Native Plants Add Beauty and Habitat to Your Yard

“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.” —Janet Kilburn Phillips

This spring give the birds, bees, and butterflies places to live, dine, and hang out by adding native plants to your garden and making it a pesticide-free zone.

About two weeks ago, a newsletter from the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) arrived in my email inbox informing me that April 13-21 is Native Plant Week here in California.

I decided to use Native Plant Week as an opportunity to encourage other native plant novices, like me, to embrace native plants. When you give native plants a place in your yard or garden, you will attract native wildlife and signal to those who are just passing through that this is a good place to pause and take a break.

Ever since my spouse and I moved from Southern California to the Monterey pine forest of the California Central Coast about twelve years ago, we have been on a mission to restore our tiny piece of land. After years of invasive plant removal and spreading literally tons of wood chips to revive the parched soil, I realized I needed to learn about native plants.

I joined the CNPS chapter in San Luis Obispo. At my first meeting in October 2017, I met Marti and became interested in trying to grow native plants from seeds. You can meet the first plant I ever grew from a seed in the post, entitled Growing Native Plants from Seeds is Fun and if you are interested in the environmental benefits of native plants, I covered that topic in Native Plants are Good for the Environment.

6 Pots with Seedlings Grown from Native Plant Seeds - Apr 2019
Seedlings sprouted from seeds I obtained at the CNPS San Luis Obispo seed in exchange in October 2018 shown in April 2019 (left to right) – thrift seapink, coast bush lupine, coyote mint, purple needlegrass, purple sage, arroyo lupine.

The joy of growing native plants mostly occurs during the journey from seed to mature plant, but even the mishaps can be fun. My yard is mostly wild and your yard will be different from mine anyway, but perhaps you have had some similar experiences.

Native Plant Novice

To keep things simple I opted to experiment with growing native plant seeds using the tools and resources a non-expert might have on hand like a garden trowel, plastic pots from nursery plants, potting soil, a watering can, and something to use for plant markers. I planted my second batch of seeds in November 2018 without any special preparation.

This year I have been keeping a handwritten journal of what I observe happening with the seeds and a few small plants, we planted in our yard.

Becky the Buckwheat has a Birthday

I am one of those people who anthropomorphize animals and trees. It helps me connect with my non-human neighbors, but if you do not like it, I understand.

The very first plant I ever grew from seed was California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciulatum). Out of a handful of seeds, it was the only one that germinated. After about nine months in a pot on the deck outside of our dining room, I decided that Becky was ready for the yard. Mindful of the deer that frequent our yard, I planted Becky in a small fenced in section.

I do not know Becky’s exact age, but I planted the seeds in January 2018 and the tiny seedling popped its head above the soil in March or April of that year. Becky went to live in the yard during October 2018 and now in April 2019, Becky is at least a year old and thriving.

Someone Stole My Daisies

For years, I have been admiring the lavender flowered seaside daisies (Erigeron glaucus) that grow on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve near my house. Last November, when I spotted a variety of seaside daisies at the CNPS San Luis Obispo plant sale, I bought six small plants.

Because the daisies looked like potential deer food to me, they became Becky’s neighbors. The plants seemed happy and I could see them from a window in our stairwell. One day I looked out and sensed something was wrong so I went outside to investigate.

Four of the six plants were completely gone (not eaten) disappeared. It was the voles. I could tell by the little holes backfilled with loose dirt. The voles would not come out to discuss the situation so I can only surmise that seaside daisies are much sought after as bedding material or food for voles.

That afternoon I dashed over to the local nursery to purchase some flexible mesh gopher cages. My spouse helped me dig up the two remaining plants and replant their roots inside the cages. That ended the carnage. The plants made it through the winter but I would say they look more as if they are just surviving versus thriving.

Plant Hide-and-Seek

In November 2018, feeling extra ambitious I expanded the number of varieties of seeds I would attempt to grow and decided to carefully plant a few in my yard along with a couple of plants that I had purchased at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden plant sale in October.

I carefully weeded a five-foot circle, planted a small Hearst ceanothus (Ceanothus hearstiorum) and three groupings of seeds marked with plant markers I made from an old sign.

The deer or someone was probably laughing as I did this. Within days, the ceanothus had been eaten down to a nub, so we fenced in the area. Months later, the wild grasses took over and any tiny seedlings trying to make a go of it have either been outcompeted, eaten as soon as they popped up their heads, or are in there somewhere that I just cannot see.

Group Insurance

In the past, I have often purchased one plant to try out in a particular area. Last fall, I thought maybe it would be helpful to plant two or three of the same type of plant in the same area.

