Considerations of going native

Ceanothus branch

Ceanothus “Concha”

I have nothing against California natives; in fact, some of my best friends are natives.  Some, like the sturdy, glossy, and un-temperamental Yankee Point can be easily adapted to the home landscape, and perform beautifully in a range of soils and conditions.  And it’s green year-round, so what’s not to love?  Planting California natives will attract a whole new population of wildlife and butterflies to your yard, and over time, they can lower your water bill.  Over time.  See below.

But keep in mind that natives will, on average, have a 30-40% failure rate, which is a polite way of saying that 4 of every 10 you plant may die; slowly or inexorably, or seemingly overnight.  Natives tend to carry a higher cost owing to their slower growth rate and difficulty of cultivation (see:  failure rate).  So figure an average of $8 per 1-gallon plant, and figure replacing 3-4 at each go, and you begin to see just how expensive a proposition tearing out your lawn and putting in natives might be.

If you’re an impatient gardener and want to go native, you’ll either have to take up meditation or look out some other window after you’ve planted, because Theodore Payne Nursery’s mantra are the truest words ever spoken on the subject:  The first year they sleep, the second, they creep, the third, they leap.  The first year, TP neglects to mention (but which we learned through bitter failure and advice from Las Pilitas Nursery), you must water like you would any other plant.  The second year, less so; the third, probably less, and so on till you reach equilibrium or all your plants die.

So my advice (not that you asked) is to educate yourself a little and again, take a walk through your neighborhood.  Using natives is very mainstream now; what’s surviving?  What natives have made it to the big nurseries?  This is how we glommed onto the Yankee Point, which forms the foundation plantings of our front yard.

Yankee Point ceanothus in spring

Yankee Point ceanothus in spring

Ask yourself how much dormancy you are willing to tolerate; you may be able to tuck plants with a long dormant season in and around other plantings, similar to the way you might treat bulbs.  Just remember a great many natives do have a long dormant season, usually summer; there’s a reason the Theodore Payne Foundation Garden Tour is in April.

6 thoughts on “Considerations of going native

  1. Interesting concept for a blog, Kathy. Our tiny Seal Beach yard is a mix of natives and things I like. After a lot of research, I managed to find natives that look nice all year and also tolerate shade since we have a rather dark yard. I’ll be interested to see what old stand-bys you pick!

  2. Thanks so much for stopping by! I’d love to hear what shade-tolerant natives you found; we have some areas of deep shade under big trees, but none of the natives we’ve planted there (various ribes, hummingbird sage, snowberry, etc.) have really thrived. The “dry” in “dry shade” seems to do them in every time. I’m guessing Seal Beach has moister air, at least some of the time? But would love to hear more about your shade collection!

    • Yes, Seal Beach is cool and dampish, but our soil is clay. Anyway, these have done very well for me: toyon, Catalina cherry, laurel sumac, hollyleaf cherry, some ribes, madrone, bay laurel. I also have a Catalina ironwood that’s grown way too big, but is beautiful. Most of these are on the large side. Have not found any low bushes or groundcover that works in my yard.

  3. Sounds like you have found your perfect plants for your microclimate. Have you tried any of the Carmel ceanothus cultivars yet for ground cover? We can’t grow it here because of the heat–it demands cool coastal climate, since that’s where it hails from, though a more northern coastline than yours. Still might be worth a try–the California Native Plants for the Garden says the “Anchor Bay” is considered one of the best groundcovers available for coastal gardens.

  4. I like the “sleep, creep, leap” mantra. I have to keep reminding Valentijn that our plants have to be well established before we can cut back on the watering. I didn’t know about the failure rate. Ugh!

  5. Well, maybe Montana natives adapt better–I will keep my fingers crossed for you! I will say we didn’t experience that failure rate in the first year–it was more the second and third, which in some ways was worse, because the plants that expired without warning and for no apparent reason were grown to considerable, space-filling size. Damn!

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