The Coast News Group
Garden with California native plants. Photo by Lucy Warren
Garden with California native plants. Photo by Lucy Warren

Drought Tolerant Plants for the San Diego garden — Think native

Special to The Coast News

Want a beautiful green landscape year round? Easy care and easy on water, as well? It may be time to consider what Mother Nature has to offer.

California has the greatest number of indigenous plants in North America! And, they are adapted to the environment that surrounds us. In the past few years, more growers are experimenting with native plants and expanding the availability and diversity for gardeners.

The natural variety is seemingly endless. There are stately trees from oaks to cypress to desert olives–from gigantic to patio size for small gardens.

California native shrubs abound in all sizes, shapes and leaf colors. The manzanitas have multiple varieties which range from tall trees to groundcovers — as do the California lilacs, which provide beautiful blooms in springtime from deepest indigo to pure white.

Brilliant seasonal and perennial flowering plants abound in springtime, such as Penstemon ‘Margarita BOP’ or the perky monkey flowers. Some shrubs bloom for months on end, such as the Island Bush Poppy with its large gray-green foliage and yellow poppy flowers. Or, perhaps you prefer some of the many sages.

Island Bush Poppy (Dendromecon harfordii). Photo by Lucy Warren
Island Bush Poppy (Dendromecon harfordii). Photo by Lucy Warren

Native plants can be substituted for ornamental plants in any style of landscape. At the 2013 San Diego County Fair, San Diego Botanic Garden challenged local native plant landscaper, Greg Rubin, to design a Japanese-style garden utilizing exclusively drought tolerant native plants. The result was spectacular!

Most homeowners now have a typical grass lawn, which uses a lot of water and amendments and requires frequent mowing. You can save from 60 to 90 percent of your landscape water by installing a more interesting and attractive native plant landscape. As an additional benefit, a lightly hydrated native landscape also has high fire resistance.

So why don’t more homeowners use native landscaping to save water, money and maintenance? Primarily because they do not understand the plants. They may have even bought a few to put in their garden and watched them decline. It can be very difficult to mix natives with non-natives.

Here’s why. Because native plants evolved in a demanding ecology, they developed survival patterns that are different from the ornamental plants we buy from most nurseries. For one thing, California natives grow in communities rather than competing for resources.

If you take a drive outside of developed areas, you can easily see rocky hillsides filled with a mix of thriving native plants without irrigation or fertilizer.

Plus, the native plant ecology is more than just the plants. Native species grow in community with soil microorganisms to mutual benefit. These organisms help to feed and hydrate the natives with minimal interference on our part. The organisms are all around, they don’t need to be added to the soil.

The two best ways to kill natives are to over water and to fertilize. This “special attention” breaks the bond between the plants and their soil benefactors, leaving them open to pathogens and disease.

Drought tolerant means less water or low water, not NO water.

Even natives benefit from a periodic light overhead spray—think coastal mists—to dust off the leaves and lightly rehydrate the mulch under the plants.

The Master Gardener Plant Sale at Casa del Prado in Balboa Park Sept. 20 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. will have informational displays on natives and other drought tolerant plants, with experts to answer questions.

Lucy Warren, UCCE Master Gardener is the co-author with Greg Rubin of “The California Native Landscape: Homeowner’s Guide to Restoring its Balance and Beauty.”