Resident Feature

Gardening with California Native Plants.

Save water, add beauty and help nature

The San Francisco Bay Area has a Mediterranean climate— generally hot and dry in the summer, mild and wet in the winter. In Blackhawk, rainfall is 19” per year on average. That’s not much even in a normal year, and dry winters like the last quickly raise drought concerns. Many communities are increasingly embracing “climate appropriate landscaping” with low water plants from regions around the world with similar climate to ours, and of course our own California plants. But there’s a big difference: In addition to being drought tolerant and disease resistant, native plants also provide habitat for California’s pollinators, birds and other wildlife in a way that non-native ornamentals can’t. 

Why does wildlife need native plants? 

Renowned ecologist Douglas Tallamy has done extensive research on the relationships between native plants and wildlife, particularly birds. His findings illustrate the importance of native plants to birds. He says: “When birds raise their young, they can’t feed them seeds, berries or sugar water. Instead they need insects, especially caterpillars, and lots of them!” Tallamy found that it takes 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise a clutch of young chickadees, one of our smallest birds. Yet those caterpillars—hatched from the eggs of butterflies and moths—depend for food on specific, native host plants that they have co-evolved with over millennia. Non-native plants simply can’t sustain those bird-critical insects. Tallamy concludes: “If we have no native plants, we have no caterpillars and that means no birds.” 

Consider for example the crepe myrtle, a popular yet non-native tree from Asia. In California it supports not a single type of caterpillar. In contrast, California’s native plum trees are hosts to the caterpillars of over 200 moth and butterfly species. The native plum, Prunus ilicifolia, is among Tallamy’s so-called keystone species—California native plants that support especially high numbers of moth and butterfly species as caterpillar hosts. Other keystone plants include oak, California lilac, flowering currant, manzanita, buckwheat, lupine, California sage and many more. 

Our gardens play an important role 

One might assume our parks and open spaces offer plenty space for native plants, but with natural habitat lost to development at an alarming rate, there simply aren’t enough wildlands left to sustain nature. Bird populations, for example, have plummeted over the last five decades, with a decline of nearly three billion birds across North America in that time period.

“We are paving over 2 million acres of open space each year,” says Tallamy. “That’s an area the size of Yellowstone.” Lawns, too, cover a huge area of land. Tallamy calculates that in the US, a total of 40 million acres—about the size of Florida—is suburban lawn, which provides no value to wildlife. Traditional, non-native ornamentals like agapanthus, camellia, lantana, oleander and many others don’t support biodiversity either. 

But there’s good news: If we bring native plants into our gardens, we can make up for the lost habitat. We can have beautiful landscapes that are not only decorative but also alive, attracting birds and butterflies for us to enjoy. There are even more rewards: Because so many of California’s native plants are drought tolerant once they’re established, they need far less water than lawns and traditional ornamentals. The chore of mowing disappears, as does the need to haul away grass clippings. Natives also tend to be less prone to disease and pests and don’t require the use of garden chemicals, making them safe for children and pets. 

Native plant gardens in the East Bay 

It’s not a surprise that gardening with California native plants is growing more popular in the Bay Area and beyond. One of the best ways to see first-hand what native plant gardens look like, get ideas, and learn how to begin transforming your own garden is the “Bringing Back the Natives” Garden Tour. Held annually in May, the tour features dozens of native plant gardens in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. This year, the tour was conducted virtually over the course of three Sundays and was attended by over 2,300 people. 

Among the garden hosts was Maria Sargeant in Danville, who converted her 1,300 square foot front yard from lawn to mostly native plants five years ago. She received $800 in rebates from EBMUD for removing her lawn and has been able to cut water use in half. But the biggest reward for her is watching the wildlife her garden attracts. “I grew up in this house, but it wasn’t until I started to plant natives that I’ve seen so many birds, bees and butterflies, including monarchs,” she says. Maria’s garden is now home to several different species of manzanita and California lilac whose blue blossoms compete for attention with the cheerful orange of her monkeyflowers in spring. Native bees, bumblebees and butterflies are drawn to different types of buckwheat and sages. Between the trees, shrubs and the bird bath that Maria keeps filled with fresh water, birds have all they need to thrive. 

In nearby San Ramon, Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour host Lorraine Kalich proves that gardening with native plants doesn’t require special skills and can be very low maintenance. Her beautiful open yard feels lush although it was intentionally designed to survive largely on winter rains and minimal need to prune. “I am not a gardener by nature, so I wanted something natural and inviting for wildlife that didn’t require much upkeep,” she says. Tired of dealing with broken sprinkler heads and using a lot of water, she said good-bye to the lawn and opted instead for the beauty of bunchgrasses, redbuds, hummingbird sage and other hardy natives. California quail are frequent visitors finding shelter and nesting spaces among the bunch grasses, hedges and between boulders that Lorraine interspersed with the plants.

Evelyn Dalton, who has been gardening with native plants for some years, watched the online tour from her home in Blackhawk. She used to have a yard with mostly lawn and few shrubs, maintained by a landscaping service, but Evelyn was frustrated. “With California’s hot and dry summers, the lawn needed an incredible amount of water, and it didn’t even look good,” she recalls. Starting with the edges where the grass was dying, Evelyn took out the lawn little by little, replacing it with drought tolerant California fuchsias, sages, manzanitas, flowering currant and bunch grasses. She’s happy with her choice: “These native plants have made maintenance so much easier, and they bring the garden to life with the wildlife they attract. I now enjoy stepping outside to see what birds, bees and butterflies are visiting.”

Getting started with native plants 

If a complete make-over of your garden feels daunting, you can start integrating California native plants in small steps. For most traditional garden ornamentals there are California natives of similar size that are just as beautiful but offer so much more value to wildlife and tend to be a lot less thirsty. For example, instead of an acacia or Chinese pistache, consider a tall California lilac. Groundcovers like cotoneaster, dymondia and myoporum can be replaced with low growing varieties of manzanita, coyote bush or buckwheats. For flowering perennials, forego non-native roses, lantana, agapanthus and euryops in favor of the California native rose, lupines, currants, fuchsias or countless varieties of California sages. 

The best time to plant any of these is in the fall to take advantage of winter rains to get the new additions established. The coming summer months can be a great time to plan and learn more about gardening with natives. To get started, consider viewing the video recordings of this year’s Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour. Find the YouTube link, along with guidance on native plant choices for the Bay Area, information on Doug Tallamy’s research, lists of landscape designers specializing in California native plant gardens, and more at www.BringingBackTheNatives.net. 

By Stefanie Pruegel, Team Member at Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour 

Banner Image:

Photo credit: Mary Cooper

Who says native plant gardens can’t be colorful? In this yard pink flowering currant and California lilac complement a sunflower.

Images in order:

Photo credit: Pam Young 

Birds like this orange-crowned warbler need caterpillars to raise their young, and only native plants can provide them.

 Photo credit: Kathy Kramer 

California native blue penstemon, Sulphur buckwheat and golden yarrow in front of a toyon in Lorraine Kalich’s garden in San Ramon. 

Photo credit: Maria Sargeant 

A hummingbird drinks nectar from a California manzanita in early spring when few other plants are in flower. 

Photo credit: Kathy Kramer

Cheerful California monkeyflowers frame a birdbath in Maria Sargeant’s garden in Danville.