A Native Garden Designed for Pollinators
Bring on the pollinators! Six years of gardening in this space and we FINALLY got around to this empty patch of grass in our backyard. For the last few years I’ve been interested in CA native plants, so when the opportunity came to create a new garden space in our backyard, I knew it would be a native plant garden designed for pollinators and wildlife!
The benefits of growing plants native to your area
Remember how I’m always saying that growing plants that love your climate is one of the keys to a successful, low-maintenance garden? Well, native plants are just one step beyond that! In California, the native plants we can choose from are adapted to our smaller amounts of rainfall, our temperatures, and will attract spectacular wildlife that is desperately in need of familiar plants and ecosystems.
There are MANY reasons to grow native plants but, in a California urban area specifically, it is even more important to create these homes and habitats where we can. I plan to photograph and publish my entire plant list soon here on the blog (update: it’s HERE), but first, this article covers the site preparation and materials used to design our native pollinator garden. Remember, you can always leave your questions or comments below!
Let’s start this CA native pollinator garden!
You guys, if you’ve been following our home garden journey, you might be well aware that I work in chunks. I’m just not one of those people that can transform a whole space in one shot. I know this style of renovation is not for everyone but it is better for our budget. Furthermore, designing little spaces at a time helps me make decisions based on how I use and live in a space.
Let me present….our Before and After:
You can see we started with just grass off of a DG (decomposed granite) area in the back of our home. When we originally moved in, we always envisioned that we would one day add on to our small home….but now we know that’s not in the plans, so we are free to design and create off the back of our home. To see a photo of how our backyard looked when we first moved in, you can see it on the About Me page.
Defining The Space & Layout for Your Garden
To try and determine the shape and size of our project, we started with a rope to lay out a general shape. However, you can also use a garden hose or anything you’d like too! Once we were pretty sure we nailed it, Sam took landscape paint and drew the lines more permanently. Again, I wasn’t ready to remove all the grass in the yard yet because I have to work in chunks. One day I do envision some sort of native grass installation, or maybe just this grass path stays. Besides, we rarely have to take care of the grass anyway, and I use grass clippings to dry for mulch or in compost (we never treat our grass with chemicals).
Supplies for our diy ca native plant garden:
Metal garden edging (one set comes with 4 stakes)
Extra edging stakes *if needed
Scrap wood board for hammering
Various rocks (large, medium, small) *we used what we had already and also found a few at local landscape rock stores.
Smaller river rocks or pebbles for added texture or décor
Flagstone or stepping stones (we used a mix of flagstone and stepping stones)
DG (decomposed granite for amending) & your native soil
Optional: post hole digger
Optional: box cutter
Optional: wheel barrow
Irrigation and watering is vital to plant survival, so I wanted to address why I am not using any irrigation system in the design for this new native pollinator garden. Since all the plants for this garden will be native to my area (California), they are used to surviving on mostly rainfall. Now, in the beginning I’ll have to water by hand to help them establish, but eventually they will only need very infrequent hand watering. If you’d like to read how we water all of our garden areas, I share our watering and irrigation methods HERE.
Remove the grass!
For an area this small we simply used a shovel with a flat edge to remove the grass. When we did larger areas of the backyard we rented a sod cutter from Home Depot to cut the grass and roll it up to take away. In contrast, some garden methods advocate not removing grass and simply covering with cardboard, but our mild climate and invasive grass makes this close to impossible. Our grass is relentless and has been a beast to tackle all around the yard.
Another factor in our decisions was time. We were running out of time as CA native plants do not like being transplanted in the heat of Summer.
Level the Entire Garden Area
A level garden area is important for proper drainage. In this instance, we also needed to keep in mind the depth of pea gravel we planned to add in the end. In other words, the soil should be at the right level so that adding our gravel brings us to the same or exisiting height of our current landscape. In this case, we determined that we wanted to have enough depth to add at least 3-4 inches of pea gravel. This depth allows us to set flagstone in the gravel or stepping stones too which will add to the design of this native pollinator garden.
To continue, scoop away the excess native dirt with your shovel to the proper level and keep it! We will use this dirt later to amend and plant our CA native plants!
Lay out Landscape fabric
The particular fabric we use is extremely heavy duty and you can buy it HERE. Like I said before, our grass is extremely invasive so we had to take extra precautions in the design of this native pollinator garden.
