Tips for Selecting & Planting California Native Plants

by | Apr 25, 2021

I’m thrilled to have you join me this year in learning about CA native plants and their importance in building a thriving home for local wildlife. Hopefully, you leave here with some California native garden ideas and inspiration. As a relatively new native plant gardener, I’m sharing the resources and tips I used to create the garden you see above. I’m happy to report that all the plants have been blooming and growing like crazy, so we must have done something right!

Have you read Our Pollinator Project: Creating a DIY Gravel & Rock Garden for CA Native Plants? That article outlines how we created a new area in our backyard specifically to host California native plants for hummingbirds, bees, and more! The nitty gritty of the construction is covered there, but today I’d like to go into the details of how we prepped the soil for our native plants, how I decided which plants to include in the garden, and general information on caring for CA native plants.

When perusing California native garden ideas, it was helpful to have a specific goal or a “mission statement.” For example, “I want to create a native garden specifically for hummingbirds.” Or, “I want to re-create a woodland understory native plant habitat.” In the case of our Pollinator Project, I wanted to select drought-tolerant plants for humminbirds and bees. The other day I spied a hummingbird drinking from monkeyflower (mimulus aurantiacus) and heuchera (alum root) flowers, which was incredible to see because that was the vision from the beginning! Just dreaming about our local birds and wildlife having access to native California flora right in the middle of our urban yard makes me giddy!


This is a perennial lupine plant that has the prettiest grey-green foliage! It is a Silver Bush Lupine (lupinus albifrons)

Update: in early spring of 2023, I worked with the California native plant society to create a CA native shade garden. So, if you’re looking for California native garden ideas for shade, definitely check that out.

Ideas for Incorporating Native Plants In Your Yard

If you’ve been a reader for for quite a while, you’ll know that our backyard is full of edible vegetables, fruit trees, and various pollinator-friendly blooms and edible perennials. Essentially, I dabble in a little  of everything in my backyard, but I do plan to make the front yard mostly native plants for my own sanity and schedule. Once established, native plants are just so low maintenance!

If you’re interested in making your new space an expansion of your local habitats, it’s well worth it to go hiking nearby to get some California native garden ideas and inspiration! For instance, our local area has some incredible coastal sage scrub habitat. Some plants that are popular in coastal sage scrub habitats are monkeyflower, various salvias (especially salvia apiana), common buckwheat, and artemisia. Learning what is near you can help find ideas for your own California native garden.

In addition to considering your specific local plant habitats, there are other things to consider before starting your California native garden that I’m discussing below.

Plant for all seasons & year-round food sources

Here in California, local wildlife is out and about alllll year long. This means that solely having native plants that bloom in one season (say, Summer) will mean that your wildlife friends will have no food sources in harsher seasons like Winter. To begin this project, I reviewed a plant list for pollinators based on season from the Theodore Payne Foundation (go HERE and click on the Native Plants for Hummingbirds pdf). I wrote down some plants from each season to research as possibilities for our garden.

Here are some California native garden ideas (by season)  that are hummingbird friendly:

Spring- aguilegia formosa (western columbine), heuchera, monkey flower (mimulus aurantiacus), salvia clevelandii (winifred gilman)

Summer- gambelia ‘gran canon’, epilobium (california fuschia), monardella, bladderpod

Fall- epilobium (california fuschia), gambelia

Winter-Manzanita (located in other areas of the yard due to location preference and size), ceanothus (also located where it can get really large).

Another consideration, if you are aiming for attracting butterflies, is to include a variety of larval host plants in combination with nectar plants. You can find good information on this topic from Tree of Life Nursery’s helpful pdfs page. I will plan on doing more butterfly specific plants (larval and host) in our front yard, but for our small DIY pollinator area I chose to focus on mostly hummingbird plants. In fact, creating a fully dedicated native butterfly garden would be another great California native garden idea to consider.

Heuchera also known as “alum root” or “coral Bells” is beloved by hummingbirds and prefers shade in hot climates.

Consider Size & Growth Habit

When perusing California native garden ideas, we do need to consider the limitations of our space. There are so many CA native plants that are on my “wishlist” but they grow too big for my space. As you go about researching and selecting your plants, aways look at the mature height/size listed. While you will purchase “small” containers of plants, you want to account for their natural size as they grow. When planning our DIY Pollinator Area, I knew we had room for mostly small plants, between 1-2′ tall and wide only. The area behind the bench could accomodate two or three bushes of a slightly larger size (3-4′) with some pruning.

I learned that creating a visually appealing space also means choosing plants with different growth habits. Some plants sprawl or crawl over the ground, some mound, and some grow into upright bushes. Take a look at your space and try to imagine the different shapes, sizes, and growth habits that will work.

PS: I couldn’t resist buying two manzanitas for my yard. While there are sprawling varieties of manzanita, I decided to buy two tree varieties and place them in other areas of my yard. I also purchased a large ceanothus bush (also known as California lilac) and placed it along a fence in the backyard. Both of these plant types were too large for my bench area, but will provide shelter for birds and food sources in the cooler months.

Choose a mix of foliage textures & colors for interest

I specifically sought out plants with different textures—some feathery, some succulent, some wider and flat—to help make the garden appear more wild and cottage-like. For example, the variety of epilobium (CA fuschia) I chose is feathery. I planted it near a ‘gran canon’ gambelia with stick-straight succulent branches and my ‘winnifred gilman’ salvia which has sage-shaped leaves. All three plants also are slightly different in color. One is brighter green, one is very silvery, and the other is a mix of both. This is what makes gardening fun and like art!

These are some of the plants we brought home. You can see that they were not in bloom yet, but all the different textures were still beautiful!


What is the natural environment for each plant?

