California Native Garden Design: Misnomers and Plant Selection

Invasive mustard plants cover the summer hillsides.

Invasive mustard plants cover the summer hillsides.

I am asked many questions as a designer of native gardens, some more often than others. Today I thought I would take time to address two such query’s that  frequently come up; those of misnomers and plant selection. One doesn’t necessarily correspond directly with the other, but both are important to understand.


One of the main challenges we—as advocates of California’s native flora—have to overcome is the common (and understandable) misconceptions that have been perpetuated by a mindset that exemplifies our society’s “import” mentality.

One prevailing untruth is that native plants are aesthetically unfit for suburban gardens and landscapes. Many folks—when offered the native alternative—think of brown hillsides covered in dead weeds left over from winter rains.

The fact of the matter is that most of the unattractive plant material people see in open areas are invasive species which were introduced by early European settlers. These interlopers have gained a foothold because naturally occurring ecosystems have been disturbed by human development.

Not only do these introduced species give native plants a bad reputation aesthetically, but they are accelerating fire cycles and causing native plant communities to be choked out of existence.

Fortunately throughout our state are select nurseries that propagate native plant species

Many native varieties are evergreen and have eye-catching flowers.

Many native varieties are evergreen and have eye-catching flowers.

specifically to grow—and flourish—in suburban landscapes, all the while doing so with a fraction of the water required to sustain a garden stocked with thirsty, imported species. Many of these native varieties have eye-catching flowers, a stronger fragrance, are adaptable to soil and micro-climate variations, and are perfectly suited for use in the suburban garden.

Additionally, state fire authorities such as the Orange County Fire Authority are coming to the realization that, with occasional irrigation during summer months and proper application of maintenance procedures, many native species and their cultivars can actually reduce the hazard of fire damage from seasonal flare-ups.

Another challenge to overcome is the misnomer that California native plants are fussy. Unfortunately, many gardeners believe this to be true and are hesitant to embrace the use of these plants because of the entrenched belief that natives don’t perform well in ornamental landscapes.

Moreover, from a design perspective, many professionals believe that to successfully utilize native plants in garden design, one has to unlearn all they’ve been taught regarding ornamental landscape design.

With this mind-set, and decades of abundant and inexpensive water resources, it’s no wonder that the general public has been loath to embrace the widespread use of our native flora in their gardens and commercial landscapes.

Fortunately, with more and more information to the contrary becoming available combined with ongoing water restraints, this outdated paradigm is changing. It is shifting in favor of the inclusion of California’s native plants in place of the standard, imported nursery stock that has long enjoyed preferential status.


Designing a native garden requires a different mind-set. In ornamental horticulture it is common practice to change the ecology of the site to be developed in order to suit the imported nursery stock. For example, after a site has been graded, top soil imported, and the holes dug, the soil to be used for backfill is typically amended to increase its fertility.

Your standard fare of plants are then introduced such as junipers, boxwood, Italian cypress, azaleas, oleanders, and exotic flowering trees, usually with the intent of creating a lush, park-like oasis such as one might see in Maritime England, or even Hawaii.

This “ideal” then requires copious amounts of regular water, fertilizer, and pesticides, all of which run off incrementally with every subsequent watering the landscape receives. This toxic brew flows off-site and down sidewalks, entering storm drains and continuing on to pollute our natural watercourses before arriving at its final destination—the ocean.

A California native garden requires few of the aforementioned practices. Other than the removal of turf grass, grading for run-off mitigation, and removal of unwanted plant material, it is best to disturb the existing site as little as possible. Look at the design process from a different perspective—that of emulating the natural environment or plant community that existed prior to the development of the home and neighborhood where the garden is to be developed. Identifying this natural ecosystem is the first step in that development process.

Southern Oak Woodland plant community.

Southern Oak Woodland plant community.

Good questions to ask include, “What plant community do I live in?” and” How do I go about identifying this community?”

Generally speaking, most of the densely populated areas in California (primarily located in the southern part of the state) live 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.

Of course this is a generalization. There are many other climates to be considered such as 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. Micro-climates within the general plant communities are even more important to fully understand prior to choosing a plant palette of California natives.

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 naturally occur? 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 clues as to what will easily grow in that particular neighborhood.

There are other resources available as well:

Las Pilitas has a website where you can enter your  zip code, locate the plant community and find links to plants that naturally occur in that specific region of the state.

Tree of Life nursery’s website is a valuable resource as well. Specifically Sage Advice ‘The California Garden’ is an excellent source from which to choose plants based on California native plant communities.

Designing a native garden can be a very daunting task, but one that is well worth the effort.

Designing a native garden can be a very daunting task, but one that is well worth the effort.

There is much to learn about native landscape design, and quite a bit to unlearn as well.

Doing your homework, attending local workshops, joining your local chapter of California Native Plant Society, and visiting native plant nurseries in your area will do a lot at dispelling half-truths and flat out incorrect information.

Before you know it you’ll be on the fast track to creating your own slice of native heaven!

© 2012 – 2013, Rob Moore. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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