What is a “Native” Plant?
Native plants (and their soil) are the building blocks for diverse, thriving habitat and wildlife. California natives generally refer to those plants that have been in California since before the Spanish landed. They’ve evolved over thousands of years with our local insects, birds and animals to form complex, interdependent relationships. Because the animals, birds and insects evolved with these plants, California native plants provide food for wildlife that non-native species don't provide.
Benefits of gardening with California natives - especially those native to your region:
- Decreased water use: Many California natives evolved to withstand long periods of drought, making them the perfect choice for the water-wise garden. There can be financial benefits too of reducing your water use. See the Bay Area Water Conservation Agency for potential rebates to replace your water-thirsty lawn and this rain barrel rebate program offered to help you further save water.
- No need for chemical fertilizers or insecticides: Plants that evolved here need no added soil inputs and have relationships with many local insects we, as gardeners, might consider “pests”. As a result of this co-evolution, native plants are better equipped to defend themselves from too much predation, while at the same time providing habitat and food for the insects and bacteria that are an essential part of the ecosystem.
- Fostering and attracting wildlife to your backyard and contributing to your local habitat (see below).
- Forming a sense of place - your place. You will become intimate with your local ecology and learn to appreciate that it has evolved over millennia - and works!
Many invasive species in our open spaces were originally introduced by the nursery trade. However, most popular, non-native horticultural plants are not invasive, meaning they don't spread wildly. Under California’s normal climatic conditions these non-native ornamentals need help in order to survive, so they tend to only do well under a gardener’s care. They provide beauty and in some cases offer nectar or other food sources to more generalist native species, but they do not maintain the complex, interdependent relationships that native flora and fauna have with each other.
English Ivy, Pampas Grass, Greater Periwinkle and French Broom are just a few examples of plants that evolved elsewhere but thrive in our warm, dry-summers and our cool, wet-winters, and spread perniciously into the surrounding landscapes. (For a more complete list of invasive species visit CAL-IPC). These introduced plants thrive and spread because often they evolved in a similar Mediterranean climate as the San Francisco Peninsula. More importantly, they are invasive in our region because it lacks the animals and insects that kept them in check on their home turf. Since our native animals and insects do not recognize these plants, they escape predation and are instead left to spread unchecked. The expansion of non-native species leads to the degradation of our local habitat - often forming ever increasing invasive plant monocultures that are the opposite of a healthy habitat and do not support local animals and insects.
replace these notorious invasives
with our local California natives
available at the Mission Blue Nursery
Fortunately, we as gardeners have the opportunity to DIRECTLY help wildlife, even in urban areas. First, we can keep invasive species out of our gardens. Then, we can provide habitat (i.e. food) for our local wildlife by planting California natives from our area. Your garden can be the meditative, beautiful refuge traditional ornamental gardens often strive to be, while at the same time providing habitat for butterflies, birds, pollinators and small mammals. Restoration gardening connects you with the broader ecosystem and offers you the opportunity of being a steward to nature rather than just a passive observer - and at the same time you’re beginning to mend some of the damage that has been done.
Plant with the Winter Rains
Many of us who garden in the Bay Area learned, as did almost anyone who was educated in the United States, that one plants in the spring. Dick and Jane planted in the Spring as does Martha Stewart; the snows have melted and the ground is soft or dry enough to dig. However, we coastal Californians are gardening in a totally different climate and everything we've learned is wrong for this region; we are not in Kansas or New York and we rarely have snow.
We need to relearn gardening techniques for the Mediterranean climate with which we are blessed so that our plants, especially those we are adding to our gardens, will settle in happily and be secure for the onslaught of the dry summer.
Some new comers to California think we have only two seasons, wet and dry, however, if they hang around for a while they begin to distinguish all four of the traditional seasons in a slightly different form. The earliest arrivals from the East coast were taken with the gardening season that never seemed to end. For an expansion on this history read the entertaining "Trees in Paradise" by Jared Farmer. Knowing or recognizing our seasons makes us better able to know when to plant, when to prune or cut back, when to water, and when to divide clumping plants like Iris.
Winter is when our plants' year begins. The rains are just about to fall in earnest; there has probably been a little rain, just enough to soften the ground for digging. The seeds from last year's annuals have been through the morning fog, heat, and wind of the summer and fall, all they need now is the rain to start developing. Established perennials will put out tender shoots that become leaves and blossoms, and in the late winter, spring, or early summer, fruit.
So the key element to remember: plant and transplant in the late fall in time for the rains. This is why Mission Blue Native Plant Nursery has a sale in the fall, plants that are new to your garden will be ready to start growing.
Your garden will thrive as will all the beneficial fauna that lives there, if you plant and seed in the fall. You may have to be the rain if it doesn’t come as expected over the winter months. And for the first year, water occasionally to help the young plants establish themselves.
Mission Blue Nursery offers ongoing sales to the public
In addition to seasonal sales, plant purchases are available by appointment by contacting Ildiko, our Nursery Manager. All plants are from seed and cuttings collected on San Bruno Mountain. As a non-profit nursery, all sales help support the conservation and restoration efforts of San Bruno Mountain Watch on the Mountain. Learn more about gardening with natives - volunteer at the nursery every Wednesday!
content written by Alane Gray, Mary Beth James-Thibodeaux and Ildiko Polony
California Native Plant Society’s gardening program
Nature In the City - a partner non-profit that fosters wildlife in San Francisco
SF Plant Finder helps you find plants native to your San Francisco micro-climate
Cal Flora is a searchable database that tells you what is native where
Plant Right helps get invasive plants out of the nursery trade