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Calscape Natural Gardening Tips

If you are new to gardening with native California plants, or if you have tried natives before without much success, this section is meant for you.  Native plants are not difficult to grow as long as you choose the right plants for your location and follow some basic rules of thumb.  However, you need to think about California natives and treat them a little differently than the usual lawn and roses. The information that follows is intended to get you off to a good start on the road to a beautiful natural garden.

How Are California Native Plants Different?  You may already be aware that most California natives are very drought tolerant, and that is a big part of their appeal. Their water conserving ways are the result of having evolved in California's unique climate which is often referred to as a Mediterranean climate. The normal pattern for this climate is cold or cool winters during which most of our rainfall occurs.  Summers are warm or hot with moderate humidity and little or no rainfall.  In response to this pattern, most drought tolerant California natives evolved to rest during the hot summer and early fall, and many will die if they receive significant amounts of direct irrigation during this period.  On the other hand, native riparian plants evolved to grow near creeks or other moist areas, and need or prefer at least a little water year-round.


1. Choosing and Placing Your Plants

California's growing conditions and native plants change from north to south, from coastal to inland, and from low elevation to high elevation and across the different geographic subdivisions of the state.  It's important to pick the right plants for the conditions where your garden is located.   The single most important factor in successfully gardening with native plants is to choose plants that naturally occur in your area.  They are easier to grow, healthier and require little or no artificial irrigation when they are planted in an area in which they evolved and naturally belong.  California "natives" that aren't really native to your location will often struggle or die no matter how much you water them.

To find plants native to your specific area, use Calscape's "Native to:" feature.  Just type in your address or city, and Calscape will give you a list of the plants that are native to your location.  For example, if you type in Sacramento, Calscape will search through the nearly 7,000 plants native to all of California to show you the 394 that are native to Sacramento, all organized by landscaping popularity, plant type, sun conditions, water requirements, and ease of growing.  If possible, ask your nursery for plants grown from local stock as well.  The closer the parent plant was to your location, the better.

If you are new to native plant gardening, we recommend you base your plant list on Calscape's very easy plants native to your location. In the Sacramento example, you'll see the 44 very easy to grow plants native to Sacramento.  These plants are the toughest and most reliable for home gardens, and can handle a wider set of soil, sun and water conditions than most other native plants.  Choosing plants from this list will give you the best chance of having a beautiful, thriving natural native plant garden. 

While you should start with the plants that grow natively at your location, keep in mind that they also need to be placed in spots with the right soil types, sun exposure and topography.  Look at the plant descriptions in the Calscape plant pages do see which conditions each plant prefers, but general factors are described in the following sections.

Soil Conditions

While many native plants are adaptable to a variety of soil types, some have definite preferences.  Soil type will also influence how much water your plants need.  Most California native plants like rocky soils because the rocks help with drainage but also tend to hold on to pockets of moisture.  Clay soils can be a bit trickier. Clay absorbs more water and holds onto it longer, meaning that it is slower to drain.  Plants growing in clay soils usually need less rainfall (or irrigation) to survive, but also need to be able to handle water saturated soil when heavy rains occur.  Many plants don't do well in clay because they can't handle these periods of water-saturated soil.  Sandy soils drain and dry out the fastest.  Because of this, plants growing in sandy soils often need more frequent light watering.  Heavy but infrequent watering in sandy soil just results in water quickly seeping down through the ground and past the roots before the plant can use it.  Calscape provides information on the soil preferences of nearly all of the common native plants, so check to make sure the plants you select are a good fit with the soil conditions in your garden.  Most of the plants in the "Easy to Grow" category can handle a broad range of soil conditions.

It's important to keep in mind that native plants are "wild", meaning that they typically grow in unimproved soil that is fairly low in organic matter and nutrients. Most California natives do not need or even tolerate any fertilizer or plant food. Again, this is quite different from many other common garden plants that will not grow unless they have rich, loose soil with lots of organic matter and nutrients. This kind of high-nutrient diet would kill or shorten the lives of most California native plants. The trick to growing natives is to mimic the conditions normally found in the plant's wild setting.


To choose the right plants for your garden, and optimally place them, it's important to take the topography of your garden into account.  Driest conditions are typically found in south facing and upper slopes.  Moister and usually easier conditions are typically found in north facing and lower slopes, and flats below slopes.  Seeps and drainages can be moist all year.  The simple rule of thumb is to place riparianplants in naturally year-round moist or regularly irrigated areas, moderately drought tolerant plants in somewhat moister soils like north facing slopes and lower slope sections, and very drought tolerant plants in the driest soils like south facing slopes.  Variation in topography helps create visual interest in the garden and provides multiple zones in which your plants can find their niche. 

Calscape provides an indication of the water needs of all of the commonly used species. Using this information, you will want to group together plants that have similar moisture requirements.   It's also a good idea to look at the "Natural Setting" information in the Calscape plant pages.  Try to select plants that match the settings you have in your garden.  Again, the Calscape "very easy" plants are usually more adaptable and can handle a wider variety of topographies. 

