An environmentally friendly yard doesn’t have to be barren and can go beyond saving water. By choosing the right plants for your garden, you can make a positive difference for native species.

In this article, you will:

Ready to Get Your Native Plant Garden Started?

Dianne Anderson, Ph.D., professor of biology and director of PLNU’s Master of Science in biology program shared what you need to know to start supporting native species in your own garden.

1. Not all native plants are cactus nor do they all have spines.

Anderson said there are many native plants that thrive in California’s climate — and many are not spiky. “Many are soft, which would work better for people with kids, and many have beautiful flowers,” she said. 

Ceanothus, also known as California lilac

2. Head to a nursery for the best selection and support.

“The only challenge with native plants can be finding them,” Anderson noted. She suggests visiting a nursery that carries a wide selection of native plants. She’s found a great selection at Andersen Nursery (which has no relation to her or her husband).

3. Plan to water at the beginning.

Once mature, many native plants require little to no watering, but they do usually need to be well watered for a couple of months. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center points out: “Establishing native plants in your garden or landscape usually requires every bit as much work as establishing non-native species. However, once your native plants are established, you will see not only savings in time, energy and money, but also an aesthetic sense of place only regional native plants can provide.” Plants have different water requirements depending on the variety, so be sure to ask or research the water needs of the plants you select.

4. Fall is the best time to plant.

Spring is the time for blooming, but fall is the best time to plant, Anderson noted. She suggests aiming for mid to late October. This allows the plants to be established and strong before they produce flowers and fruit in the spring.

5. If you don’t have a yard, consider succulents native to your area.

If you live in a condo or apartment or have a very small plot, you may want to consider planting succulents. Succulents such as agaves, which are native to California, can survive in small pots because they store extra water in their leaves rather than relying on very deep roots.

Need Help Choosing Your Plants?

To find out what plants are native to your area, consider using the tools provided by the National Wildlife Federation or the National Audubon Society.

If you live in a coastal chaparral region, like the one near the Point Loma campus, here are some of the native plants Anderson recommends:

  • Sage (many varieties)
  • Lemonade berry
  • Laurel sumac
  • Ceanothus, also known as California lilac
  • Bladder pod, which is easily grown from seeds
  • Manzanita
  • California buckwheat
  • California sagebrush
  • San Diego native milkweed
  • Matilija poppy, also known as fried egg poppy

Anderson also recommends checking out the Nifty 50, a list of low-water landscape plants from the San Diego County Water Authority. “Be sure to look for the native plant symbol — all 50 are low-water, but only 13 are California natives,” she said. To see native plants in person, consider visiting The Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca Community College.

Why choose native plants for your garden anyway?

According to the National Wildlife Federation, “A plant is considered native if it has occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without human introduction.”

Anderson explained that native plants are designed to coexist with native species. Native plants are, therefore, the most beneficial to the pollinators within a local ecosystem. Why do we need to support pollinators? In short, because they support us.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, “Of the 1,400 crop plants grown around the world, i.e., those that produce all of our food and plant-based industrial products, almost 80% require pollination by animals.” By helping flowering plants flourish, pollination also aids with carbon cycling and sequestration as well as limiting erosion and aiding the water cycle. When our gardens invite in butterflies, moths, bees, hummingbirds, bats, ants, beetles, and wasps, we are helping to support pollinators.

Inside the campus greenhouse at PLNU.

“A lot of students major in biology because they want to help people,” Anderson said. “One way to do that is to preserve the environment. Another is producing healthy food sustainably.”

Planting a native species garden is a way to support these goals – even for those of us who aren’t or weren’t biology majors.

“Changing what we plant in our yards is such a tangible way to move toward sustainable living,” Anderson said.

Of course home gardens will never be a full replacement for habitat loss due to human actions. But when many homes in a neighborhood have native plants for wildlife, together they allow animals, birds, and insects passage to and from larger habitat areas that still exist. And if yours is the only sanctuary for pollinators in your area, you may be providing them vital food, water, and shelter. This is important for them and for us.

In addition to supporting native species, when we use native plants in our yards, we benefit in other ways. By attracting native wildlife, we may benefit from better fruit and flower production as well as fewer mosquitos and plant-eating bugs, according to the California Native Plant Society. Native plants also typically require less water, fertilizer, and pesticides than non-native plants. This means that, once established, native plants are often less expensive and less labor intensive to maintain. 

Related Article: Marcos Mujica was driven to start Agrarian Craft by a calling from God.

No matter where you live, the U.S. Forest Service suggests creating a garden that supports pollinators by using a variety of native plants that bloom from early spring to late fall, grouping plants rather than using singles if space allows, and including night-blooming flowers for moths and bats if possible. The Forest Service also advises against using pesticides whenever possible as many are deadly to bees. Adding to a garden a hummingbird feeder, small dishes with overripe fruit, or a dish with a sponge dipped in a mixture of sea salt and water can provide additional nutrients for local pollinators.

Many native plants grown on PLNU’s campus, including black and Cleveland sage near Brown Chapel.

For her part, Anderson has 30 years of home gardening experience under her belt to go along with her biology knowledge. She and her husband have 120 different plant species on their home’s lot, including a whole section dedicated to California natives. Anderson noted that many of the species that do well in Point Loma, where she lives, are shrubs that can grow to several feet large or be kept smaller with regular pruning. Examples include plants from the sage family, lemonade berry, and laurel sumac.

She recently received a grant to help label native plants grown on PLNU’s campus, making it easier for students and others to learn about them. For example, PLNU has black and Cleveland sage planted near Brown Chapel and ceanothus, also known as California lilac, around Rohr Science.

The Department of Biology also has a greenhouse where students grow plants and test different organic fertilizers as well as learn about propagation and hydroponics. 

In sum, choosing native plants for our yards can help support local species, decrease water and labor costs, and result in a beautiful and bountiful garden. Now is a great time to start making a positive difference for the environment and living creatures right from your own home.

Do you have native plants in your garden? Send us a pic at Happy gardening!

Christine is the editor of the Viewpoint magazine at PLNU.