At the November CNPS plant sale, along with the ill-fated seaside daisies, I purchased six tiny California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) seedlings grown by Clearwater Color Wholesale Nursery in Los Osos. The plants were about 3” tall when I planted them in pots and set them outside our dining room window.

They seemed happy and grew steadily. After the seedlings reached about 6” tall, I decided they might enjoy going to live in the yard.

Unsure about whether deer have a taste for California fuchsia or not, I decided to plant one plant and see what happened. The deer completely ignored it for a couple of weeks so I decided it was safe to plant the others.

Outside our office window, we have a grouping of three and a grouping of two. I planted the remaining plant near the seaside daisies as an insurance measure in case the deer suddenly develop a taste for California fuchsia.

Getting a Grip

The native plant enthusiasts I meet in our county seem enamored with dudleyas so I purchased three chalk dudleya (Dudleya pulverulenta) at the October Botanical Garden Sale.

I read up about them on Calscape, an online California native plant resource guide, and learned that dudleyas like to be planted at an angle so moisture does not pool around them and they enjoy living with rocks.

We have a small rocky section next to our driveway so I planted the three dudleyas in a triangle and hoped for the best. Periodically, I hand weed around them and they seem to be well established now.

My action for California Native Plant Week was to write this post. I hope you enjoyed the above plant stories and laughed at least once. Now, it is your turn to take action.

California Native Plant Week Actions

  • Share your own native plant stories and/or expertise.
  • Learn about native plants by going on a native plant garden tour or visiting a botanical garden.
  • Sign up for a native plant walk in your area.
  • Locate a nursery that sells native plants, pick one to try, and plant three of them in your yard or garden.
  • Join your local native plant society. The American Horticulture Society lists every state on their website.

“Native plants are the foundation of ecosystems, supporting pollinators, birds, and the natural resources we all need for survival.”

Liv O’Keeffe, California Native Plant Society

Featured Image at Top: I think these are coyote mint (Monardella villosa) plants that sprouted from seeds I scattered in the yard.

Related Posts

Resources

Growing Native Plants from Seeds is Fun

Wow, I can grow native plants and you can, too.

Growing your own native plants from seeds is rewarding and fun. Try it yourself and you will see what I mean.

My spouse and I have been living on the California Central Coast in the midst of a native Monterey pine forest for just over a decade. When we arrived here during a hot dry summer, the soil was parched and invasive plants were encroaching on all sides.

For years, our focus was mostly on performing remedial tasks like spreading tons of wood chips to rejuvenate the soil and filling up our green waste container umpteen times with invasive plants like Italian thistle, Ice plant, and French broom.

During that time, we bought a few native plants to try in our yard but I did not know much about them. Trying to grow my own plants from seeds did not even occur to me.

About a year ago, I realized that I was at the point where I wanted and needed to learn more about the plants, trees, and grasses that are native to where I live.

3 Arroyo Lupine, 1 Tidy Tips, 1 Purple Needlegrass Plants Grown from Seeds
Arroyo Lupine, Tidy Tips, and Purple Needlegrass that I grew with seeds from the California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo chapter seed exchange in 2017.

The San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden seemed like a good place to learn about native plants so my spouse and I visited the Garden. At the Chumash Kitchen events that we attended, I was delighted to have an opportunity to learn about native plants from Chumash people whose ancestors have been living here for thousands of years.

For a native plant novice like me, joining the California Native Plant Society seemed like a good idea so I became a member of the San Luis Obispo chapter. My spouse and I attended our first meeting a year ago last October. That is where I met Marti and the real fun began.

Native Plant Seed Exchange

When we arrived at the San Luis Obispo Veterans Hall for the meeting, there were several folding tables set up containing bowls, cups, and bags filled with native plant seeds. I spotted a box with little brown envelopes and another with tiny pencils. Some people were pouring small amounts of seeds into envelopes and writing on them.

We did not have any seeds to share so we were standing there not sure what to do when Marti approached me. Marti, the seed exchange organizer, assured me that it was not necessary to bring seeds to participate and she encouraged us to select some seeds to try growing for our yard.

Approaching one of the tables, I realized that we might have some difficulty identifying the seeds because the containers were labeled with botanical names. Sigh.

Arroyo Lupine (Lupinus succulentus)Scanning the table, my spouse noticed one that said Lupinus succulentus. Aha, surely that must be a lupine. Every year, I admire the small bluish-purple flowered lupines that grow on the surrounding hillsides and I was excited by the prospect of growing some myself.

We asked someone and learned that yes, the seeds were Arroyo lupine. We carefully put some seeds in an envelope and labeled it.

Moving on, I found Marti’s seed stash. I was pleased to see that she had attached pictures to her seed packets and included their common names. I recognized the photo of the tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) a lovely white-rimmed yellow wildflower that grows by the thousands on the Carrizo Plain during the spring. We carefully poured some itty-bitty seeds into another envelope.

