturally lives along creeks and rivers in a riparian habitat.
Opinions differ on the subject of soil amending. Some say that you should never add anything to your soil when planting natives. Our opinion is that it is unlikely that that would be 100% appropriate to all situations. The California Native Plant Society says that there are situations where it is appropriate to amend the soil (ie, add organic matter where soil is compacted). But basically, the closer you match the plant to the site, the less this will be an issue.
On the other hand, we recognize that many of you are dealing with gardens and yards that do not remotely resemble the native soil that may have been there hundreds of years ago. If you will be planting in an area thathas been left to nature for a while, look at what is growing there all by itself. If nothing is growing, that is a problem. It could mean the topsoil has been scraped off, something is in the soil at toxic levels, etc. If it is just kind of grassy, you are probably in good shape to just plant without doing anything to the soil.
Natives are adapted to the indigenous nutrient levels in the soil, so do not add a bunch of junk assuming that it can’t hurt. It might. And absolutely do not add synthetic fertilizers that are water soluble – these will cause an unhealthy flush of top growth or kill the plant, and probably do a lot to add to your weed crop.
If you do amend, use the same organic matter nature uses. Adding organic matter will improve compacted soil and will increase moisture retention (for a while). To increase the organic matter in your soil, place less than 1/2” of high quality compost (high quality, not high in richness or high quantity). Place another 3” or more of coarser mulch such as shredded clippings, on top of this layer.
Should you inoculate your soil with mycorrhiza to colonize these beneficial organisms? Again, it is hard to say. We do know that mycorrhizal fungi play an important role in the lives of native plant communities. The question is, does your soil contain these microbes already? Unless you know for sure, you might want to inoculate. It is not that expensive of a gamble. If you want to inoculate your soil with mycorrhiza, we carry mycorrhizal inoculants in powder form.
Using a product that contains both endo- and ectomycorrhizal fungi increases your chances of providing the correct organisms for your plant. Mix this powder with your soil at the root zone before planting your transplant.
Plant natives in the fall. If you choose to plant natives in the dry season, it is best to treat it like a general ornamental.
Overall, it is best to wait until the rains have begun, or you will need to water until they do. It is not necessary to cultivate the soil when planting natives. Simply pull or kill any existing weeds. Dig a hole of sufficient size to hold the transplant. Mix any mycorrhizal powder into the soil at the bottom of the hold and the backfill. Seat the plant so that the top of the root ball is a little higher that the soil level. Backfill and tamp down to finish grade level.
Add compost if desired (see above) along with several inches of coarse mulch to help with water retention and provide longterm nutrients. The best mulch choices are organic material such as chipped landscape clippings or shredded bark, which will also provide long- term nutrients as the material slowly decomposes.
Consider where your plant comes from in deciding what kind of mulch to use – oak woodland forests create a different litter than does desert chaparral – some plants just like rocks.
Finally, water, water, and water. Unless you are planting after a few sizeable fall storms have rolled through, you will be planting in extremely dry soil. It can take a lot of water to moisten the soil down 6-8” when it is powdery dry. After watering, check down a few inches and see if it is percolating down and saturating the soil.
If you are in deer country and are planting in areas without an 8’ fence of protection, you need to take a few steps to protect your plants. While many native plants are resistant to deer damage, this is more often the case only with more mature plants. Deer will eat just about any plant if food is scarce, and one tug on a little tiny plant, even if the deer spits it out, can mean kaput for that plant.
To protect your plants until they are larger and can handle some browsing, install wire cages around each plant (be sure to close off the top), use spray deterrents, or install motion detectors which turn on water sprinklers when deer walk through.
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