orange poppies, white yarrows, purple penstemon make a vivid display
Penstemon, yarrow, and poppies make a vivid combination

When we garden with native plants instead of non-natives, benefits abound — to ourselves, to the environment, to the ecosystem. If you’re relatively new to native gardening, you’ll feel even better about your new direction as you learn about the benefits of native gardening. If you’re an experienced native gardener, you may learn a few things, and you’ll be well prepared to chat with folks about why native gardening matters.

What's a "Native Plant"?

Let’s start by clarifying what we mean by native plant. CNPS explains it this way: “Our native plants grew here prior to European contact. California’s native plants evolved here over a very long period, and are the plants which the first Californians knew and depended on for their livelihood. These plants have co-evolved with animals, fungi and microbes, to form a complex network of relationships. They are the foundation of our native ecosystems, or natural communities.” (Read more from CNPS on What are native plants?)

bluish-purple flowers cover a Lemmon's ceanothus shrub
Lemmon’s ceanothus is an attractive local shrub for gardens

Similar to the definition of native plants, locally native plants are species that grew, not just in California, but in a specific area, before European contact, as determined by historical records, such as reports by early botanists. Most commonly, locally native means local to a county, a city, or a property. Depending on location, knowledge, goal, and plant availability, people choose which geographical constraint to apply. Someone living in a suburb may be comfortable using county or city. A rural resident living next to wildland may want to use plants local to their property address or neighborhood. People in towns and the suburbs may prefer to also use some of our California named cultivars, as these have been bred to perform very well in garden conditions and (often) to be more manageable sizes.

You can use Calscape to find which native plants are local to the area you want to use for your project. You may want to start with your address, and use plants from the generated list. (See Redbud’s Calscape handout for info on how to save this list.) Or, check if a plant in which you’re interested is local to your address, or, if not, if it’s local to your town or county; do this by zooming in on the map on that plant’s page.

Benefits of Native Plants

Various reasons bring people to gardening with natives and keep them focused on this approach. Here are some of the notable advantages:

Natives Use Less Water

The majority of California natives are adapted to our summer-dry, winter-wet climate. Most become drought tolerant as they mature. So they’ll naturally do well using much less water than plants native to other climates. Mature local chaparral plants often are fine with little or no supplemental water. Riparian native plants, however, are adapted to living around water, so they want regular water.

Natives Are Often Easier

Gardening with natives is often easier, as they require less maintenance. They generally do not need soil amendments or fertilizers. (More info about this later.) And local native are already well adapted to your climate and soil, so they’re more likely to succeed. Check out Calscape for a list of “easy” natives local to your address.

Natives Need Little to No Fertilizer

Gardening with natives means significantly lower fertilizer usage, perhaps even none. Our horticulture chair consistently adds soft rock phosphate to the backfill soils of all her plants, native and non-native, as our foothills soils are deficient in this mineral. Also, if your plants are doing poorly in spite of your best management practices, have a soils test done. Some of our soils are deficient in critical minerals, nutrients, or both. If you find this is the case at your place, apply a fertilizer targeted at this specific problem

Natives slowly get needed minerals from the soil; the roots of natives develop symbiotic relationships with soil fungi (mycorrizhae). They exchange sugars that they get via photosynthesis for soil minerals. The ability of native plants to get minerals from soil saves us time, effort, and money. In return, we must refrain from giving them extra fertilizer. Excess nitrogen:

  • Decreases species diversity
  • Can reduce diversity and abundance of soil microbial communities
  • Weakens plant-microbe interactions

Result of using nitrogen on natives is a shorter life for plants.

More Native Plants are Deer Resistant (Not Deer-Proof)

Many native plants have deer resistance when mature. When just brought from the nursery, or when young and tender, many native plants have a high level of appeal to deer that fades as they mature. So even deer-resistant plants should be protected while young. Plants with a strong-scented foliage are often deer-resistant. Redbud offers a list of deer-resistant native plants on our handout, Ideas for Gardening with California Native Plants.

Native Plants Benefit Wildlife

Gardening with natives means we’re providing four basic elements needed for wildlife habitat:

  • Food. Native plants offer flower pollen, fruit, berries, seeds, nuts, insects, and foliage — offering many types of sources supports a wide variety of wildlife.
  • Cover. Animals from amphibians to birds to mammals hide from predators and shelter from the elements in the cover of native plants.
  • Nesting materials. Native plants provide nesting material for birds, surely, but also for other animals that prepare places for their young.
  • Nesting sites. And native plants give wildlife nesting sites safe from predators, such as tree branches, a tree hollow, and brush piles.

Just add water, and wildlife have everything they need!

Birds Need Native Plants for Population Success

Gardening with natives means you’re helping birds survive and thrive. Recent ground-breaking work by Doug Tallamy and other scientists at the University of Delaware and the Smithsonian Institution, has found that the extent of non-native plants in backyard gardens endangers insect-eating birds (over 1/3 of U.S. native bird species). Tallamy’s team found that fewer insects meant reduced survival numbers for MOST bird species, which feed insects to their young, not just insect-eating species. They found that backyards need 70 percent native plants (by biomass) in order for their research species, chickadees, to sustain their population successfully.

three newborn birds in nest, mouths wide open, awaiting food
In order to survive, these baby birds depend on their parents to find enough native insects to feed them.

So, on the flip side, you also know that CNPS, and research, aren’t saying you need to grow ONLY native plants, or only local natives, but now you have a target — aim for 70 percent at least, over time; of course, nature would always appreciate more.

Native Plants Help the Ecosystem

An ecosystem must include native plant species that its pollinators use, in order to provide sufficient pollinators as sustenance for its insect species, as well as for its other fauna (such as lizards). In turn, those insects and other small creatures become food for birds and other vertebrates, and the great ecosystem continues. If the native plants are lacking, the ecosystem weakens. If they flourish, the ecosystem can, too.

Many native plant species have unique roles in the ecosystems in which they grow. Many pollinators lay eggs only on host native plants with which they co-evolved. If an ecosystem does not have sufficient host native plants for the pollinators that depend on them, the larvae will die, because they will not have enough leaves to eat after they hatch. This is a strong reason to include local natives, particularly pollinator host plants, in your garden.

Gardening with natives provides additional benefits throughout the ecosystem as well, such as filtering water and stabilizing soil (via long roots of plants such as native grasses).

Though plant biodiversity can be preserved only through habitat conservation, by planting even on our own properties, we can help preserve diversity of the organisms that rely on native plants. Planting natives in your garden or yard attracts a huge variety of birds, pollinators, and other beneficial insects, drawn by the food and shelter offered by those plants.

Gain a Sense of Place

Gardening with native plants can give you a sense of place — a feeling about where you are in California, as you create with plants that have evolved to live in this place, plants that belong here. Out in your garden, surrounded by native plants, you may have a heightened connection with nature, a sense of freedom from human intervention. Look around. Slow down every once in a while. Breathe it in. Enjoy.