How to Design a garden using Native Plants:
properly designed native garden looks like a formal park or
clean, weed free, native ecosystem. This has been very consistent
whether the garden, restoration, or landscape is in Mojave, Los
Angeles, San Diego, Bakersfield, San Luis Obispo, the Sierras or
the Bay area.
The hummingbirds, butterflies, and other small wildlife will
love your garden! A native garden is atwitter with the sound of
hummingbirds, birds, butterflies and other native insects. This
is astounding to people who have a conventional 'hummingbird'
garden. A few drunk hummingbirds at a feeder do not make a
hummingbird garden. Thirty or so buzzing all over your landscape,
telling you off for picking flowers, now that's a hummingbird
you wish to attempt the landscape design yourself, you can get a
list of plants that will grow in your yard from our plant
picker. If you can sketch a drawing of your yard with the
plants listed out for each section, we'll be happy to help sort
out or correct the plant list. Those of you that have read the
website (at least a page or two) and used www.mynativeplants with
at least a clue of how to care for a native garden are
really getting your garden close to 'right' on your own.
In the past 30 years we have provided
horticultural and landscape consultation to landscape
contractors, landscape architects, landscape designers, botanic
gardens, homeowners, and others interested in landscaping. Las
Pilitas was started in 1974 in San Luis Obispo specializing in
native gardens and in plants utilized by native Californians. You
can use us to help you design wildlife gardens (birds and
butterflies), California herb gardens, deer (tolerant or for the
deer) gardens, fire-resistant gardens, and problem gardens (for
example, poor drainage; toxic amounts of salt and/or heavy
metals; unhealthy oaks, manzanitas or other natives; very high or
low pH; rocky slopes (no soil or minimal amounts); seasonal
flooding; low water availability; etc.). Xeriscape and water wise
gardens are so easy!!
The basic native garden.
Design the garden by plant
community as much as possible. Put the desert plants
together; the redwood plants together; the riparian (river)
plants together; etc. It is a common mistake to landscape by
color, textures and flow. ('I want it to flow . . . ') Do that
after you figure out what plant community you want to work with.
code lists can help determine which plant community was
originally on your site.
For an easy carefree landscape, do not get too far off your
climate and plant community. Plants from your specific plant
community are the easiest to grow. Then the plants from
within the nearest communities are next easiest to grow.
2. Stick to the plants that occur in the same or a similar climate
for a maintenance free garden. When you get too far off, the
plants start having problems and you have to do more work.
Figure out the aspect of the garden and the soil, shade, wind,
rainfall and any other things that relate to the landscaping. (It
will save you many, many hours of your life if you will sit out
in the weeds, or whatever else is there) and think the site
through before you commit yourself to a scheme that will not work
or must be replaced every six months. Most people only have to
make this mistake once in a lifetime, but others replace hundreds
of dollars worth of 'perennials' each year trying to keep a color
scheme while not clashing with the neighbors that are doing the
same thing. A lot of money and no fun!
4. Think about your
drainage. Where will the water go? How well does the soil
drain? Our normal test is how long does it take for a
shovelful-sized hole to drain? (When the ground is not wet, e.g.,
summer.) One minute or less is perfect drainage, 1-30 minutes is
good drainage, a week is bad drainage. If your site takes more
than a week to drain, you need a consultation! Or at least do
some research on your own.
5. If you are installing your own landscaping
have a frank talk with yourself. If you are installing one for
someone else, talk to them and look at their lifestyle. Are these
folks that can work in their garden 2-4 hours each week? Can they
afford the gardening bill? Frequently projects have money to put
the plants in, but no time or money for follow up. If there is to
be no maintenance, put in community specific shrubs and trees,
(ones native in that plant community), no perennials and mulch
heavily, at least 3 inches. List your priorities. Are deer the
biggest problem? Or is it fire? Drought? Budget? Attracting
Wildlife(Birds or Bear)? A black thumb?
6. Find a source of proper
mulch. Do not use any part of a walnut or eucalyptus tree.
(Eucalyptus has some problems with it and can only be used with
some plants, e.g., Chaparral. It is best avoided if possible or
use as walkways.) If you are using desert plants a mulch of 2-3"
rock is fine. (Boulders are better! Next to each plant place the
largest rock you can carry and place it on the south side of the
6a. If you are in the desert or grassland(prairie)
and want to plant plants from the Sierras or coastal areas use a
leaf, twig, or shredded bark mulch combined with a large rock.
The mulch is one of the keys to why things work or do not work in
desert gardens. See
Read's article for further. If you are in the Sierras(conifer
forest) or coastal
areas and you want to use a desert or grassland plant, use a
rock mulch, and plant in the open, away from trees. Also clump
the same types of plants together so they support each other and
you can treat them alike, see companion
This also makes it easier to design. Design in a 'forest',
(wet spot) or whatever community you think will work.
Remember this is easiest to do if you stay within the community
7. Think about your water source, do you even need water for
the plants? Is there any problem with the water? Is there any
water even available? We've heard of people spending thousands of
dollars on sod lawns only to discover the water bill is hundreds
of dollars per month and a maintenance bills hundreds more. Mulch
is very cheap in the long run. If you have a lawn area, use plants
that live next to the creeks of your target community next to
the lawn; water
moves through them to your plants in the dry areas.
