front yard with many 1-gallon pots of native plants, in place but unplanted
A front lawn is being replaced by a landscape of native plants, to be cared for as they become established

When you bring new native plants home from the native-plant sale or nursery, they look so healthy and happy. You want to plant them and nurture them so they grow into maturity, remaining healthy and happy. We’ve provided tips and links on transplanting and on watering, to help you establish  new native plants successfully.

As anyone who’s been gardening for a while will admit, you’re bound to have a mix of successes and failures. Learn from them both, and add more native plants to your garden when the season is right!

Establishing New Native Plants

Care for Young Native Plants

Your native plants are ready to plant. As for any nursery stock, when you bring these plants into the landscape, they need careful attention during their establishment period (usually two to three years).

Planting

The default for natives is to plant them where they’ll have good drainage, though many riparian and meadow plants tolerate more slowly draining  habitat.

Do not add any amendments when planting native plants. You can work a bit of full decomposed homemade compost into the soil completely surrounding the area, not just the hole. But avoid doing this for chaparral plants, as they naturally live in soil where they take up nutrients very slowly.

Dig the hole twice as wide and as deep as the plant’s container. Build up a little mound of soil in the center of the hole, for the plant to sit on. Many native plants are quite sensitive to planting height. Make sure the crown is ½-inch above soil level, once you’ve tamped in the soil.

gardener's gloved hands planting small bulb with yellow flower, with wired gopher basket in soil
Young plants, including most bulb species, often need protection from gophers. Gopher baskets installed at planting time are the most effective method.

As with all garden planting, plants suffer less transplant stress if they are planted in the cooler parts of a warm day. Soak the newly planted plant thoroughly; some say this is the deepest watering you’ll ever give your new plant.

Build a small berm, away from the plant’s crown but close enough to the plant to help keep water around root ball. (In rainy seasons, adjust berms to allow water to drain away.)

Much Ado About Mulch

Many plants do better when mulched. When you mulch around your plants, you’re reducing water evaporation, keeping soil cooler, and controlling weeds. The type of mulch you use should correspond with the plant’s natural habitat. For plants native to many of our local habitats, such as lower conifer forest and foothill woodlands, use wood chips or other wood mulch. For plants native to rockier habitats such as chaparral, however, use small, light-colored rock; these help reflect sunlight and are less likely to cause crown rot if they accidentally come in contact with plants.

Place mulch about three inches away from the base of the plant. Inspect this seasonally, as wind and gravity may cause some shifting. One thing I’ve learned since becoming active in Redbud is the importance of not covering all bare earth with mulch, however. Most species of native bees are ground nesting, and they need open soil in which to nest, so be sure to dedicate leave them some open ground, perhaps seasonally covered with wildflowers or under larger shrubs not bothered by weeds.

Watering

Even if the plants you are taking home are drought-tolerant California natives (which most are), they still need water and care for the first couple of years. Because most plants do best if they are planted in the fall, when you purchase plants in the fall, the best option is to keep them in the shade and give them regular water until the weather cools and/or after the first couple of rains. Then you can transplant your young plants into their permanent homes. Because riparian plants want year-round watering, you may buy and plant them anytime.

Once in the ground, your new plants will need to be deeply watered weekly until rain takes over the job. Keep their root balls moist not soggy for the first three months.

Then they will need watering once or twice a week during the hot months for the first couple of years until they have developed a more extensive root system. In general, stop watering bulbs when their leaves start to yellow. Let them go completely dormant from the first year; otherwise, they’ll rot. Just a few species, such as Leopard Lily and Camassia, like some summer moisture.

After that, low-water plants should do fine with little or no water. Some species are completely drought-adapted and giving them any summer heightens their risk of disease. Oaks need no summer water; they’re susceptible to a fungus that grows only when warm and wet. So, in natural conditions, that fungus isn’t a threat; it becomes an issue only when people water under oaks during summer. Some low-water and drought-adapted plants are fine, and might even look better, if they get a bit of summer water, like some drip every week to 10 days.

Wetland and riparian plants will need regular water through every summer, and most coastal species will need watering once or twice every two weeks during our hotter, inland summers. Remember, Calscape is good source of information about water needs of species, and which plants are particularly sensitive to summer water.

Ways to Water

The simplest way and most meditative way to water is to hold a hose. Of course, it’s hard to give plants a deep soak using this method, and it takes a lot of time, over and over, plus you’re fighting with hoses.

