Join Master Gardener, Fred Hoffman as he takes us around the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center in Sacramento to teach us all how to save money by planting drought tolerant California native plants.
California Natives & Drought Tolerant Plants
Water shortages are popping up across the country. Georgia, for example, recently restricted outdoor watering due to drying lakes. Some communities there even banned outdoor watering. Here in California, the question is not if there will be a drought, but when.
Is your garden ready for outdoor watering restrictions and more expensive water? Especially vulnerable to prolonged periods of drought: yards that are planted with water-thirsty trees, shrubs, ground covers and lawns.
One answer: convert all or part of your yard to plants that can thrive on little or no extra water, other than what falls from the sky during our rainy season.
These plants include California Native plants and other non-thirsty plants from other Mediterranean regions of the world, including, Australia, South Africa, Chile and southern Europe.
Many of California's native plants are easy-care, requiring little maintenance.
A landscape can have a succession of blooming California native plants and drought tolerant plants from around the world that will keep your yard looking colorful year round.
Not all California natives are perfect for your area. Some prefer areas where there are hot summers; some are native to the coastal areas or the mountains (coast redwood, for example). Your best shopping bet for choosing California natives that are best for your area: attend sales sponsored by the chapters of the California Native Plant Society, usually in March and September.
A good example of such a garden in action is the Water Efficient Landscape Garden at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center, adjacent to Fair Oaks Park, in Sacramento County.
Among the California native plants that will do well in hot summer climate areas of California:
Trees. Western Redbud and California Buckeye (both bloom in March and April); Toyon (a shrub-like tree with flowers in the summer, red berries December through February).
Shrubs. Ceanothus (medium to large shrubs with white or blue flower clusters in spring); Oregon Grape (flowers in spring, leaves turn bronze in winter); red-twig dogwood (deciduous shrub whose red twigs look outstanding in winter); fuchsia-flowered gooseberry (evergreen with red, tubular flowers in winter and spring); western spice bush (brownish-red fragrant flowers in spring or summer).
Perennials and self-sowing annuals. California poppy, monkey flower (spring-summer bloom); California fuchsia, penstemon (blooms summer through fall). Grasses and groundcovers. Emerald Carpet Manzanita (low growing ground cover with late winter flowers); deer grass (yellow to purple flower spikes in fall).
To help guarantee planting success with these California natives, remember:
- group plants according to their needs for sun or shade;
- keep the soil free of other competing plants, including weeds;
- add organic materials to the soil before planting;
- mulch around the plants; avoid planting in areas that are hit by sprinklers;
- and plant in the fall or spring.
Because native plants like life on the dry side, be sure that they're planted in soil that drains fairly quickly, including avoiding soil that has standing water or is muddy after a winter or spring rainstorm.
All plants need regular water for the first two years, to establish a large-enough root system to carry those drought-tolerant plants through the long dry summers here. But not all California natives are drought-tolerant: those plants naturally occurring along creeks, seeps, moist meadows and in redwood forests need regular watering throughout the year. Other natives rot in heavy wet soils and are best planted on mounds.
The younger the plant you plant in the ground, the better established that plant will be in the future. Small plants undergo less shock when planted and after one year's time, a one-gallon plant often surpasses a five-gallon plant installed at the same time. Impatient? Interplant fast-growing plants with slower-growing ones, thus creating a landscape containing plants with different seasons of bloom and growth.
Five Tips For Success
(from Steven Hartman of the California Native Plant Society)
First, find an area of your yard where you can control the irrigation. If it is a hot, sunny spot, you will want to plant natives that are drought tolerant, and typically, such plants prefer little summer water. A little summer water (once a month) won't hurt most species, and might convince plants such as sages not to drop their leaves.
Second, start with an area that is not too big. GIVE PLANTS PLENTY OF ROOM TO GROW. For example, the 1-gallon shrubs that CNPS offers at the plant sales, such as manzanitas, need to be spaced at least four feet apart, possibly more space. They will not begin to fill their spaces for about a year. Rather than having lots of empty space with apparently very small plants covering your entire yard, a good strategy is to plant one small section at a time. To mask the sparse spacing of newly planted one-gallon natives, spread native seeds of poppies and lupine. These annuals will provide quite a lovely fill of orange and purple while the shrubs take their time to grow and spread. Also, well placed garden art can look nice in a native garden.
Third, there is no way to know whether a particular species will grow well at any particular site. So I recommend that you buy one each of a selection of natives, plant them out, and see which ones thrive. The ones that do well, next year buy more of the same or others in the same family or genus. The ones that die, add them to the list of plants not to buy for your yard. Remember, the goal here is to find natives that will grow in your garden with little or no care.
Fourth, do not fertilize, and, if you can get away with it, don't add supplemental water after the first year. You want plants that will grow without ANY fertilizer or extra water.
Fifth, don't expect to get by without any maintenance. Many native plants need to be pruned back annually or dead-headed (removing die dead flowers). Also, even though I warned you, you will plant the natives too close together, so you might end up moving plants (which can be done with some success in the winter or early spring). Other plants, despite their beauty, have a tendency to take over your yard (Matilija poppies, mallows, and buckwheat) and need to be pruned back.
Other tips for a successful native garden:
CUT BACK CERTAIN PLANTS IN FALL Cut back plants before the first rains if you want to control their size. Sages ( Salvia spp.) can be cut back to 1' to 2' of the stems coming out of the ground. The sages will come right back, but they will not be as big as they would be if you don't prune them at all. I prefer to remove only the dead flowers and flower stalks of my sages instead of cutting them back severely. Matilija poppies ( Romneya coulteri ), California fuchsia, California sagebrush and mugwort (respectively Artemisia californica and A. douglasiana ) --all need to be pruned back in order to have a manicured look for the garden.
THE PLANT IS NOT NECESSARILY DEAD IF IT IS NOT GREEN Some natives go dormant in the summer. The California sunflower looks completely dead by the end of August. Golden currants ( Ribes aureum ) often lose their leaves entirely.
SOME NATIVES MULTIPLY WITH UNDERGROUND STEMS OR RHIZOMES such as California fuchsias.
So give it a try. Growing natives and drought tolerant plants can be very rewarding, watching them grow in your garden, day after day, season to season, from bud, to flower, to seed. And you’ll save time, money and work and yet have a beautiful garden!