Native Gardens


California native gardens are currently in popular demand because they save water, which in view of California’s current drought means saving money for homeowners. Is saving money the only reason to plan and install a native garden?  No.   The idea of the native garden goes back millions of years and for the sake of brevity, the article discusses the reasons you should plan and install a native garden in your home. Designing a native garden is an art.

The twentieth century brought on the biggest building boom the world has ever seen.  Hopes were pinned on the industrial revolution and its promise of a better future.  While mankind has seen advancements in many areas, such as health and living standards, mankind is bombarded with an onslaught of chemicals and toxic agents as never before.  The ecology of our planet is changing and we are seeing the negative results of not respecting our environment.  In an effort to bring us back to nature, many businesses and organizations, municipalities and water purveyors are spending millions of dollars on publicity campaigns which urge homeowners to conserve water in the landscape.  As the great recession rolls on, water districts are allocating the few precious dollars they have, to conduct day long water conservation community events, which urge homeowners to conserve water in the landscape.


  One big reason why native plants are imperative is the symbiotic relationship these have with native wildlife and insects.  Using native plants in residential gardens and commercial landscapes provides food, water, protection and breeding grounds for native animals.  Many birds have been negatively impacted by the rampant development of our current society.  Some of these include the Belding’s Savannah Sparrow, and the San Clemente Sage Sparrow.  Towhees and other ground foraging birds suffer from the threat of feral cats.  Rather than looking at planting native gardens to simply “save water”, we should look at the bigger picture, namely, that by choosing a native- climate appropriate garden, we are serving the needs of our native animals and conserving our most precious resource…water!

In the minds of many, a native garden conjures up the idea of a cactus garden set in red dirt commonly referred to as decomposed granite.  “Who wants two pieces of cactus and gravel in their front yard” is the common complaint.  While this concern is understandable, we need to keep in mind that a native garden can be stunningly beautiful!  Here are the facts:  When you see unattractive vegetation in open areas,, these are mostly comprised of foreign invasive plant species which were introduced by early European settlers.  An example of this is the common ice plant we see at our beaches.  Ice plant is invasive and is NOT native!  These introduced species give our natives a bad reputation, accelerate fire cycles and choke out native species!  Many native species and their cultivars can actuall reduce fire hazards.

Myths about Native Gardens? 

We are very fortunate to have established native plant nurseries and even a few native botanical gardens, such as the Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden, which was installed in 1995.  Native plant nurseries propagate native plant species which specifically grow and flourish in coastal landscapes, and these require a fraction of the water needed by thirsty, imported plant species.  Smart nurseries are propagating native varieties with gorgeous, fragrant flowers.  These are perfectly suited to our microclimates and soil conditions.
california native  plant flower
One big plus to a California native garden is that people with brown thumbs can keep them alive.  Many are hesitant to use California natives due to a common misconception that natives don’t perform well in ornamental landscapes.  You DO NOT have to unlearn all you know about garden design to incorporate California natives into the ornamental landscape.  California native plants are way easier to grow and maintain than non-natives.  Many have landscaped with a negative attitude toward natives and have installed plants which love water, as water used to be inexpensive.  Those days are gone.  With more information available to us regarding the ease of using natives in the landscape and with rising water prices, shifts in understanding and behavior are changing.  The shift is in favor of using California native plants in the landscape.  The reign of water loving plants has come to an end!


Decades ago, we designed the landscape with developing the site to accommodate imported nursery stock.  After a site was graded, top soil was imported to increase fertility.  Then we brought in plants by the truck load.  The goal was to create a lush, oasis, something you would see in a Garden of Eden setting.  The only problem was that this “Garden of Eden” required tons of water, fertilizers, pesticides and maintenance.  If it rained, the fertilizer created a toxic brew, which would run off into the street and into the ocean, creating huge environmental problems.  Every eight months, in southern California, 10.9 million gallons of oil runs off streets and driveways and into our nation’s waters – equivalent to the amount lost in the Exxon Valdez spill.  Each year, approximately 18,000 beaches are closed or posted as unhealthy due to bacterial contamination and/or sewage spills

Designing a native garden requires a different mind-set.  A native garden will require some turf removal, grading to mitigate run-off, and removal of unwanted plant materials.  The rule with native gardens is to disturb the existing site as little as possible.  The goal of the native design should be to copy the natural ecosystem or plant community that existed before the development of the neighborhood where the garden is to be developed.  This is the first step in the design process.

