Wherever you may be, gardening with native plants is a great idea! Planting native plants, which are the plants that naturally grow around your area, has some key benefits:
1.) Native plants are adapted to your climate, so they generally don’t need as much water, and they are less likely to be damaged by weather events such as frost and especially hot days.
2.) Native plants are adapted to the ecosystem around them. Local insects and diseases are less likely to kill them, and so you don’t need to use pesticides. Native plants also support local wildlife in various ways, because they are a normal part of the local food chain. Native insects such as butterflies and bumblebees may depend on native plants, and birds may rely on specific native plants for food or shelter.
San Diego has an uncommon type of climate called a Mediterranean climate (named after the Mediterranean, which has the same climate type). We get mild, rainy winters and dry summers. Most of our native plants that grow here belong to a group of plants called chaparral, and they look similar to plants growing in other Mediterranean climates. The chaparral plants need to be tough to stay green during our hot, dry summers, so they have thick, tough leaves and branches. It’s very hard to hike off-trail through chaparral, because our plants are so sturdy. (Side note: even if you can push through the plants, don’t walk off-trail if you can help it! Our soils often have a delicate biological soil crust made of small plants, fungi, and bacteria that help keep the ecosystem healthy.)
Many of our chaparral plants are lovely additions to gardens. To start, I often recommend sages, such as purple sage (Salvia leucophylla), Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), black sage (Salvia mellifera), and white sage (Salvia apiana). These plants have a lovely scent, which they produce to dissuade insects and rabbits from eating them. They also produce small flowers that are a favorite of native bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
For shrubs, I recommend sugar bush (Rhus ovata), which is very tolerant of heat and drought and has small white flowers. I also recommend lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia), which is similar to sugar bush, though slightly less drought tolerant. It produces berries that taste like sour candy if you suck on them and are a favorite of local birds. Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is also a great choice. It can grow in part shade or full sun and often grows very quickly for the first few years after it is planted. If you are ready for a bit of a challenge, I recommend manzanitas, plants of the genus Arctostaphylos. Most manzanitas have small white bell-shaped flowers and lovely red bark that just makes you want to say, “man, that’s-a neat-a!” (please excuse my pun!). These are beautiful shrubs, but can be challenging to grow. Make sure you carefully check the watering requirements for the species you have.
I also love the joy that our state flower, the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), brings to any yard in spring, with its delicate leaves and bright orange flowers. They naturally die back after flowering, but some plants will come back year after year, and they produce many seeds that will stay dormant in the soil until the next spring.
More and more plant nurseries are including a native plant section, and there are also nurseries that focus on selling native plants. The California Native Plant Society, which is a wonderful organization that I highly recommend checking out, has a page on where to buy native plants. I love to see more places offering native plants, and more people planting them!
If you are visiting my site because you are one of my Crown Pointe friends, don’t forget to check out the Native Plant Garden near the pool! Although I haven’t been in charge of maintaining it since I left town for college, I created the garden as a summer project while I was in high school to showcase how beautiful our native plants are. Many of the plants are ones I propagated myself!