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Experts offer tips for creating a gorgeous native plant garden

#082 Ecologically important coastal plantings with rainwater harvesting dry creek including Manzanitas, Buckwheats, Salvias, and native Milkweed Photo by Kris Ethington

Butterflies weaving crazy flight patterns just beyond your patio. Picky bees mining pollen from select flowers. Hummingbirds slaking their thirst for nectar. Southern California gardeners are rediscovering that home landscapes are at their best not just with eye-pleasing plants, but with the wildlife and insect pollinators that make up a healthy, thriving ecosystem. 

Incorporating California native plants is key to supporting our local habitats, says Mary Montes from the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), a group focused on native plant conservation since its founding in 1965. In the past, landscaping trends meant yanking out what was there and replacing it with thirsty lawns and plants from other parts of the world. But it’s native plants that serve as food and shelter for many beneficial insects and birds. “Ninety-four percent of our native insects need native plants to complete their reproductive cycle,” says Montes, vice president of the society’s L.A./Santa Monica Mountains chapter.

Because native plants fit our local climates and soil types and evolved along with the animals, adding them to the home landscape has key advantages in terms of effort and the environment, according to the group’s website. Once established, natives often require little water (besides rainfall) and less maintenance (including less or no fertilizer and pesticides, and less pruning), compared with nonnatives.

September through November is Southern California’s best season for planting, but especially for native plants. The roots of newly purchased plants can easily spread out into the still-warm garden soil. Come spring, the plants start growing again, and by summer they should be well established.

You won’t have to rip out every nonnative in your yard and bust your budget. Simply start adding some natives to your collection. In addition to Montes, we spoke with SoCal experts specializing in California native plants for advice to help you grow a gorgeous native plant garden. (Download Westways' list of our experts' native plant picks at the end of this article.) You also can visit these gardens for inspiration—or just to enjoy their beauty. Here are the experts’ tips.

Woolly bluecurls brighten a Southern California hillside

Woolly bluecurls brighten a Southern California hillside. Photo by Kris Ethington

Arlington Garden, Pasadena

This 3-acre “urban forest” started out as a weedy lot but now uses a fraction of the water of an average garden and provides a soothing habitat for humans and wildlife. 

The expert: Mayita Dinos, landscape designer at Arlington Garden

  • Buy a plant in a small container so the plant will develop an extensive root system in your garden’s native soil.
  • Plant in the fall to benefit from seasonal rain. Be aware of Santa Ana winds that might dry out plants. Water according to the weather and your soil type (sandy soil, which falls apart in your hand, tends to drain faster than clay soil, which clumps when it’s wet). 
  • Before you nestle your plant into the hole, fill it with water and wait for it to drain. Repeat this step twice. This will provide moisture to the surrounding soil and let you know how well your soil drains.
An anise swallowtail butterfly perches on lilac verbena. Photo by Kris Ethington

An anise swallowtail butterfly perches on lilac verbena. Photo by Kris Ethington

You may also like: Fresh, fun things to do in Pasadena

California Botanic Garden, Claremont

CBG, the state’s largest public garden devoted to California native plants, is home to more than 1,200 such species and supports local ecosystems, including butterflies, birds, and bees. 

The expert: David Bryant, director of visitor experience at the California Botanic Garden

  • Grow host and nectar plants to support local butterflies, bees, and other species. Milkweed is perhaps the most well-known host plant for monarch butterflies. Nectar plants provide food for adult butterflies and include sages, coyote mints, buckwheats, and lilac verbena. If you grow milkweed, be sure to cultivate California native species, such as narrow leaf and showy milkweed. Growing nonnative milkweeds, like the commercially common tropical milkweed, can harm monarchs by disrupting their migration patterns and fostering their parasites.
  • Water natives deeply about once a week for the first year in your garden and hardly at all in the summer (unless they’re new additions). This will encourage plant roots to grow more deeply, finding sources of groundwater and establishing a more stable network of roots.

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles

This is a good place to observe how animals and insects interact with plants. 

The expert: Carol Bornstein, director of the museum's Living Collections at Nature Gardens.

  • When planting, allow sufficient space for plants to reach their natural mature size and shape, especially if you are trying to minimize pruning and green waste. 
  • Be sure to locate plants according to their cultural needs: light exposure, soil drainage, water, and size when they reach maturity.
  • Match mulch to plants. Organic mulch, such as compost or shredded bark, is fine for plants that are native to forests and woodlands. Inorganic mulch, such as stones, is better for chaparral and desert species. 

You may also like: Things to see and do in Los Angeles' Griffith Park

Theodore Payne Foundation, Sun Valley

This 22-acre oasis of native plants lets you see, smell, touch, and buy more than 1,000 kinds of native plants so you can make choices for your own yard.

The expert: Tim Becker, director of horticulture at Theodore Payne Foundation

  • Irrigate to replicate wet winters, and water sparsely in the summer. If you want vibrant spring blooms and healthy plants, supplement water in dry winters, and water infrequently to moderate depth in the summer. For the plant’s first summer, monitor and water a bit more frequently; most natives should take by the second or third year.
  • Try succession planting. Plant a higher density of smaller herbaceous plants around larger trees and shrubs. Over time, you can cull some of the herbaceous plants to give the larger shrubs and trees more growing room. 
  • Don’t be afraid to prune, but know your plants. Many native plants, such as Artemisia californicaEriogonum fasciculatumMuhlenbergia rigens, and Romneya coulteri, can take a hard cut back every year or two and often look their best with this method.

California Native Plant Society

The experts: Mary Montes, CNPS Los Angeles/Santa Monica Mountains chapter vice presidentBarbara Eisenstein, CNPS San Gabriel Mountains chapter board member and author of Wild Suburbia, Learning to Garden With Native Plants (2016, Heyday Books); and Joseph Sochor, CNPS San Diego chapter vice president.

  • Cut back plants up to a year after planting if you want to control their size.
  • Leave your garden a bit messy. This creates habitat that is nurturing for both animals and plants.
  • Especially avoid using blowers. These destructive devices kill insects, remove mulch and nutrients from the soil, cause the soil to dry out, and contribute to noise and air pollution.
  • Native plants prefer to be watered with overhead sprinklers, micro spray irrigation, or by hand. Many don’t fare well with drip irrigation.
  • Scatter native plant seeds for annuals, such as California poppies, as early as July and as late as November. 

Just want to visit more gardens? Besides those listed above, CNPS experts suggest: the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas (two native plant areas are located on opposite ends of park), the Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon, and the California Native Plant Garden in Balboa Park. 

Yvonne Savio, a retired Master Gardener coordinator for UC Cooperative Extension L.A. County, blogs at

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Salvia clevelandii "Winifred Gilman" a plant native to Southern California
Free native plant guide

Westways spoke to Southern California horticultural experts for their favorite native plant picks.


Download the guide

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