enviroscape LA native water garden

Better questions lead to better answers.  Therefore, asking and answering the following questions will point us in the right design direction:

1.        What plant community do I live in?

2.       How do I identify this community?

Most of California’s densely populated areas are located in the coastal sage scrub plant community.  Inland areas such as Riverside have their version referred to as Riversidian sage scrub.  While this is very over-generalized, it illustrates that there are many climates to be considered, such as northern oak woodland, yellow pine forest, Douglas fir forest, valley grassland and the Great Basin sage.  We must understand microclimates in these communities.  Look at the neighborhood and notice if native plant stands occur naturally.  What plants are growing there?  “Indicator” plants (volunteers) give us an indication as to what will grow easily in the neighborhood. 

What is you live in a very developed area and natives are all gone?  You can google “native plants” and your location.  Perhaps The Las Pilitas Nursery website will come up, or the website will come up.  These website have links that are site specific to your region in California, which will indicate the right plants for you area.  Installation ideas can be found in the reference pages of

Garden design does require a degree in art and creativity, however, garden design is a science.  A great amount of garden design requires a logical, chronological approach to complete the design.  Even an artist must drive to the store and buy a certain amount and types of paints and organize these for use, before beginning the creative process.  The steps to successful native garden design include….

1.       Site inventory

2.       Site analysis

3.       Native plant community research

4.       Hardscape development

5.       Plant selection

Site Inventory and Analysis

Garden design begins with the Site Inventory.  Write down what is present on the property.  What are you views from inside the home?  Do you need to screen out undesirable neighbor views?  Are there children or pets?  How about overhead utilities?  Underground gas lines,  house color, future additions or remodels, existing plants and hardscapes are all items to consider when doing the site inventory.  The next step in the process is the Site Analysis.  This is where you consider the reasons for creating a native garden.  Do you want to attract wildlife or create habitat restoration?  A big reason many are looking at going native is to save water and reduce their water bill.  Less maintenance means saving money too.  If children and pets are involved, safety and security are important.  Outside entertaining  / kitchen areas are very popular and should be noted and planned for accordingly.  Knowing what the homeowners motivation is for developing a California native garden, and the intended use and the intended interaction with the future garden  is extremely important to understand at this phase of the project.


The hardscape is the backbone of the California native garden.  Hardscape design is just as important as the plant design.  Hardscapes are functional, as well as aesthetic.  Hardscapes can be a combination of paths, mounds, swales, dry creek beds, rocks, boulders, DG and mulch. 

Traditional non-native gardens are typically chosen based on plant appearance alone.  Native plants are chosen from a broader perspective.  How will these plants work together with the hardscape?  The human eye is usually drawn to an interaction of multiple scenes interacting, rather than one thing going on at the moment.  Nothing is more pleasing than a dry creek bed overflowing with beautiful sage growing along its boundaries.  Paths created with decomposed granite (DG) lends to a more natural, informal style, while flagstone and pavers create a formal feel.  Reuse excavated path soil to create interesting mounds, thus minimizing the environmental impact of the project.  This also creates vertical interest and visual dynamics.  It creates focal points which evoke curiosity in the garden. 

A soil test is a must when evaluating a site.  Studying where water drains is also an important consideration.  Water falls into two categories:  Water collection and water dispersion.  Shape and grade your site to retain water on site.  


Many opinions exist as to the best way to water the native garden.  Is there an already existing sprinkler system?  Does it need retrofitting?  How about drip irrigation and smart controllers?  Some who have the time prefer to hand water.  Most  will find that a smart controller is adequate to keep their native garden in tip top shape, as this controller waters more when the weather is warm and less when the weather is cool and it shuts the system off when it rains.  Drip irrigation comes from Israel and was invented over fifty years ago.  Rainbird recently came out with the world’s first “Sustainable” drip irrigation which prevents roots intrusion by the use of copper, rather than harmful pesticides.  Drip tubing is laid directly over the ground and mulch is laid over the drip.  You can read about sub-surface drip irrigation at

Native Elements in the Landscape

Another consideration in the landscape is the use of deadwood.  Deadwood offers a critical habitat for many animal and beneficial insect species.  Birds gain food, shelter, and nesting places with deadwood.  It cools the ground and acts as an insulation blanket.  Beneficial insect eaters such as alligator and blue belly lizards like deadwood.  Carpenter and bumblebees appreciate this element too.  Deadwood provides insect eating birds such as the endangered Western Blue Bird with added food sources.  Deadwood is natural garden art.  Deadwood looks great in a dry creek bed or a pond. 