Otherwise, you’ll want to install drip irrigation for most circumstances (except grasslands and meadows). We recommend using drip tubing with pre-installed pressure-compensating emitters. Encircle the plant with the tubing, placed out just at the outer edge of the rootball. As a plant grows, you can easily move the tubing farther from the plant, encouraging root growth. Individual emitters, formerly popular, are easy to install, but they get clogged easily, which too often allows plants to dry up and die without anyone noticing.

To establish grasslands and meadows, use overhead watering, such as sprinkler heads (the newer rotor heads are quite water efficient) or oscillating sprinklers.

Resources on Establishing New Native Plants

Calscape Native Plant Gardening Guide. Information on installing and watering new native plants, as well as on watering established plants

Planting California Natives. This CNPS webpage provides basics on planting natives, including recommendations for mulch types for plants native to various habitats, and how to mulch for plant health.

Growing Instructions for Native Bulbs. This Redbud handout by Nancy Gilbert, our horticulture chair and co-owner for many years of Far West Bulbs, a native bulb business, goes over some considerations to make when incorporating native bulbs into your garden. Also, one can find information about the needs for specific species of native bulbs. This handout goes over some considerations to make when incorporating native bulbs into your garden. Nancy also shares information about the needs of specific species of native bulbs.

Pruning Native Plants

Once your native shrubs and trees have sprung up and taken on some real height and width, it’s important to know how and, critically, when to prune them. Proper pruning contributes to plant health and aesthetics, and it can help us as gardeners foster plants that live up to their full potential.

person's hand holding clippers, pruning spent flowers off bush anemone
Knowing when and how to prune each native species makes a big difference

CNPS provides a series of informative articles on pruning native plants, for which we’re particularly grateful, as detailed pruning information on California native plants can be challenging to track down:

New to pruning? The CNPS articles cover basic techniques and tools.

Already an accomplished pruner of non-native ornamentals and fruit trees? Find important concepts about pruning native plants. In particular, learn the best (and worst) times to prune specific families of California natives. Some should be pruned only in winter while dormant, some after leaves have appeared, and some after flowering.

Container Gardening with Native Plants

Container gardening lets us put native plants – with their magnificent shapes, textures, and colors – where we want. If you’re renting, or live in an apartment or condo, or have a lot of hard surface, like a big patio, you may be all the more likely to be interested in container gardening.

 

Thinking Different for Container Gardening
Success with container gardening of California native plants depends on the same basic principle as all other planting – right plant, right place. For container gardening, “right plant, right place” includes certain special considerations:
  • Selecting native species that are likely to succeed in a container
  • Using a potting mix that suits the plants you’re growing
  • Choosing a container that is a good size for the plants you’ve selected
  • Choosing a container made of a material that suits the climate where you live and the siting in your landscape (how much sun it gets)
  • Deciding on a way to water your container so your plant will have the reliable water it needs, bearing in mind that plants in containers need more water than plants in the ground

 

Thrillers, Spillers and Fillers
If you’ve never done container gardening, you may be imagining you’ll simply plant one plant or species in its own container (or this could be your informed preference, which is perfectly fine). More frequently, container planting designs include “thrillers, fillers, and spillers.”
Resources for Container Gardening with Native Plants
Patio and Container Gardens. Visit East Bay Wilds native nursery in Oakland, and you’ll often find well over 100 examples of native plants growing in unique containers. Pete Veilleux, who owns the nursery, is particularly expert in, and fond of, this form of native plant gardening. He wrote this article on the subject for CNPS.
Container Gardening with Native Plants. Yerba Buena Nursery provides lots and lots of practice information about container gardening specifically with native plants, from what to use instead of commercial potting mix, to mulching containers, to watering.
Native Plants in Container Gardening. Las Pilitas Nursery illustrates numerous suggestions of natives for containers, organized by temperature and light conditions.
Container Gardening. Presentation by Master Gardeners of Nevada County about container gardening for all plants; useful information on materials and design.

General Resources About Gardening with Natives

Articles, presentations, and other resources about gardening with native plants sometimes include more than one topic covered on our Redbud website. We’ve included some of the most useful here, in hopes you’ll find this list convenient. If you have suggestions for additional resources, please let us know, at nativeplanthelp@redbud-cnps.org.

Recorded Redbud Presentations

We’ve been recording our Zoom presentations and posting them on our Redbud YouTube channel. Here are some that are particularly relevant to gardening with natives.

What Makes Native Gardening Special? Explore how gardening with California native plants differs from gardening with regular nursery plants, with Redbud member and Nevada County Master Gardener Chrissy Freeman. This presentation covers how native plants, particularly local natives, contribute to the ecosystem, from the soil to insects to birds and other fauna. See special landscape design considerations and opportunities that using native plants in your landscape offers. Learn about gardening best practices specific to natives. Chrissy shares photos of a variety of native-plant gardens and the plants that live in them.

