By Deborah Nicolls
El Dorado County Master Gardener
If you are thinking about putting in new landscaping or just enhancing your existing yard, why not consider native plants? There are native plants for every situation in your garden. There are plants that do well in shade, many that do well in full sun and others that actually do great under the always challenging oak trees. Natives come as trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, ferns, succulents and even exotics such as carnivorous plants. The key to success is to know the cultural requirements of each plant and to put the right plant in the right place. The following website is a tool that may help you find a native for your particular situation: mynativeplants.com/site.
When you go to the nursery pay attention to the pot label, because it should tell you what the water requirements of the plant are, how large it will get, whether it needs full sun or part shade and whether or not the plant is frost tender. Your new plant should play well with the others already in your garden if you select the right plant for the right conditions and group plants with similar requirements together.
Many natives are used in poor soil conditions with poor nutrition. When planted, they usually don’t need enhanced soil such as fertilizers or special soils; just back fill with the original soil. Compost in the top layer of soil will benefit those plants that need a richer environment. Unless you have chosen native desert dwellers, a good thick layer of mulch to retain moisture would be good but keep away it from the trunk of the plant. Even if a native is drought tolerant, the root ball will need water until the plants are established, which may take several years.
Native shrubs need minimal pruning — just enough to shape them up early in the summer (after they have bloomed), which helps reduce their water requirements. Natives need little or no applications of fertilizer and generally are pest resistant. Once the plants are established, if the plant label or a good reference book (such as Sunset’s “Western Garden”) says withhold water or only water deeply several times a month follow those instructions. Much of the bad luck people have had with natives in the past can be put down to overwatering. In the summer, overwatering encourages fungus and rots the roots, weakening the plants and encourages pests. These plants are used to getting most of their water from nature in the winter, when we get most of our rain. They go dormant in the summer and so require drier conditions.
Many of our native plants come from the part of California that has a Mediterranean climate: wet, mild winters and hot dry summers. This means they can be merged in with other Mediterranean plants, such as rosemary, lavender or plants from Australia or South Africa. If you are nervous about completely “going native,” you can start with just a few native plants mixed in with your other Mediterranean-type plants. The following website has the “Native Respecifier” which you can use to find substitute for those plants commonly grown in a garden: californianativeplants.com/index.php/plants/planning_tools/plant-respecifier.
And know when you plant natives that you are doing a good thing for our environment. If you selected drought tolerant plants you will be conserving water, saving money and the resources needed to create and ship fertilizers and other nutrients. You’ll also reduce your own garden-related work load, and you are also aiding our native bees and beneficial insects and other creatures by providing a more inviting environment for them.
Master Gardeners are available at local farmers markets and in their office to answer home gardening questions Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon, by calling (530) 621-5512. Walk-ins are welcome at the office, 311 Fair Lane in Placerville. For more information about public education classes and activities go to our Master Gardener website at ucanr.edu/sites/EDC_Master_Gardeners. Sign up to receive our online notices and e-newsletter at ucanr.edu/mgenews/. You can also find Master Gardeners on Facebook.
Plan to come to the annual Master Gardener Fall Plant Sale on Saturday, Sept. 28, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Veterans Memorial Building parking lot, 130 Placerville Drive, Placerville. Cool-season veggies, perennial plants and more will be available for purchase. All plants are tenderly raised by El Dorado County Master Gardeners and are suited for our foothill climates. Master Gardeners will be on hand offering gardening information and advice.