Learn the types of native plants that form a foundation for a Southern California garden.These are my particular favorites. You may find others.
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When designing with California native plants, it is best to start with your foundational plants. These are the ones that will grow into large foundational structures over time. Other natives will maintain a tidy size, but these plants will continue to grow for years, overpowering your landscape if you are not careful in your site location.
These plants listed below happen to be my favorite natives, as they are sturdy and versatile. Some will have roots that extend 15-20 feet into the soil, stabilizing slopes and finding sources of moisture far below the surface. Once established, they need little watering unless we have a particularly dry year.
The challenge with most of these plants is patience. What you tend to start with in your one gallon pot is a twig...what you have a year later is usually still a twig. What you don't see is what is going on under the soil as the root structure begins to take shape. You won't really begin to see growth until year two...and then Watch Out! You may begin to see growth of three to four feet per year on some of these plants. Hidden in that little twig is the heart of a lion.
Here is a list of some of my favorite foundational natives and some potential uses for these plants.
1. Rhus Integrifolia (Lemonade berry): Named for a drink made by the Indians that supposedly tasted like lemonade (but that my neighbor said tastes extremely bitter) this is one of my all-time favorites. It's tough, hard to kill, and grows outward in a wild fashion. Give it plenty of room...this plant can grow to 15 feet in height and 30 feet wide! Most grow to about half that depending on the conditions. We have one that I planted that has grown to 20 feet high and only about 10 feet wide...we have others that are 20 feet side and 6 feet tall...just depends.
I use this plant in the back of my gardens, or as a wind break or hedge. I also planted this against a retaining wall and it has covered the wall, forming a thick wild hedge. I have killed a lot of natives...this one is the hard to kill. Plant in a location with some space...water deeply and wait. Then watch as this plant will grow 2-3 feet per year.
2. Toyon (Christmas Berry): known for its red berries in Winter, this is another great plant for the rear of the garden. Unlike lemonade berry, Toyon has a more upright habit, growing to 20 feet in height but only about 7 feet wide. Plant along the fence line for a beautiful wild hedge. Bees swarm this plant in spring when it opens it's small white flowers...quail and other native birds love the red berries in winter.
3. Ceanothus "Yankee Point": This is a great sprawling native, only growing to about 3 feet in height but 30 feet in width. This is my favorite spreading native with masses of blue flowers in spring that give the ceanothus it's reputation as California lilac. I have planted this on hillsides alongside dwarf Coyote Bush with excellent results.
Two things I should say as a warning, however. First, I have killed a lot of these plants by overwatering in the summer and having them just plain die on me before they take off. I have found that it is best to plant these right before a rain storm and cover around the roots with gorilla hair mulch. Second, ceanothus have a way of just dying on their own for no apparent reason. You'll see a single brown branch on the bush and then "bye bye"...with a few weeks the entire plant is gone.
4. Dwarf Coyote Bush: I put this stuff just about everywhere I want to fill in a large space with a mass of green. Dwarf Coyote Bush only grows to about 5 feet in height, but can spread up to 30 feet. I pair this quite a bit with the ceanothus Yankee Point for a nice effect.
Coyote Bush is another sturdy plant that is hard to kill once established, and grows quickly under the right conditions. One downside is that it doesn't do well with foot traffic, and can become gangly over time. However, I love the versatility of this plant. It does well in dry areas and moist. I have it planted under all types of trees including sycamores, Alders, and oak trees and it performs admirably. This is a great all purpose choice for hillsides and other large areas where it has room to spread. I purchase it in flats in the fall and plant before the first rains.
5. Native Buckwheat: if there ever was a plant that can't be killed, this is it. I plant this stuff where nothing else will grow...hot rocky outcroppings, in poor soil...you name it, this stuff just grows. Some people may not like the look of it, as it is truly wild looking...gangly with a somewhat dull look, including the flowers, which are not quite white. But a I love this plant, especially on hillsides where it can take over a large swath of dry earth and provide protection for roaming quail, lizards, and other small animals.
6. Salvia Clevandii (Cleveland Sage): When you plant this flowering native in the fall, forget everything I said about patience. This plant can grow to four feet in its first year with tufts of blue clusters that last from Spring through mid-summer. If you are looking for a sturdy native that provides profuse flowers, this is a great choice.
I scatter this plant throughout the garden, primarily as a feature plant. It looks particularly good on its own.
As with all natives, it's recommended that you provide ample mulch around each plant to help retain any moisture in the ground. I prefer gorilla hair, but there are other less expensive options.