Think about critters. Are you going to live with them or are they
going to move in with you? (One of our customers had a bear
making himself a fruit salad in his kitchen; another had a deer
standing on, on not against, his handrail around his porch.
Raccoons on the roof of your mobile home make for little sleep.)
Most anything you do has a positive or negative effect on
Do you want sparrows or hummingbirds?
Gophers or Thrashers?
Terrified of ticks and Lyme disease? The bacteria that cause the
disease dies when the tick lives on the western
fence lizard.(Talleklint and Eisen, 1999; Lane and Anderson.
2001.) A high number of lizards and small mammals in the garden
offer near perfect protection. Weeds favor mice (a major vector
of disease), mulch and open paths favor lizards. Small mammals
(Shrews, Moles, Foxes, Bobcats, Weasels, Squirrels, Gophers, and
Rabbits) limit the populations of mice.(Ostfeld and Keesing,
9. Think of the ultimate plant size. Don't say
'I'll just prune it' and put a redwood tree under a 4' window it
won't work. You cannot 'fluff it up', or 'tie it up', or stake it
up either. A groundcover tied to a stake looks like a groundcover
tied to a stake, not a tree.
It is part of our ornamental strategy to plant communities of
plants. It is cheaper, looks better, and means less materials
consumed. In communities plants are arranged in discrete
patterns. This spatial planting occurs naturally, via pathogens
and litter (mulch), allowing certain seedlings to grow, killing
the weaker seedlings or seedlings that are out of the
successional pattern, for the better of the whole. This is how
natural succession occurs. When a site is planted incorrectly,
the system is weakened, becomes increasingly unstable, and weeds,
herbivores (including gophers) take an enormous toll. This won't
occur if a design is implemented in a manner consistent with
nature. Plant for maturity (leave enough space for the plant when
it reaches its full size) with the stress-tolerant
species and inter-plant with the Circumventor,
C type species for fast fill in. C type species provide cover
for the climax stress-tolerants and will decline and die of ‘old
age' as the climax species fill-in. Some examples of some Circumventors:
Salvias, Ceanothus, Lupinus, Diplacus, Baccharis, Eriogonum and
even poppies do this very well.
doing a natural planting, you can move to a native site faster,
lowering inputs sooner. It is important to get your species
composition as close as reasonably possible to nature's. Site
specific plant material doesn't appear to be practical, nor
possible for most sites. (Las Pilitas personnel can do site
specific biological surveys, develop the appropriate species
list, and contract grow the plants. It will take 1-5 years
according to the site.) Planting for the right soil, right
community, shade in shade, sun in sun, wet to wet, etc. appears
to be more than adequate for the stability of the system and for
the site's wildlife. Again, if you live in Los Angeles you can
plant species from Chaparral,
Oak woodland, and Coastal
Sage Scrub communities together and get away with it (as long
as the soils, water, sun, etc. match) as the communities were
there before the ecosystem was screwed up. The plants would
prefer to be in separate groupings, but that's not even
necessary. Plants from the
yellow pine forest,
Closed cone Pine Forest, etc., will grow there, but they are
more unstable (weedy, short-lived). It's more important to plant Coastal
Sage Scrub species together, even if from other areas of the
state, (the further away in climate, the more unsuitable the
plant) than mixing other communities that didn't historically
exist in your locale. You will spend about 1/10th of
the maintenance on the site over a 5-10 year period if you get it
right. The maintenance is equal for the first year but then drops
off dramatically as the plant community takes hold. You'll know
you ‘built a plant community' when the true wildlife start
living in your garden (or restoration) and native seedlings start
Put the perennials together and the shrubs and trees together as
they have different needs than annuals. They should be clumped in
a way as to be easily maintained. Annuals between are acceptable
and encouraged in desert and grassland plant communities. (The
weeds will drive you crazy if you do not move aggressively and
continually against them.)
If you insist on planting ruderals,
plant by age. The short-lived plants go together. Plant the
long-lived plants together away from water, away from soil
10b. Do not mix annuals with groundcovers, they
will become weedy. Annuals are only acceptable where you can mow
them down after they die. Otherwise they look like a relative you
owe money, a lot of money.
11. Berms are a sign the designer is lazy or doesn't know what
to do. They are very hard to maintain, irrigate (on berms you do
have to irrigate), and keep the plants alive on. If the berm look
is desired, put larger growing plants there, in the center, and
work down to smaller ones. If the drainage of a berm is required,
use retaining walls with good drain holes so each level is
uniform and within 2' of the beginning soil level on either top
or bottom (no more than 2' steps)(See
"How to build a rock wall").
12. Please, please, pretty please do not put in a
fake creek! Fake creeks are hard to build and very hard to
maintain. The weeds usually overwhelm the creek in a year or so.
A bunch of rocks and weeds does not increase the selling price of
a house, nor does an old truck with flowers planted in it, they
look similar. A decomposed granite path with boulders, logs and
plants can usually create the same feeling with a whole lot less