Every morning when you look out of the window of your breakfast nook into your front yard, you’re met with the same green carpet, devoid of anything remotely interesting or different. It’s not that you hate plants, it’s just that they can be a huge maintenance headache and, frankly, you don’t have time to pamper them to keep them alive so that you have something new to look at while you drink your coffee.
There’s another option. Native plants are not only trendy, but they also require little maintenance once established, and they’re great for the environment.
What’s the Difference Between Native Plants and Weeds?
Although native plants can sometimes get a little hairy, they’re not weeds by definition. The last word on this matter, the United States Department of Agriculture, says that weeds are “any plant that poses a major threat to agriculture and/or natural ecosystems within the United States.” The USDA also defines another class of weed, the noxious weed. These are the worst of the worst weeds, almost like the FBI’s Most Wanted, but for plants.
Native plants are something entirely different. Some are a little wild and funky, but that’s also part of their charm. Native plants are plants that have evolved in a particular location and ecosystem over hundreds or thousands of years. For a plant to be considered native by the USDA, it must have been growing in the ecosystem before European settlers came to the Americas.
How to Care for Native Plants
If you want an ornamental garden without all the fuss, native plants are for you. Caring for them is simple once they’re established (usually after the first year for perennials and shrubs), but not much more difficult when they’re just starting out. Your particular area may have native plants that need different conditions, so be sure to ask nursery personnel before committing. Below you’ll find recommended care for native plants in general:
Light. The amount of light your plants will need is dependent on where they come from. Woodland edge plants like violets prefer part sun to part shade, where desert favorites like barrel cactus prefer full sun.
Soil. Your plants are native to your area. In a perfect world, this means that they like the soil that you happen to have around. If you’ve got a low spot where water tends to gather in an area that’s otherwise pretty dry, you need to check the plant’s ability to tolerate the moisture in that small area before planting. If it’s not water-tolerant, you can amend the soil with organic material like peat to increase the rate at which it drains.
Water. For the first year or so, you will need to water your baby plants. Summer is generally when these little guys dry out and die, so take a walk through the landscape in the morning and give them all a good hosing. You can also set up drip irrigation to continue your low maintenance theme.
Mulch. Every plant that you don’t want to turn in a weedy mess needs mulch. Dress your natives with two to four inches of organic mulch, but do not install a geotextile. Garden fabric will prevent the plants from spreading.
Feeding. If your natives are truly well-suited to your yard, you won’t need to feed them much at all. In fact, feeding them could kill them. Always soil test before feeding natives — with these plants, a little dab of nutrition will do it.
Other Care. Yearly, add more mulch. You can also deadhead flowers that have dried up to make the plants look nicer. Otherwise, if the plants you choose are good matches for your conditions, you can expect high disease and insect tolerance and low input on your part.
Other Advantages to Native Plants
Besides being super easy to care for, native plants offer a slew of other benefits. Most importantly, they’re native, filling a unique spot in the local ecosystem. That means that birds, butterflies, and wildlife may take shelter under your bigger natives or use them as a food source. Since your landscape will accept the water that nature provides, you’ll also not need to water as much, or at all. That’s a huge saving in both cash and resources.
Oh, and your native plant garden may help to keep other native plant populations going, especially if your neighbors also get on the native plant bandwagon. Your plants could be seeding the next generation down the street with the help of some bee or passing moth. It’s the circle of life.
However, most importantly, when you’re looking out over your coffee cup in the morning, you’ll be greeted by a living painting that changes with the seasons and you didn’t have to do much to make happen. That’s the ultimate reason to plant natives.
Orange County Specific
When you’re looking to landscape here in Southern California, the following list, put together by the Theodore Payne Foundation, is a great place to start:
Common yarrow (achillea millefolium): Low-growing perennial with flowers that attract butterflies, moths and “good bugs.”
Manzanita (arctostaphylos species): Its iconic white-to-pink flowers are an essential nectar source for hummingbirds in the winter.
Coyote brush (baccharis pilularis): Low-growing, evergreen plant is a pollinator magnet.
Ceanothus (includes California lilac): The diverse genus’ flowers attract bees, butterflies and other insects, and its dense evergreen provides cover for birds and their nests.
California fuchsia (epilobium canum): Hummingbirds depend on its late summer/early fall blossoms.
Seaside daisy (erigeron glaucus): The mounding perennial that works great in containers supports bees, butterflies and other pollinators and beneficial insects.
Buckwheat (eriogonum species): The plants found in this large and varied genus support all sorts of insects and birds.
Golden yarrow (eriophyllum confertiflorum): Butterflies, bees and other pollinators are drawn to this long-blooming perennial.
Grasses and grass-like plants: Native bunchgrasses support skippers and other small butterflies and provide seeds and cover for birds.
Toyon (heteromeles arbutifolia): Bees and small insects enjoy its late spring/summer blossoms and birds feed on its winter berries.
Cherry (prunus species): Blossoms attract bees and butterflies and evergreen foliage is vital to certain caterpillars; the fruit is valued by songbirds and small mammals.
Oak (queres species): A multitude of mammals, insects, birds and other wildlife depend on this “ultimate habitat plant.”
Sage (salvia species): Butterflies and bees, especially bumblebees, as well as hummingbirds appreciate this popular plant.
Wildflowers: California poppies, lupine, phacelia, tidy tips, goldfields, cobweb thistle, baby blues and more attract insects and their seeds feed hungry birds.