Myth buster: California Natives Don't Need Water

A few days ago, I came across one of the ever-popular lists for saving the planet. Among the very sensible (tire pressure) and the truly strange (use a dishwasher -- everyone I know rinses before they put in the dishes, where's the water saving?), was this advice: Use Native Plants to Conserve Water. Much as I love natives, there are several potential problems with this advice.
First, while many natives thrive in sunny and dry conditions (think: chapparal habitat), others grow along seeps or in other moist conditions. A fairly large number of the most attractive natives are from the Channel Islands and are used to more fog and more moisture than even the Bay Area, never mind Southern California.
More importantly, all natives are watered fairly regularly in the nursery, and they need the water when they are small. Mother nature, only keeps around the top 10% of seedlings, if that, but nurseries (and even us mice) like to keep a larger percentage so we cheat by watering. When you transplant your beauty from the pot into the ground, it therefore needs water initially to grow roots and to thrive. It makes me want to cry when I hear people stick their little treasures into the ground and ignore them for a few months, then notice they've died and are indignant. That's really frustrating for the people, and even more so for the plants. Interestingly, Tilden Regional Park Botanical Garden does not even put a label on a plant until it's one year old. Of course, they have many rare natives from unusual climate conditions, including plants that grow in the Sierras. Those plants are really hard to acclimatise to the East Bay conditions. But I do find that in my own garden, the first year is the danger zone. I water about once every 10-14 days, and might do a little spot watering if I find things are really bone dry using my moisture meter.
Finally, after 2-3 years, most of the natives that do well in hot, dry conditions can be on their own. Theoretically. Except that experience has shown that cutting off water won't kill the plants, they do look a lot better if they get some water every 3-4 weeks.
So, while native absolutely get by with a lot less water than many other plants
  • Some require water year round or go dormant (some ferns will do that)
  • All need regular water in the first two years
  • Most look better with at least monthly water in a garden setting
Below a picture of my Ceanothus thyrsiflorus 'Skylark' from last May in its third spring (water every 10 days the summer before, water every 20 days the summer after).


lostlandscape said…
This is a great reminder. We all need to learn more about our plants!

I remember giving my mother a "drought-tolerant" plant years ago and, not knowing better, I warned her never to water it. It of course died a quick death. Even when something won't need water in the future, it will most likely need it when you put it in the ground since it's been pampered in the nursery.
Good point Town Mouse. "Drought Resistant" and “Drought Tolerant” are terms thrown about a lot in times of water shortage. A point to remember is that plants in the nursery are grown in a light medium to get the roots growing fast. Once they hit the heavy soils in our yards it can take some time for them to adjust.
Country Mouse said…
Well said! and sage advice - People who have fallen for the myth can get quite down on native California gardens for looking tatty in summer and for not being maintenance free "as advertised" - but the groundswell is in favor of native gardens for so many ecologically and aesthetically sound reasons, and people will become more savvy. I would love to tour this huge country and see the native gardens of different areas, each area's aesthetic arising from an understanding of local ecology - how marvelous! Better than marching across the landscape imposing the same cookie cutter garden style everywhere. It's just more deeply engaging to me, and healthy for the planet.
Town Mouse said…
Ha! Maybe we can bike up the west coast when we're retired and visit native gardens. Let's start training ;->
Genevieve said…
Thank you so much for this post. It's shocking to me how misunderstood this concept is. I tell people that every single plant needs regular water during the growing season for the first three years, then, many woody shrubs, depending on their site and genus, can take less or none.

Perennials nearly always need supplemental water. As you say, we have higher expectations for survival in our gardens than in nature!
Your Ceanothus
thyrsiflorus 'Skylark' is beautiful...and the post itself is very informative. Of course, it's not something I need to know, since I'm no where close geographically, however, I learned something regarding plants and water needs in general. It's important to know your plant and the area you are planting in to serve your plants best interests:)
Gail said…
It is so easy to generalizations about native plants anywhere. Here, in Tennessee there is an assumption that because Rhododendrons are native they will grow every where...Well they don't! I garden on nearly neutral clay soil...not a good home for them. Plus many of us are lazy and never think about learning about a plant, its habitat requirements or the particular environment it's going into... I say that having made those mistakes early in my gardening career! The plant graveyard if filled with the pots of many of misplaced plant!

I do hope you get to see the diverse ecological settings and gardens around the country someday!

Genevieve said…
I tagged you guys in the Seven Things/ MeMe meme because I loved this post so much! I see you already participated, so take this as my hat tip to you and thanks for writing such great posts!