Why Should I Plant Natives?

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Lupinus paynei

Concerns about water conservation and the current drought throughout much of California cause worried minds to consider California native plants as a means to save water. Although this is a great reason to look at changes in the garden, the first and foremost reason to plant natives is that they are beautiful! This is the most diverse and fascinating flora in the United States, with nearly 6,000 species and subspecies, and as many cultivars. This diversity allows the home gardener to explore their individual interests and style, and to create a truly unique and personal garden.

In her outstanding book, Paradise by Design: Native Plants and the New American Landscape, Kathryn Phillips explains that gardening is the number one leisure activity in the country, with a small group of avid gardeners joined by a legion of reluctant gardeners. With the purchase of a home comes the responsibility to care for the yard. Avid gardeners seek out interesting plants, grow their own fruits and vegetables, and maybe even do their own propagation and hybridizing. Their fascination with horticulture and botany is expressed in the garden. Another path to becoming an avid gardeners is an interest in attracting Birds to the gardens or selecting plants to promote Butterflies in the yard. Plant selection is critical to provide food and shelter for songbirds and hummingbirds, and native plants are an important resource for attracting them to your garden.

Most of us, though, are reluctant gardeners. There is a lot going on in life. Its enough to get the lawn mowed...or to find a gardener who will take care of it. Finding the time to explore gardening as a hobby would be great, but the days are short and packed. And tackling the issues and responsibilities of land ownership, as important as they may be, compete with all the other matters clamoring for our attention. We have an inherited sense of what our landscape should look like: a lawn from front-to-back and side-to-side, some foundation shrubs and roses up against the front porch and windows, and a row of showy flowers for color...pansies in the winter and marigolds or petunias in the summer. For the reluctant gardener, that works. Maybe we'll have Iceland poppies next year instead of pansies.

But when gas prices are so high, water costs are rising, and water is becoming a scarce resource, its time to take a step back and think about the whole picture. When you do, gardening with native plants makes sense for your wallet and your world. Because natives do not need fertilizers and pesticides and soil amendments, you contribute to clean water at the beach while you save money. And when you save water, you actually reduce your contribution to green house gasses and reduce global warming. The California Department of Water Resources reports that 19% of all electricity used in California goes toward moving water around. Who knew that California water conveyance contributes more to global warming than all the cars and trucks on our local roads?

When you garden with natives, you immerse yourself in a new world of wildlife. Fence lizards appear, as do an extraordinary number of native Pollinators. You discover that California has seasons! And, don't forget, our California native plants are beautiful. Your consideration of the ideas and demands associated with owning a home, prompted by an important need to save water, show how that inherited sense of a proper landscape doesn't fit. That idealized landscape plan assumed abundant water and abundant time, an English manor for each of us. And the result has been a horticultural industry that has bred bullet-proof plants that appear in every yard from Bangore, Maine, to Burbank, California.

After your consideration of the things you'd like to achieve with your landscape, the one that comes wrapped around your home, you may not become an avid gardener (though many do with natives). But you may become a deliberate gardener, someone who gardens based on your needs and interests, and those of the world you live in, rather than to maintain a yard based on a myth that results in a yard that looks like every other yard in the neighborhood.