Water in the Landscape

Water in the landscape is a vital element in a balanced native garden.  Providing fresh water offers an important resource for garden animals that are a key component in a healthy native garden.  Clean, fresh water is often the hardest necessity for birds to come by.  Water keeps the garden alive with birds and other critters and is an amazing magnet for butterflies.  Place resting rocks or other resting spots in water for birds and butterflies to rest.  A recirculating stream or pond is a must in the native garden.  Consider a fountain.  Water features offer the only interactive part of a garden which creates, sound, sight, and provides much need water to quench the thirst of nature’s creatures.  The sound of running water will attract hummingbirds and goldfinches.  Water features such as a water garden will bring the kind of wildlife into your yard which will allow the homeowner to experience a deeper connection with nature and soothe the soul.  Installing a water garden in the native garden will bring in an elements of granite boulders, and rocks. 

How to choose Native Plants

When choosing native plants for the native plant community, you need to think in terms of groupings of plants combined with their hardscape compliments placed thoughtfully throughout the landscape.  After deciding on a plant palette, set out the plants according to the plan, before you dig the holes.  Make such to allow for future growth.  Place the plant out with mature growth in mind.  Leave enough space to make future maintenance possible.  Make sure you chose plants which like the native soil you are working with.  Are you allergic to bees?  Stay away from flowering plants.  DO you want a full garden, or more open space? 

Safety is uppermost in the design.  Is there a driveway where plants will be planted? 
Make sure to not obstruct future views.

enviroscape LA gardening

California natives make great container plants.  Design a naturalistic grouping in a pot as an accent in areas that can’t be planted.  If you recently installed a native garden, why not throw some wild flower seed in empty spaces, to add visual interest, till things get going.  Always put plants together which have the same watering requirements. 

Combining natives with non-native plants is a perfectly acceptable option when designing or retrofitting a landscape, as long as you consider irrigation, soil compatibility, and microclimate.  Native and non-native plants can aesthetically coexist and create and unlimited combination of color, texture, and form.  If your goal is habitat restoration and attracting wildlife, then you must go totally native.  It all boils down to personal preference. 

Modern society has charged forward for decades with developments which have had a very large negative impact on our natural environment and its inhabitants.  The good news is that we can change and become a part of the solution.  By artfully designing a California native garden and water feature, you will invite positive change and make a difference for generations to come.

Some would view a native garden as a front yard full of cactus.  While this may save water, it may not suit the aesthetic taste of most people.  Native gardens can save lots of water and look great with the right design and plan in hand.  The idea of California native gardens got started with pioneers like Theodore Payne, who recognized the value the native garden brings, which garden saves water and other resources while bringing nature back to us.  Way back in 1891, he viewed a large display of California native plants while visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England.  Designing landscapes which are aligned with nature’s ecosystems made perfect sense.

  Legislators in Sacramento have passed widely impacting laws such as AB 1881, which is the Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (WELO).  This law went into effect with the start of the new decade of 2010, and mandates water conservation in landscape design, construction and maintenance.  WELO makes it mandatory that every county and city in California adopt the State Department of Water Resource’s new model ordinance, or a water efficient landscape ordinance that is saves at least as much water as the DWR model.  Many other examples exist to show how our state has been impacted, reflecting the thought that the way we have done landscaping the past 50 years is gone. A new era has arisen, the era of the climate appropriate garden, otherwise known as the native garden.


ENVIROSCAPE LA – Your Gardening Guide in the Los Angeles South Bay Area, California

Mike Garcia,
Landscape Design Contractor & Certified Pond Builder
Phone: (310) 374-1199
Email :
Founder of Enviroscape LA Landscaping,
Redondo Beach, Ca 90278
South Bay, California

Landscape Design and Installation of sustainable Low Water Use native Garden Design, Waterfalls, Fountains and Ponds.  Drip Irrigation Installation and Rainwater Harvesting Systems.