With help, we identified three more species of seeds to try including California buckwheat, coffeeberry, and purple needlegrass.

Growing Native Plants from Seeds

You can sow native plants seeds directly in the soil. However, I could not imagine how I would ever identify seedlings from the seeds I got at the seed exchange among the thousands of other seedlings that appear in our yard each spring. I decided to use pots that I had saved from previous native plant purchases. My spouse made plant markers for me using materials left over from another project.

Why I waited until January to sow the seeds remains a mystery. I placed the pots on the deck outside of our dining room so I would remember to water them periodically.

After weeks and weeks of checking the pots every few days and watering them when they seemed dry, nothing was going on (at least that I could see).

2 Arroyo Lupine, 1 California Buckwheat, 0 Coffeeberry Seedlings Grown from Seeds
Arroyo Lupine and California Buckwheat seedlings that I grew with seeds from the California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo chapter seed exchange in 2017. The Coffeeberry did not germinate.

The day I spotted the first tiny lupine seedling poking its head through the soil, I was almost giddy with excitement. Other seedlings soon joined it. Watching the plants grow, develop buds, and then unfurl their flowers was fascinating.

There is something magical about growing a native plant with your own two hands. Perhaps it is because it connects us to a time when people lived in harmony with the rest of nature.

Collecting the seeds proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated.

Lupine seeds grow in pods that turn from green to brown as they ripen and then the pods burst open flinging their seeds away from the plant. The trick was to harvest the pods before that happened (I was mostly successful). The tiny tidy tips seeds were hard to discern from dead flower bits.

Only one of the California buckwheat seeds germinated. It grew into a small plant that seemed ready to graduate to the yard this fall. I am not sure how deer feel about eating buckwheat so I was nervous about planting it in the yard. In the end, I planted the buckwheat in a small fenced-in section of our yard (a former owner had a dog).

California Buckwheat Plant I Grew from a Seed Planted in the Yard
This small California Buckwheat is the first native plant that I grew from a seed and then planted in my yard.

Expanding My Native Plant Horizons

Last summer, I did some research and made a list of native plants that might like our yard meaning they are drought and deer resistant.

When the California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo chapter newsletter arrived in my email inbox in September, I was pleased to see that Marti was again orchestrating a seed exchange for the October meeting.

That night when I saw Marti, I thanked her for organizing the seed exchanges and told her how much fun I had growing native plants from seeds. Maybe someday I will have some seeds of my own to share.

This time I knew what to do. I have learned a few botanical names but I am still baffled by most of them. Fortunately, Marti had included photos with her seed packets again and several people were helpful in deciphering labels. I selected seeds for several of the species on my list.

Native Plant Seed Packets, Plant Markers, and Seed Propagation Book
Getting ready to plant my first five pots with native plant seeds from the 2018 California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo chapter seed exchange.

I am committed to getting my seeds planted before the rainy season (I hope we have one). So far, I have planted the first five pots and labeled them by washing off the markers from last year and writing new names on them. This year I am planting some seeds in my yard and marking their locations. I want to find out if I can recognize the seedlings and to observe how they fare in the wild.

Growing your own native plants from seeds is fun and rewarding but it does take time and attention. If you do not want to wait for seeds to grow, then purchase established plants. You can still have fun watching them grow and enjoy observing the bees, butterflies, birds and other critters they will attract to your yard.

Do not assume that plants on display in the front of your local nursery or home improvement store garden section are native to your area. In my experience, the native plants are usually stuck in the back somewhere so ask for them. Search on the Internet for native plant nurseries that sell to the public or have certain days when they are open to the public. Keep an eye out for notices about native plant society and botanical garden plant sales.

Good luck with your native plants. I can hear Earth smiling.

Reader Note: Most of the resource links and books below relate to California native plants. To find resources for other states type “native plants and your state” in your Internet search window.

Featured Image at Top: 8-Month Old California Buckwheat that I Grew from a Seed.

Related Posts

Resources

Books

  • Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California – by Jan Timbrook, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 2007
  • Gardening with a Wild Heart: Restoring California’s Native Landscapes at Home – by Judith Larner Lowry, University of California Press, 1999 (read my Goodreads book review)
  • Growing California Native Plants: Second Edition – by Marjorie G. Schmidt and Katherine L. Greenberg, University of California Press, 2012
  • Native Treasures: Gardening with the Plants of California – by M. Nevin Smith, University of California Press, 2006
  • Reimagining the California Lawn – by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien, Cachuma Press, 2011
  • Seed Propagation of Native California Plants – by Dara E. Emery, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, 1988
  • Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources – by M. Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2005 (read my Goodreads book review)