For the Native Plant Novice: Why?

In a fairly recent email to the Gardening with Natives Yahoo! Group, a self-professed native plant novice asked for advice. The question was fairly straightforward, and I believe was answered right away (it's a great group!). But I realized that on our blog, we're possibly a bit short on information for the novice, so I'm planning on a few posts.

Today's post is about the WHY of California native plants. I'll examine a few oft-quoted reasons for growing natives, and tell you what my experience has been (in future posts we can look at HOW, WHERE, and WHEN).

1. Natives are Drought Tolerant and I'll Save on My Water Bill.
Many people I talk to cite as their primary reason for wanting to grow natives that their water bill is high, and that they hope to stop watering. Not so fast! I say.
  • Many of the most attractive natives come from the Channel Islands, Northern California, or the Sierra Nevada. These plants might expect a lot more water than the normal rain fall for your region. Interestingly, Ms. Country Mouse gets a lot more water than I do. For Santa Clara county, you can check how much water you are getting by looking at this site. Notice that Palo Alto currently has only half the rainfall of Lexington Reservoir, about a half hour drive away. Even plants you might consider locally native might need extra water in a suburban garden. 
  • In the first few years, all natives need extra water. In the wild, only the most vigoroous plants survive. You want to stack the odds in your garden by adding water. 
  • Plants from different habitats have different water requirements. Chaparral plants really can get by with very little water, plants from redwood habitats appreciate (or require) a nice shower on a regular basis to thrive. 
That said, yes, you CAN lower your water bill with native plants. But you might consider combining natives with other beautiful mediterranean climate plants if water savings are your primary goal.

2. Natives are Low Maintenance.
This one seems like a no-brainer. You stick some plants in the ground that actually belong here, and of course they'll thrive. All you have to do is sit in your garden chair and enjoy the butterflies. Not so fast! I say.

While I've found that native plants need less of the boring, repetitive maintenance a lawn might require, they do require some care. All successful native plant gardeners I know actually spend time taking care of their garden. Sure, you might do nothing for several months in summer, while things in the garden are quiet, plants aren't growing much, and planting is not such a good idea.
But in early fall, you'll want to start pruning, and after the rains start you might want to sow some annuals, and put in a few perennials, shrubs, and grasses. Sadly, the non-native weeds like oxalis, privet, liquidamber, and so on don't know your garden is a native plant garden and will not hesitate to take over if you let them, so some weeding is usually required (and some weeds come up through 3 inches of mulch).
So, many natives are fairly low maintenance. See this post, A Garden of Four or Five, by Barbara at Wild Suburbia for a list. But natives won't offer a magical solution (though I do think they offer magical rewards).

3. Natives Connect Me With My Environment.
One of my main reasons for growing natives is the sense of place they give me. I like to feel that I'm planting things that belong here. I enjoy going for a hike and seeing plants I also enjoy in my garden. Learning about the plants in my garden helps me identify the plants I see out in the wild, and a weekend outing often gives me some good ideas for plants to add to my garden. When I meet a native plant novice, I usually recommend they have a look at books that explore the different native plant habitats, such as Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach. Even if your goal isn't to create a habitat, your plants are more likely to succeed if you group them according to plant community.

4. Native Attract Birds and Butterflies. 
One main reason I've continued gardening with natives despite some setbacks, some plants that didn't make it, some perennials that decided to become annuals, are the birds, butterflies, pollinators, lizards, and other critters I've encountered in my garden. Yes, I do believe that gardening without pesticides is essential for attracting wildlife, and having water sources and shelter is also required. But having native plants makes a difference.
In his book Bringing Nature Home, Douglas Tallamy makes a convincing argument that native plants are more likely to attract native insects, which in turn are more likely to attract native birds. And while seeds and berries are great for birds, many require a buggy protein snack when migrating or for feeding their young. I'm always happy to see my plants a little bit nibbled at, it means there's food for another critter, be it a bird, a lizard, or a caterpillar.

5. Native Plants are Interesting. Ok, let me go out on a limb here. I really do enjoy the challenge of gardening with natives, and find them more interesting than regular garden plants. A light bulb went off in my head when I recently read that for good design, you need to embrace constraints. I happen to like jig-saw puzzles, I enjoy finding just the right piece to fit in a slot. I find it very satisfying to ponder the right plant for a spot and to finally find it (even if I delude myself at times).

And with that, dear native plant novice, I'll let you ponder what you'll want to do. If it was mainly the water savings and low maintenance you are after, some mediterranean climate plants might serve you just as well if not better than some California Natives. You might even consider some hardscaping (maybe urbanite?). A garden--even a native plant garden--that just annoys you because it needs more water and time than you have is a sad thing.

But I hope that like me, you're interested in biodiversity and envision a beautiful wildlife garden. In that case, I hope you'll enjoy our blog, the links on our blogs, and our book list, and you'll have a fun fall planting season followed by a spectacular spring!


fer said…
Thanks for this post! is always great to review and learn about native plants. I wonder what native plant I can grow on my little balcony garden.
Christine said…
Hooray! What a wonderful post! I think many myths or exaggerations have developed with natives. So glad you've debunked a few!
Barbara E said…
Great post. Your experiences are very much like mine. And thanks for the link. Also, love the photos.