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5 Tips for Designing California Native Gardens

Thursday July 21, 2011

"The good news is there’s no single right way to design a California native garden." 

Whether you would like to dabble with a few plants here and there or have a regionally appropriate all-native garden, you may experiment as freely as you wish.  And with hundreds of varieties of native plants to choose from and a limitless number of unique sites, how could there be single a right way?

But with that said, a poorly designed native garden will fail faster than you can say “Lyonothamnus floribunus asplenifolius” (that’s Catalina Ironwood for the non-Latin folks).  Without proper research or forethought, one can unwittingly mix riparian plants with desert plants, underestimate plant size and place too closely together, or select the wrong plant for a given spot in the garden.  So in an effort to foster the creation of more beautiful, successful native gardens throughout California’s cultivated landscape, here are five tips we believe are the most often over-looked by beginners:

1)  Visit Mature Native Gardens: 

meadow in spring of santa barbara botanic garden

Whether you participate in garden tours or visit online landscape photo sharing websites, you should understand what a mature California native garden looks like.  Often, home gardeners excitedly plant a hodgepodge of natives only to realize they don’t like how they look during certain seasons or at maturity.  This can easily, and enjoyably, be avoided with a little time and thought.  Take note of attractive plant groupings, note characteristics you enjoy or dislike, and write down plant names as they are easily forgotten when you are back at home. For a list of Arboretums and Botanical Gardens in the state, click here.

2)  Build an Inspiration Palette:  

Visualizing a mature garden when looking at a blank slate is a difficult task that even some experienced designers have a difficult time doing.  As an aid, try creating an Inspiration Palette.  Don’t worry, this doesn’t require compasses, measuring tapes, or rulers!  Simply find images of plants, flowers, inspiring California landscape ideas, and other landscaping photos from magazines, books, or online resources.  Once collected, print them out and paste them on a large board leaving some white space.  In the white space, make notes, draw lines between certain complimentary plants, and use this as a way to imagine your garden more realistically.  Some websites, such as ours, allow you to easily build Inspiration Palettes with the unique landscape design tool, the Palette Builder.

3)  Think Bones First, Infill Second: 

A common mistake when designing any garden, native or otherwise, is impulsively choosing colorful perennials and annuals first and the long-term structural shrubs and trees last.  A good rule of thumb, as all landscape design guides will tell you, is to first consider where you need screening, filler, shade, or a backdrop for your new garden.  Only afterwards, consider which plants will provide interest through foliage, texture, and color.  The long-term “bones” of the garden will set the tone and will remain as constants throughout the seasons.  Even as spring color fades, these workhorses will unite the space and provide needed structure.

4)  Admit You Are No Expert and Ask for Help:

business directory screenshotAs an inexperienced home gardener, you must recognize your limited understanding of landscape design.  After you have done all your research, created an Inspiration Palette, and sat on the idea for a while, call one of the many California Landscape Professionals for a consultation.  An hour or two spent with a pro will pay dividends in the long-run.  These experts in sustainable garden design and mediterranean landscaping can critically analyze sites and rudimentary plans to point out potential issues before they are in the ground.

5)  Think Big, Start Small: 

During the design process, allow the project size to grow.  Utilize your energy and focus your efforts on a design of a master Plan for your whole property, rather than just a planter or side garden.  Having an overall vision unifies your garden, creates meaning, and enhances flow.  Once your plan is in place, chip away at the pieces bit by bit to build experience and courage!

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