Sun and Shade Conditions

Most gardeners are aware that plants have definite preferences about how much sun or shade they can tolerate, known as exposure. We recommend that you survey your garden space to understand which areas are sunny all day, which ones are sunny part of the day, and which ones are shady most or all day. Keep these areas in mind when choosing the plants you want and where to put them. Calscape indicates the sun exposure preferences of each plant to assist you in putting the right plant in the right place.


2. Planting California Natives

For best results, plant in late fall, winter, or early spring.   Hot summer or early fall conditions are a difficult time to start most non-riparian plants.  It's usually best to start with 1 gallon plants.  Within 2-3 years after planting they'll be as big as the plants that started out in 5 gallon containers.  Root-bound plants should not be planted as they will never develop a healthy root structure even after planting, and are not likely to live long.

When putting your plants in the ground, dig a hole that is twice as wide and half again as deep as the container.  If planting on a dry bank or slope, it's best to create a flat area around the hole too, at least twice the diameter of the hole.   It'll help the new plant retain just a bit more water.  If the soil is very dry, fill the hole with water and let it soak through before continuing.  Rough up the sides and bottom of the hole so the roots will be able to dig in as they grow.  Put back enough loose dirt in the bottom of the holes, so that when you put the plant in the hole, the root ball is about 1" higher than the surrounding grade.

Don't rough up the roots of native plants when you take them out of the container.  It's best to leave their roots as undisturbed as possible. Tamp loose dirt gently into the gap around the plant, but don't push down on the root ball itself.   Then smooth out the remaining dirt so the root ball is about 1/2" higher than the new grade.

Put mulch and/or rocks around the plant.  Although native plants don't need fertilizer, they do benefit from mulch of various kinds. The two basic types are organic (bark, leaves, etc.) and inorganic (rocks, gravel, etc.). Chaparral, woodland and forest plants prefer organic mulch, preferably with some rocks as well.   (Rocks placed just outside the root ball are always helpful.  The bigger the better).   Plants from the seashore, desert, and rocky outcrops prefer inorganic mulch. You can also check the Calscape plant pages for information about which mulches different plants prefer.  Don't cover the root ball with mulch, or the plant won't be able to breath properly and will often die.  But do spread generously over the area surrounding the root ball.


3. Watering California Natives

Watering New Plants

Once the plant is in the ground, build a small irrigation berm around it, and generously soak it.   (The initial soaking is probably the only time you can't water most native California plants too much.)  After that first watering, take down the irrigation berm so subsequent watering doesn't make the soil too soggy.  Flat areas around the plant are fine, but make the plant is not in a basin or it will likely get waterlogged and die.

It's important to keep the root ball moist but not soggy during the first three months after planting.   During the rainy season, you might not have to water at all, but if there's no rainfall after planting, you'll probably have to water 1-2 times per week during this period.   After the first three months, start less frequent, but deeper watering.  Make sure the root ball is only slightly moist before each new deep watering, usually every 2-3 weeks if there's no rain.  Then give it a good soaking.  During the rainy season, you can usually rely mostly or entirely on natural rainfall.   

After the first year, and after it's doubled in size, the plant should be fairly established.  If the plant is properly sited, you should be able to cut watering back to once per month or stop artificial watering entirely.  When you do water your plants, it's always best to water in cooler temperatures.  

Once your plants are established in your garden, it's usually best to avoid all direct artificial irrigation.  Most established non-riparian native plants can't stand prolonged warm and wet conditions.  These conditions often cause soil borne pathogens to get out of balance and can kill a healthy plant in days.  Younger plants need more water, and are more tolerant to warm and wet conditions that older plants.  But the older a drought tolerant California native plant gets, the more susceptible it tends to be to warm and wet conditions.  So reduce watering over time between the first and second year after a plant is installed. 

Watering Established Plants

If you are growing California native plants in their natural geographic range and they are properly sited, your drought tolerant plants should be able to thrive entirely on rainfall.  They might look a little brown and drought stressed in the summer and early fall, but that's natural.  Water conservation is one of the key benefits of gardening with native plants.

However, most drought tolerant natives (and all riparian natives) can handle occasional light irrigation in the hot summer and early fall, and if you are careful, they'll probably look a little greener and prettier with just a little bit of water.  But again, be careful, improper irrigation is probably the biggest reason after poor plant selection for why some California native gardens fail.   Here are some basic tips:

  •  Drip Irrigation
    Avoid single point source drip irrigation.  It will typically train your plants to form a tiny root ball near the drip, and they'll never end up developing the broader and deeper root system they'll need to get through the warm summer months.  Even worse, summer drip irrigation directly on the root ball fosters the soil pathogens that can kill established drought tolerant California natives.

