Garden Designers Roundtable: Designing with Natives

The natives are coming, the natives are coming!    Each passing year brings more and more native plants to our California nurseries, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

In response to this growing demand, even the smallest nursery these days seems to have a section dedicated to native plants.

However, there are some clients who are still a little hesitant whenever I suggest using a native plant for fear their garden will begin taking on an different aesthetic, look ‘too messy’, ‘too grassy’ or ‘dead in the summer’.

While it’s true that some native plants go dormant in the summer (after all, it’s their natural defense against our wicked combo of hot sun and no water), is that really such a bad thing?  Shades of gold are beautiful in the garden.

Of course, no one wants an entire garden that goes dormant in the summer, but who says it has to?  There are plenty of native plants that are evergreen and/or bloom in the summer adding many seasons of interest.   And with careful plant selection you can find the perfect plant that will blend in with whatever style garden you desire.  Here’s a few examples:

Cottage Garden

For a cottage style garden, filled with prolific flowers in a riot of color, consider including one of our native Buckwheats (Eriogonum).  One of my favorites is the the ‘Red Buckwheat’ (Eriogonum grande rubescens) with its ruby-red flowers bringing in every butterfly in town.  It’s demure height of 1 x 3 makes it ideal for the front of the border.  Oh, and did I mention it thrives on neglect and is deer resistant – perfect!Another favorite among hummingbirds, Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), is a large shrub that remains semi-evergreen in our mild climate.  The whorls of lavender flowers bloom spring through fall, and sometimes even in the winter.  Brushing by this plant’s delightfully scented, silvery foliage emits a powerful ‘hiking in the hills’ smell, too.  Yum.Tired of hybrid penstemons overcrowding your garden beds?  I rarely plant those giants any more, preferring instead to use our native Foothill penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus’Blue Springs’).  The iridescent light blue/pale lavender color combination and it’s tidy size (2×2) means it’ll fit into any size garden, providing months and months of blooms.


Prefer a contemporary vibe in your garden?  Consider the sleek vertical lines of the California gray rush (Juncus patens).  With tough and wiry gray-green stems, this plant provides year-round vertical interest and is especially attractive planted in narrow spaces.

Mass plantings in drifts, emphasizing blocks of color and form, are another common trait of contemporary gardens.

For weeks and weeks of color,  consider using one of our many native alum roots (Heuchera).  Two of my favorite are Heuchera ‘Wendy’, with its pink blooms in the summer, or Heuchera maxima with its spring blooming white flowers.  Both are tough as nails, yet when the tall and airy wands of flowers appear, they add an ethereal quality to the garden.


Mixing native plants into a Mediterranean garden is one of the easiest to do, as this combination is a match made in Heaven.  Not only do the typical hot and spicy colors of a Mediterranean garden perfectly complement many of the colors of our native plants, but their watering requirements are very similar.

If your existing garden is filled with non-native Lion’s Tails, Phlomis and Phormiums, consider mixing in a few natives with similar colors; such as the fall blooming Helianthus angustifolius ‘Mellow Yellow’, or the fiery red California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica).

To help temper all of these hot colors, mix in one of our native ceanothus shrubs.  Ranging in colors from white all the way to deep purple, these evergreen shrubs are one of the first to bloom in the garden.  The deep blue varieties are my favorite, not only causing people to stop in their tracks but they’re a vital source of pollen for many insects.
Need more convincing? Natives are a vital source of food for local wildlife.   No matter where you live, urban sprawl is a real concern as it slowly displaces natural habitats.  Planting natives in your garden is one way you can help provide essential food and shelter for this displaced wildlife.

Months of colorful blooms, less water usage, increased wildlife to your garden – what’s not to love about natives?

I know many of my readers live in California, so I’m wondering – what are your favorite natives to use in the garden?And if you’d like to see one of my favorite California native gardens, please visit the garden of half of the writing team Town Mouse and Country Mouse .

To learn more about designing with natives, please take a moment to read the thoughts of the other members of the Garden Design Roundtable:

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT


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  • Wow – thanks for the great ideas! I’m taking advantage of the turf removal program in Los Angeles and looking for ways to combine native plants for an attractive front yard. So many beautiful drought resistant flowering shrubs! Can’t wait!

  • Rebecca I so love your blog! I am trying to grow a Native border Surrounding the interior permacultured food garden(to be done eventually). We had a wonderful Nursery called Napalito Nursery they had Natives as their primary plants and then delved into organic veggies and herbs. Alas they have closed their doors this summer but keep on in spirit through projects throughout our county~~ I had purchased several Natives through them monkey flower, A lovely bright penstemons blue and violet, Rogers Red grape vine, seaside daisy,a buckwheat, lipstick saliva with hummingbird sage. Antonio held a Native Food lecture and we had Jan Timbrook author of Chumash Ethnobotany: and I loved the food Antonio made from our natives as well as the huge knowledge of plants lore from Jan~I am by no means a great designer but hoping to learn more. I have also purchased some lovely Native flowers from ANNIE”s thanks to you and the Growing a Greener world show. …BTW I love the Sunset Garden book I won from your blog! It is fabulous how it is set up. My family is having so much fun making loads of food!

    Somewhere over the rainbow is right here right now!