Firstly, we took our fabric and rolled it along the areas that are the edges of our native garden area. Make sure it hangs over the edges of your area slightly. We laythe fabric over the edges because we want the fabric to be held down by our metal garden edging (which I’ll show you how to install next)! Overall, we decided this was a better approach to ensure good coverage, but will cut the excess fabric at the end of the project.
You only need to lay the edge pieces of fabric right now, so leave the rest for later.
How to Install and Lay Metal Garden Edging
You might see in the photos that we have the grass edge on one side of our new garden and the other side actually has brick edging from years ago. We opted to keep the brick edging and only install metal garden edging on the one side of the plot. We wanted to use garden edging to create a clean line, and something that Sam could easily mow or cut against.
Most importantly, our plan was to have the landscape fabric sitting under the edging but NOT under the cardboard. In other words the cardboard stops at the edging, while the fabric curves under the edging so there are zero gaps for grass to grow through.
Let’s install the edging for our CA native pollinator garden!
Fun fact: the metal garden edging we bought comes with 4 stakes attached. If you look at the product photos from Home Depot, you’ll see them attached like a perforated object. I didn’t know this (but Sam did). Haha.
First, let’s start by laying out the garden edging. Our native pollinator garden is designed with a slight curve,so we worked together to hold the edging in place during this process. Sam started by hammering in the stakes enough to hold it down firmly over the landscape fabric and keep the shape we wanted.
Second, after having all the edging and stakes placed, it’s time to drive the edging down to the proper level—this can be more tricky. We used a heavy hammer and a scrap 2×4 piece of wood to drive the edging into the ground (see photo below). Place the wood on the top of the edging and hit it with the hammer. Most importantly, make sure your fingers are out of the way! Using the scrap wood prevents denting and allows you to more evenly distribute the force of the hammer. Work slowly and try to hammer it down evenly by moving down the length of the edging and back. Pro Tip: if the edging is moving slowly you can add a little water to the ground around it. It doesn’t take much water to soften the soil, but can make a huge difference.
Keep hammering until the edging is at the height that you want. For us, this meant being even with the height of our existing grass and landscape.
Cover the whole area with cardboard
We have really invasive grass. You might remember that I did a poll on Instagram about using landscape fabric with cardboard, and the majority of you voted to use both (I agree!).
Because cardboard will eventually decompose, I wanted the cardboard laying under the fabric. This means we folded back the landscape fabric that was being held under the edging, and just slipped some cardboard under that.
Next, cover the entire area with cardboard. Make sure you are using plain cardboard with no tape, staples, labels, or glossy print. Cut it into the proper shapes necessary.
Finish Laying out your landscape fabric & Trim to Fit
Now, we can lay our fabric in the middle to cover the rest of our space. Use landscape staples to secure the fabric, but use them sparingly. I don’t like tons of staples everywhere and it will eventually be weighed down with gravel and rock anyway.
Next, go around the edges of your space and trim any excess landscape fabric hanging out past the metal garden edging. It’s easy to do this carefully with a box cutter.
Add your native pollinator plants!
Why do we create planting “beds” first before filling in the gravel pathways? Because you want your plants to have access to the soil and not sit on top of gravel. Since these plant beds will not be filled with rocks or gravel (but rather soil and plants) we designated the planting areas first and then filled in the negative space around them with gravel, hardscape, and decoration. I opted to created a garden area with varying heights which meant some DIY planters made from larger rocks/boulders, etc. mixed with low garden areas. See photos of our CA native pollinator garden design below.
Here’s how I made the taller rock/boulder “planters”:
Start by laying rocks in the pattern or shape you desire. I like the look of a rock wall/planter that kind of cascades down to ground level. To create this look I started by assembling my tallest side. I took my largest, more flat rocks and used them as a base for my wall. Stack more rocks securely. Gradually pack your native soil against it as you go like you are “filling” the planter and be sure to add more rocks around all the edges to the height you want. Since I like the cascading look, I only have one layer of rocks lined on one side, opposite my stacked “wall” of rocks. *SEE MY NOTE BELOW on cutting the fabric for plants.
Important: this is purely an aesthetic/artistic rock planter, not meant to be built extremely tall or support sitting. We aren’t building anything meant to hold weight, or for people to climb on—-something of that magnitude would need some masonry skills and supplies.