Learning Even More About Your Favorite Local Native Plants Using Calflora. Calflora’s Executive Director Cynthia Powell discusses new Calflora tools for CNPS Calflora users. Calflora’s plant database hosts over 2 million plant occurrences, some of which come directly from Redbud CNPS members (including prolific Jeff Bisbee and Hannah Kang!). Cynthia covers Calflora’s new iNaturalist data feed, plant photo project, planting guide, population monitoring tools, email alerts, and entering Chapter checklists into Calflora.

Recorded Presentations by Others

Master Gardeners of Nevada County record their Zoom workshops and post the recordings and associated handouts. Some of their relevant presentations include:

Books on Gardening with Natives

This list could go on for pages, so we’ll limit ourselves to just the books that more folks have recommended as helpful in their native gardening efforts. (Starred books are particularly helpful for finding “the right plant for the right place.”)

*Bornstein, Carol, David Fross and Bart O’Brien. California Native Plants for the Garden. Cachuma Press, 2005. Filled with photos and descriptions of specific native species and named varieties. Lists plants for a wide assortment of circumstances, including allergenic plants, aromatic foliage, fast- and slow-growing plants, under oak trees, etc. Also Reimagining the California Lawn. Cachuma Press, 2011.

Frankie, Gordon W., Robbin W. Thorp, Rollin E. Coville, and Barbara Ertter. California Bees & Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists. Heyday: Berkeley, CA. California’s multiple types of bees, their natural enemies, and plant profiles for many of California’s best bee attractants, including their flowering season.

Funk, Alicia, and Karin Kaufman. Living Wild: Gardening, Cooking and Healing with Native Plants of California. Flicker Press, Second Edition, 2013. Written by local authors and full of interesting information, including how to grow specific plants and how to use them as food.

Keator, Glenn and Alrie Middlebrook, Designing California Native Gardens. University of California Press, 2007. Uses the plant-community approach to design artful, ecological gardens. Discusses where to go to see the plants growing and where to buy them.

Larner, Judith, Gardening with a Wild Heart. University of California Press, 1999. Combines personal story, wildland ecology, restoration gardening practices, and California native plant horticulture.

Larner, Judith, The Landscaping Ideas of Jays, University of California Press, 2007. Lyrical yet practical guide to backyard restoration gardening; celebrating the beauty, challenges and rewards of growing native plants at home.

*Nevada County Master Gardeners. Western Nevada County Gardening Guide. 2020 Edition. All about gardening in the Sierra foothills, with good chapters on native plants and on soils.

Popper, Helen. California Native Gardening: A Month-by-Month Guide. University of California Press, 2012. Like chatting with an experienced gardener, with many hints for the ongoing care of plants.

*Redbud Chapter, California Native Plant Society. Trees and Shrubs of Nevada and Placer Counties, California. Redbud Chapter, 2014. Comprehensive text and definitive photos for plant identification. The “Comments” section on each plant is helpful in understanding the plant and its needs. Also Wildflowers of Nevada and Placer Counties, California. Redbud Chapter, 2017. A comprehensive guide to local wildflowers with good photos and text to help with identification. Includes directions for hiking trails to view wildflowers.

*Rubin, Greg, and Warren, Lucy. The Drought-Defying California Garden: 230 Native Plants for a Lush, Low-Water Landscape. Timber Press. 2016. Great tips on how to establish and maintain 230 native plants that work well in the garden. Detailed info on each species; oriented toward plant communities.

Rubin, Greg, and Warren, Lucy. The California Native Landscape: The Homeowner’s Design Guide to Restoring Its Beauty and Balance. Portland: Timber Press. 2013. Though a Southern California orientation influences the native plants and plant communities discussed, these authors also provide strong coverage on design principles and garden style options, installation, and pests and diseases.

Schmidt, Marjorie G. and Katherine Greenberg. Growing California Native Plants. University of California Press, Second Edition, 2012. An updated classic source for growing and propagating natives, with lists of plants for a variety of conditions.

*Smith, M. Nevin. Native Treasures: Gardening with the Plants of California. University of California Press, 2006. A retired California horticulturalist has written about his favorite native plants and selected varieties, helping with plant decisions and giving cultural advice.

Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. Timber Press, 2007. As an entomologist, the author explains the importance of native plants versus exotic plants for the survival of our ecosystem. Plant lists at the back of the book are specific to geographical areas in the United States.

Tallamy, Douglas W. Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard. Timber Press, 2020. Tallamy shows how homeowners everywhere can turn their yards into conservation corridors that provide wildlife habitats.