Winter is the time to plant natives to give them a good start during our rainy season (hopefully we will have some rain this year!), and there are several online tools and websites to help get your native plant garden started or embellish what you already have. My garden includes fruit trees, so I plant natives between and underneath them to provide more habitat for local critters. Most gardens include a variety of growing conditions, and these tools can help refine which plants are appropriate for them.
One way to look for inspiration is to view gardens from native garden tours. The East Bay is home to one of the best of these tours, the Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour, which takes place each spring. On the tour’s website, there are descriptions, photos, and videos of gardens from past tours that will undoubtedly inspire you. And there is also a list of landscape designers who work with natives if you want some professional advice.
The state CNPS website has a Gardening and Horticulture section with many articles addressing native plant landscaping topics, including some of the important basics:
In addition, CNPS has developed the Bay Area Garden Planner, a new garden design resource specific to the Bay Area. It is a web-based tool, developed using Calscape, the comprehensive statewide CNPS web resource for native plant horticulture, and it will help you design a native garden with plants that are native to your local area. Not only will locally native plants grow well in your garden, but they also will provide the best habitat for local insects, birds, and other wildlife. The Bay Area Garden Planner is especially good for beginners, but its plant selections and information can also help experienced gardeners choose locally native plants that will enhance the habitat value of their gardens.
Clicking the “Let’s Get Started” button on the home page will walk you through a series of screens to help you decide what kind of garden you are interested in designing.
The first step is to choose your ecoregion, which will help determine what plants are appropriate for your particular climate. The map of ecoregions differentiates between regions surrounding the Bay and those further inland, which have very different climates. In my case I chose the bayside area of Contra Costa County, which includes Richmond and El Cerrito.
Once you have selected your ecoregion, the planner offers choices of four Bay Area plant communities: Meadow, Chaparral, Woodland, and Coastal Shrub. Making this choice will determine your plant palette, although I imagine not everyone has thought about their garden in terms of plant communities before. For my garden, I chose “Chaparral.” Once I obtained the list of locally native plants for that community, I decided to look at the plants listed for the other plant communities in my ecoregion. I may decide to select plants from each of them because urban gardens are artificial ecosystems, and combining plants from different communities, as long as they have similar needs, could make a very interesting garden.
The “i” (information) icon for each of the four plant communities gives a description of the community. In the case of the Chaparral option, the description is for a showy and hardy garden style, which seemed like a good place to start.
Once you have chosen the plant community for your garden, you are asked to specify how much sun the garden receives. I selected all three options because I have all of them in my garden, which is probably true for many gardens.
The last screen asks what your gardening priorities are, allowing you to choose as many as you want from a list of four: Pollinators, Birds, Easy, and Firewise. I chose Pollinators and Birds. If you choose the Firewise option, the resulting design drawing will indicate the minimum distance between plants and structures based on the latest fire science.
You will then see a list of suggested plants for your garden based on the criteria you specified and usually including trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, grasses, and vines. The “Print this Page” link will generate a PDF you can download and/or print.
Clicking on the link for each plant takes you to the Calscape website entry for that plant, which provides much more detail about the plant as well as a map showing its native range.
By choosing the Chaparral plant community, my list included lovely plants such as two species of flowering currant, ceanothus, lupine, and California poppy, as well as several native bunchgrasses.
If you click on the “See Your Garden Design” button, the program will generate a PDF file that can be downloaded and printed, showing a series of drawings of the garden layout.
Even if you didn’t select “Firewise” as a criterion, the PDF will include firewise information.
There is also a final page with some suggestions for creating a successful and ecologically sound native plant garden.
The Bay Area Garden Planner suggests locally native plants that will work best in your garden setting, but exploring other options for plants that will grow in your area could expand the palette a bit and allow you to view even more plants. It might be interesting to go to the main Calscape website and enter your zip code on the home page to see what plant suggestions are available there. Most but not all of the plant recommendations on the main Calscape website will be locally native plants, and Calscape doesn’t group its recommendations by plant community. However, the Advanced Search option in Calscape allows you to refine your search by a number of variables, including plant type, sun exposure, and soil drainage (very important to consider), as well as water requirements, ease of care, flower color and flowering season, and final plant height. When I entered the same criteria as I did in the Bay Area Garden Planner (but also specified slow-draining soil), Calscape gave me 89 plants that will grow in my area, and most but not all are locally native. This allows me to expand a bit on the plant choices provided by the Bay Area Garden Planner if I want to.
Our East Bay Chapter’s Native Here Nursery, located in Tilden Park in Berkeley, has a website with many resources for East Bay native gardens, including a list of Easy-to-Grow Natives for the East Bay. Native Here is focused exclusively on plants that are native to Alameda and Contra Costa counties, with a large selection that includes more locally native plants than either the Bay Area Garden Planner or the main Calscape website. In addition, you can shop for plants online using a plant selection tool that allows you to choose plants from specific locations within the East Bay and select a number of other features, including habitat type, soil type, sun and water needs, flower color, and desired height. At Native Here, you can select plants that were grown for maximum adaptation to your local habitat and maximum genetic diversity using locally collected seed.
Using all of these online resources should allow you to create a beautiful native plant garden that provides habitat and benefits your local ecosystem!
— Robin Mitchell, Recording Secretary, CNPS East Bay Chapter