Allowing for future root growth
This step is important because it is necessary to give your plants root space. In the garden spaces you’ve built, you need to score the fabric or cut holes in the fabric and cardboard for the plants to be planted/inserted. What you need to cut will depend on the soil depth of each area. For example, in my tall and deep rock planter, we simply cut the fabric and folded it back but left the cardboard intact because it is deep enough to accomodate the plant roots as they are now. This way, the cardboard will decompose anyway, but the fabric won’t block the plant roots from growing deep over the years.
In my ground level garden area, I simply used a post hole digger to chop out a circle in the fabric and cardboard to plant my plants. In other words, I had to access the soil below the fabric and cardboard now in order to transplant my native plants. Hopefully that makes sense. If not, leave a question below and I’ll do my best to clarify!
Have fun with the design! You can see in the photos I’m sharing here that some of the planters are like rock piles, others have large accent boulders, and some are simply ground level planting areas with a rock border. Mix it up! The different textures and shapes will create visual interest!
Soil notes for your CA native pollinator plants
I go into detail how to amend soil for native plants (hint: you don’t really need to) in Tips for Selecting & Planting CA Native Plants, but I will say that our native soil is extremely clay, so we did mix our fill soil with some amendments before filling. Remember how I said to put aside the native soil you dug out of your space in the first steps? That becomes your fill soil for these garden beds. In general, we mixed in some DG (decomposed granite) and a tiny bit of compost (see photo below) to the native soil in a large wheel barrow.
Additionally, as you add soil to build up a planting area, water it to help gauge the proper soil level because soil compacts over time and as it gets wet. Especially if your soil is dry, once you water it, the level will sink dramatically. Once I created my raised rock bed, I watered the soil to see how the level dropped and then added more soil if necessary.
Add Your CA Native Plants to the Garden!
Finally it’s time to plant your plants! You can do this step now, or add your gravel and decor to the non-planting areas now—-whichever you want. Remember, native plants like our native soil! In fact, most nurseries will tell you not to amend your soil heavily with fertilizer or too much compost because these plants don’t like it. In part 2 of this DIY series I’ll cover my California native plant list, along with how we amended our native soil slightly to make a better home for these types of plants. Update: my tips and plant list are now available.
Make it pretty with gravel, decorative rocks, etc.
Now is the time to fill in the rest of your space. This is simply a process of figuring out what looks good to you. I really liked using some medium sized river rocks to outline the edges of my rock planters to create a pretty transition to the pea gravel. There really are no rules here as you create your dream DIY CA Native plant garden. As an added bonus, some native plants like to crawl on rocks or be surrounded by rocks—so that’s something to consider when planning your DIY native plant garden.
I am obsessed with mulch. Not only does it offer amazing benefits for the garden, but mulch can also can pull a space together by making it look clean and defined. Native plants like mulches of organic matter, but most sources say that the type of mulch to use depends on the native plant. Additionally, most native plants will end up mulching themselves with their leaf litter, which is best for the long term. We chose an all-natural wood chip mulch to start, and plan to let the plants mulch themselves over time.
Lay a layer of mulch over your garden/planting areas and around your plants.
Make it functional and cozy
From the very beginning, I knew this was a space I wanted to be able to sit and watch the wildlife enjoy the California native plants (especially hummingbirds). That’s why I incorporated a wood sitting bench in this design. Living in Southern California, most of our time is spent outdoors—it’s truly extended living space—so I always believe that our gardens can be spaces that are both functional and great for gathering. We are so excited to be able to enjoy cool Summer evenings in this spot! Eventually we will be adding a water feature nearby as well.
Good things to come
Well, I hope this little DIY project inspires you to add some new garden space for our pollinator friends and local wildlife. Part 2 of this series will cover my actual plant list, where I bought my plants, tips for planting CA native plants, and how I decided which plants to choose! UPDATE: part 2 is now available! Read Tips for Planting & Selecting CA Native Plants for Your Garden
I did want to share these amazing resources with you now, as they were vital to my planning process and might help you get started with California native plants. PS: if you don’t live in California, it’s still important to plant native plants, but you’ll have find resources online for your specific area.
♦Tree of Life Nursery’s guide to creating & caring for your native garden
♦ Calscape.org by the CA Native Plant Society