Native Plants of the North Coast
by Donna Wildearth
Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by the sight of our native red-flowering currant in full bloom? Enjoyed the distinctive fragrance of our western azalea? Been charmed by fairy bells blooming in the forest? Then you are already aware of one good reason for growing native plants: They are interesting and beautiful. Of course there are more reasons for planting natives—the most important one, I think, is that native plants are crucial for our native bees, butterflies, and birds. With drought in the headlines these days, growing native plants is also being touted as a way to conserve water. And it’s true that native plants, being well-adapted to local soils and climate, are good candidates for a drought-tolerant landscape. However, there are a few caveats to keep in mind.
First of all, there are a wide variety of native plants that grow in a wide variety of habitats—from plants that thrive on the beach sand dunes, to riparian plants that grow along stream banks, to plants that flourish in our redwood forests. Some native plants will tolerate a range of conditions, while others are more demanding. To be truly drought-tolerant, it’s best to grow native plants in an environment that is similar to their native habitat in terms of sun and shade and soil type. Trying to grow a woodland plant such as fairy bells on sandy soil in a sunny site will not result in a drought-tolerant or a happy plant! So a little research is a good idea before putting any plant in the ground.
An excellent place to learn more about native plants is the website for the North Coast Chapter of the California Native Plant Society: www. northcoastcnps.org. Under the “Gardening” heading on the website you can find a list of recommended Northwest California native plants with comments on the conditions they prefer. The site also provides lists of books on native plant gardening, sources for native plants, and places to see examples of landscaping with native plants.
Secondly, be aware that all drought-tolerant plants, whether native or non-native, should be watered regularly during at least their first warm season in the ground. Depending on the plant and the climate, some may need to be watered for two or even three seasons before they become well enough established to survive without supplemental water.
Fall is an excellent time to plant natives (and other plants as well). With any luck, there will be enough fall and winter rainfall to keep the plants adequately watered until the following spring. Then you will need to water them through the next warm spring, summer, and fall. Avoid frequent, shallow watering. Watering deeply but less frequently will encourage the plant to develop a healthy root system that is more capable of surviving drought. At the beginning of the second warm season you can assess whether the plant is well established and can fend for itself, or whether you will need to keep providing some supplemental irrigation.
A third point to be aware of is that well-established drought-tolerant plants can survive without any supplemental water, but their bloom periods may be shorter, and they may look somewhat “pinched.” Most experts suggest that if you can provide a good soaking once a month during hot and/or windy weather it will keep the plants looking fresher.
Lastly, aside from choosing drought-tolerant plants, you can conserve water in the landscape by following other water-wise practices such as using efficient irrigation, adding organic matter to the soil, planting densely to shade the soil, and mulching. In addition to holding moisture in the soil, a 3-4” layer of mulch suppresses weeds, prevents soil compaction, and gives the garden a finished appearance.
By growing native plants, you can conserve water and provide important habitat for native birds, bees, and butterflies at the same time you enjoy the beauty of these unique plants and develop a deeper connection to your bioregion—definitely a win/win situation.