    • Stacy – I can’t tell you how much your email means to me. Your enthusiasm and positive energy are so contagious, I always love reading your comments! Annie’s is a great source of natives and I use many of them in my designs. In fact, that’s where I bought the Red Buckwheat featured in my post from. I’m also a huge fan of Yerba Buena and Las Pilitas nurseries – great info on their sites as well as native plants to order. And I’m so glad to hear you’re enjoying your Sunset book – isn’t it fantastic? I use it ALL the time myself! Have a beautiful fall – I feel it in the air these days. And the red tinges on my Roger Red grapevine tells me it’s right around the corner! 🙂

  • The way your examples hammer the topic of negative space / mass are so good in elevating designing gardens with natives (and adapteds). So is the importance of small, tight plants and contrasts you show – most times I see xeriscape design, it misses those scale items. Even a jungle is not so poorly articulated as most xeriscapes, and I applaud showing some of your native plants that might not get used enough. They are the height of problem-solving tools and place!

    PS – we love Salvia clevelandii in NM’s z8 landscapes, as it grows without reseeding, plus we have nothing native with that form…I guess more needs to be done here w/ our natives.

    • Hi David – I’m so glad you liked my examples. While I always admire those who can create a garden with negative space throughout it’s always such an effort for me as I’m inclined to cover every speck of soil that shows – ha! Good thing most of my clients like that packed-in look! ‘problem-solving tools’ is right – great way to put it!

  • “Shades of gold are beautiful in the garden.” YES! I wish more folks would come to realize the natural rhythms of nature and their inherent beauty.

    Great post Rebecca! Always such great photos as example in your posts, you have a great eye. Love that Cottage Garden picture, it has all the characteristics, but would never be recognized as one here on the east coast because of the palette. So great to see regional interpretations!

    • Thanks Scott! I think the color gold is particularly a tough-sell out here in CA where it’s possible to have green year-round. But I’m working on it….slowly but surely….

  • Great post…and you’ve made me realize that I need to tear out my boring old Laurel bush and replace it with Ceonothus!

    • Thanks, Scott. But I’ll warn you, the ceanothus is a fairly short-lived plant. While it’s infinitely more beautiful than laurel, it won’t stand the test of time. I have a laurel hedge that’s going on 40 years now whereas I’ve had to replace my beautiful ceanothus twice already. But that’s okay with me – those brilliant blue flowers in the late winter are so, so worth it! 🙂

  • Rebecca, I was going to comment on several points in your beautiful, thoughtful post, but then I saw the picture of the ceanothus and the only thought left in my head was, “I want!” What a beauty. I’ll add that you illustrate so well how natives can be used in different styles of design.

    • Aw Pam, thanks so much! I found that ceanothus/euphorbia combo at The Oregon Garden, where it was shining brightly against the cloudy skies. It was just screaming out ‘take my picture!!!’

  • Hi Rebecca!
    Wonder whether all your sun makes plants flower so much and even stresses them so that they perform.
    In rain blasted uK, and it is raining as I write, there is a lot of lank, lush growth and less flower and def not this pretty zinging landscape that you portray. Our native pallette is really much quieter than this. Quiet can have its charms, but in Uk there is still a lot of demand from clients for COLOUR!
    Thanks and Best

    • Hi Robert – yes, sun we have, and plenty of it! I wish we could trade a little for your rain right about now!

  • Thank you for this post – as a midwesterner, I am not familiar with California native plants. You certainly do have a wonderful palette to choose from.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Jason! That’s the beauty of the Roundtable – the opportunity to learn about plants and design from around the country. I always enjoy reading what the others have to say as undoubtedly I learn something or two about unfamiliar plants.

  • What a perfect time to write about natives. I’m just now plotting what I’m going to tear out and what I’m going to put in as soon as the rains start. And let’s face it, natives prefer to have a nice cool rainy season in the ground before they’re ready for the dry summer.

    Love the photos!

    • So glad you stopped by, Townie, and can’t wait to see what you create next! 🙂

  • Thanks for the link to Townie’s garden, I just realized that a plant I see on my daily walk is actually a native plant, carpenteria (now I know how to find it). Although I am not ready to only have native plants, I have purchased few and they are so pretty. Annie’s annuals in Richmond has so many of them.

    I might be hired by a neighbor to design her garden. While I love the challenge, I am scared to death! Most of her garden is sloped and full of clay, and accessible to deer. This could be my deal breaker to start a career in gardening, either I make it or not…

    Happy Gardening!

    • Hi Laura – I have a carpenteria in my garden and just love it. It does have a few yellow leaves that hang on in the late summer, but I just pull those off and let the green ones shine. A fabulous flower, too. I’m so happy you’re tackling such a project – it’s good to feel a little out of your comfort zone. I know you’ll design something beautiful and look forward to seeing the photos!!!!

  • We definitely share the same test in plants. Beautiful photos as always. I’m a big fan of Red Buckwheat as well, but as you say, it “thrives on neglect” to the point that homeowners often kill it with kindness. Even a little overhead irrigation seems to crush its spirit. I mostly relegate it to slope plantings, but I must admit, your gorgeous cottage garden photo is making me rethink…

    • Thanks, Susan. Why is it no surprise that our brains choose the same plants? I’ve had more Buckwheats crumble under the weight of overhead watering – they’re certainly finicky about irrigation aren’t they? But since they reseed so prolifically, even if one dies, 5 more will take it’s place!

  • I LOVE this post! You demonstrated brilliantly that natives are not a style unto themselves, but adaptable to a wide range of garden styles. Wonderful!

    • Thank you, Thomas, your words mean a lot to me. You’re absolutely right – they don’t have to be a ‘style’, do they? I think it was Pam Pennick who reminded us all that at the end of the day ‘they’re just plants’ and can fit into any garden!


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