Planting California Natives

by Frank Niccoli 

The concept of planting natives is simple. Because most of us are used to planting European plants, we over-complicate natives. We have a tendency to use the same horticultural practices for installing European exotics that we forget some very common cultural practices necessary for planting a native garden. Think of it as common sense for planting natives.

Common Sense Rule #1

Natives and weeds don’t play together very well. They are at the very core of their nature at war with each other. Natives like a fungal soil structure and weeds like a bacterial structure. The dominance of one over the other determines the type of soil. So you need to remove all of the weeds prior to planting natives. And don’t rototill. Tilling brings up the weeds seeds that are in the soil and provides a very good environment for them to grow.

Common Sense Rule #2

Natives do not care for an over abundance of soil amendments. Adding a light amount of compost or organic matter is okay, but the rule that more is better will kill natives. No fertilizer is needed, ever. Fertilizer interferes with the nutrient cycle, an automatic process that nature figured out while we were still walking on our knuckles.

Common Sense Rule #3

Depending on the time of year that you are planting, give the soil a good soaking about a week before you plant. This makes digging easier and wakes up all the beneficial soil organisms.

Common Sense Rule #4

Water your plants while they are in their container before you plant. This will help reduce transplant shock. Dig the hole twice as wide as the container and at the same depth as the soil level in the container. This gives the roots room to spread out, and there is less of a chance of burying the crown. Planting too deep will kill the plant. Adding water to the planting hole before the plant goes in is an excellent practice.

Common Sense Rule #5

Water, water, water. Once the plant is in the ground, you absolutely want to soak it. This gets rid of all the air pockets, solidifies the root to soil contact and gives your plant a great start. Make sure that you watch your plants a for the first couple months, and make sure that they do not dry out. Put your fingers into the soil around the plant, and if it is dry, then water.

Common Sense Rule #6

Your plant needs mulch to survive. Mulch will help your plants during times of low moisture and will also provide a great source of food for the beneficial fungi that your plant needs to survive. Keep the crown free of mulch as this will cause crown rot. While there are many choices for mulch, including chipped material, make sure that you avoid chipped poison oak, eucalyptus, pine, lawn clippings straw or hay. Shredded redwood bark is an excellent choice.