    Drip irrigation can still produce great results if proper methods are used.  Try using several drip emitters per plant and stake them down with sod or jute staples so that they irrigate no closer than the dripline of a plant and not at the base of the stem/trunk.  Inline emitters like Dura Flo JR create a more even watering zone as they can be easily looped a few times around the drip line of a plant& staked in place with a jute staple   They have emitters spaced every 6 inches. and irrigate the soil slowly, evenly and efficiently.  As your plants mature, move the drips or inline emitters farther away so your plants will extend their roots away from the sensitive root ball towards the moister soil.
  • Overhead sprinklers
    Use overhead sprinkler systems cautiously.  Many people already have overhead sprinkler systems in their garden, so this might be your only practical solution.  If you are using automatic irrigation, set watering times to start in the early morning and finish before sunrise.  Best to avoid watering even at night during the hottest days of the year.  Most but not all California drought tolerant natives can handle light summer water once a month.  Try to simulate a light summer storm.  But don't make the mistake of increasing watering in early fall.  Best to just wait for the rains.  Also be careful about plants growing up around the sprinkler heads and blocking the spray.  The plants that the water hits first will almost always get too much water.  Finally, make sure the plants you are watering can tolerate a little summer water by checking the Calscape plant pages.  Most riparian California natives won't have a problem with overhead sprinklers, but they're risky for most drought tolerant plants.
  • Hose Watering
    Light hose watering is a fairly safe way to give your plants a little extra moisture during the summer.  Just dust off the leaves with a fine spray every month or so during cooler stretches.  But make sure you don't put a significant amount of water right on the root ball.  If your plant clearly needs a little extra water, best to water indirectly by spraying the soil a few feet away from the root ball. 
  • Strategically placed moist areas
    The best way to keep drought tolerant plants a little greener in the summer is to allow them to stretch their roots out to adjacent moist areas.  If you look at nature, the healthiest, most beautiful natural locations often have a moist area such as a seasonal creek nearby, and you can mimic this in your own garden.  As you are designing your garden, put any riparian plants inside any regularly irrigated or naturally moist areas you might have, and the drought tolerant ones in drier areas a little farther away.  You might also want to create a few irrigated hollows, catch basins or seeps strategically placed around your garden.  They'll capture more rainfall and minimize runoff from your property too.  It's often a good idea to irrigate the areas closest to your house and place riparian plants in those areas, especially in fire-prone parts of the state.  They'll be very resistant to burning.  Over time, the plants in the drier parts of your garden will reach their roots out to the moister soil and stay greener year round using the natural irrigation system they evolved to use.


4. Weeding and Pests

Non-native grasses and broadleaf weeds are the bane of any native plant garden. It is advisable to undertake a weed eradication program before planting.  If pre-planting eradication isn't feasible for you, be prepared to battle with weeds for several years until your native plants become well established. Once established, native plants do a fairly good job of discouraging weeds.  A nice layer of mulch also helps keeps weeds under control.  When mulching for weed control, the mulch layer must be at least 3 inches deep.  Shredded cedar seems to keep more weeds out than most of the other barks/wood chips., Eliminating weeds is also lot easier in a native garden that receives little or no artificial irrigation.  The drought tolerant California natives handle the dry conditions well, but the invasive weeds can't.  Despite all this, the job never completely ends, and you'll probably always need to allocate at least a little time to pulling weeds in your garden.

Pests are a different matter.  Most native plants (especially the ones that naturally belong in your location) are naturally pest resistant, so you don't need to apply pesticides.  More importantly, you really don't want to have pesticides contaminating your native garden.  Most native plants attract birds, various native butterflies and other pollinators, and many beneficial insects.  Pesticides often kill them as well as the pests you are trying to eliminate.  Also, in many cases, the pests are actually really beneficial to the environment.  For example, caterpillars may eat a number of plants, but they are an important contribution to the environment, as in the case of Monarch butterflies and Milkweed plants.  Many "pests" are also an important food source for other insects and birds higher up the food chain, all of which are endangered by pesticides.

The bottom line is to abstain from any type of pesticide, even supposedly safe ones.  Over time, if you avoid pesticides, you'll see a dramatic increase in the number of birds, pollinators and other beneficial insects in your garden.  The different animals in the system will do a great job of controlling pests.  It's best to rely on a working natural ecosystem to keep things in balance.  There are few places as beautiful and pleasant as a natural native garden where all the native life is in balance.



Internet Resources:


  • California's Wild Gardens: A Living Legacy, Edited by Phyllis Faber, 1997
  • Ceanothus, David Fross and Dieter Wilkin, 2006
  • Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens, Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook, 2007
  • Complete Garden Guide to the Native Shrubs of California, Glenn Keator, 1994
  • California Native Trees and Shrubs for Garden & Environmental Use in Southern California, Lee Lenz and John Dourly, 1981
  • California Native Landscape: The Homeowner's Design Guide to Restoring Its Beauty and Balance, Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren, 2013