When planting my first pollinator garden, I made some mistakes. In truth, it wasn’t as habitat-specific as I would have liked in hindsight. So, when considering California native garden ideas, really try and consider habitats. Where in CA does each plant reside? Sandy dunes? Woodlands? Coastal sage scrub? What’s funny is how I did not think of this when I first started this project….I simply thought that any California native plant would thrive here. Obviously, once I took the time to really consider it, this all made sense. California is an immensely huge and diverse state (one of the reasons I love it), so knowing that a plant is native to California does not mean that it would thrive in your specific area necessarily. For more information on gardening zones and how your climate affects your garden, make sure to read What is Your Gardening Zone?

Some plants are native to the California coastal areas—for example, my California beach evening primrose (camissioniopsis cheiranthifolia) is usually found on sandy slopes in coastal regions—which means that the area I choose to plant it would ideally be a sandy soil. I chose to make it a sprawling plant at the bottom of one of my DIY rock beds so it was similar to a dune. The primrose is now blooming and it’s gorgeous! Pictured below.

Annual, Perennials, and Evergreens?

For interest all year, you need to consider if the plant you are selecting is an annual, perennial, or evergreen? FYI, I summarize a similar breakdown in my FREE Herb Growing Guide PDF (subscribe to download). Annuals will be short-lived, and you will have to depend on self-seeding or re-seeding each year. For example, the CA poppy is the most common annual that will readily self-seed but only blooms in Spring and will be barren the rest of the year. Manzanitas are considered evergreen shrubs/trees, so they will provide some visual interest year-round. Meanwhile, the CA native milkweed is a perennial that will be completely dead in Winter, but come back every year in Spring. Perennials are similar to annuals in that they are only “alive” for part of the year, but the main difference is that perennials grow back from their roots each year, whereas annuals depend on their dropped seeds to sprout (or else you must physically replace them each year).

Beach evening primrose (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia) loves dunes and sandy soil. It is thriving in our garden!

One of the most valuable informational resources for understanding the CA native plant preferences was from the California Native Plant Society. This website allows you to search each plant and see a full review of it’s habits, stats, and preferences. You can also choose to look up plants according to your zipcode or area. Super helpful!

Sun exposure note: Many CA native plant sources will differentiate plant preferences based on coastal versus inland areas. Because I’m located more inland in Orange County, our Summers get into the triple digits and I follow the guidelines for inland planting. This means many of my plants will prefer partial shade over full sun, whereas they might tolerate full sun exposure in coastal areas. 

How to Amend Soil for CA Native Plants

This isn’t a “one size fits all” topic, but in general native plants actually prefer soils that are NOT nutrient heavy. Yep, this means don’t add fertilizer! Don’t heavily till! Most sources will say not to amend at all! 

Here’s what we did:

Our soil was drying into rock hard clay and when I moistened it. I noticed the drainage was terrible. I had asked an employee at a local nursery about it and they did say that, to help with drainage, I could add some decomposed granite (DG) into the soil mix. There wasn’t an exact formula, but we used a large wheelbarrow to take our native soil (that we saved from our demo/grass removal process) to mix with DG and a slight bit of compost for organic matter. Sam thinks he did about 1 shovel of DG for 3 shovels of soil, but we just went for it without measuring. Again, native plants thrive in nutrient-poor soils, so don’t overdo it.

Update: Since planting, all of our plants are flourishing and have grown so much. So, while I’m not an expert, we must have done something right! We did have one plant that seemed to be overwatered at one point (the bladderpod) but Sam actually dug it up, added more DG to the fill soil and now it seems to be draining and loving life!

This was our slightly amended native soil for our new plants. It is working out extremely well! It is simply native soil, a little bit of DG for drainage and a little compost for organic matter.

How to Transplant CA Native Plants

As with all my transplants, I make sure they are slightly watered the day before planting. Bone dry soil just makes transplanting more shocking and the plants can be more difficult to handle.

There are some differences in the method of transplanting native plants versus transplanting vegetables. First, to help with drainage, it’s actually recommended to dig a hole that is bigger than the pot in diameter, but not as deep as the pot. You want to place your new plants in the planting hole with about 1/2″ remaining above the soil level. This allows you to make a slight mound with your fill soil so water will flow away from the trunk of your plants.

Second, don’t “tease” or disturb the roots of your new plants before placing in the planting hole. Growing up, my mom always taught me to gently tickle the roots of flower and vegetable transplants to encourage the roots to spread, but this is not recommended for CA native plants. Just place them in the planting hole!

Gently firm the soil around the plant.

Water thoroughly.

When is the ideal time to plant CA native plants in the ground?

Like many perennials in Southern California, Fall is an ideal time to plant! It is warm enough that the plants have time to establish before the dormant season, but not too hot as it is typically scorching in Summer. We personally planted our newest CA native plants at the end of February. Thankfully it has been cool enough to help them establish, and they have grown quite a bit!

California poppies are easy to grow from seed. Simply scatter the seeds into the garden in Fall and let the rains do the rest!

Watering Tips for Native Plants

For the first 1-3 years, you’ll have to water more liberally to make sure they establish well. Once established, native plants can mostly survive simply off natural rainfall (if you’ve selected the appropriate plants for your area of course). In my DIY Pollinator Garden article, I mentioned that we chose to forego installing irrigation because I don’t mind watering by hand for now. If you are looking for a basic Watering & Irrigation Guide, I’ve written up the types of irrigation we use in different areas of our garden. Hand watering is what I’ve chosen to do for my native plants with hopes that they will soon only need rain or rare supplemental help.

For now, I water a little with a hose, check the drainage, and repeat. How much to water really depends on 1) the temperature 2) the consistency of your soil. The Theodore Payne Foundation says it best: “native plants prefer deep and infrequent water. One 30-minute soak every 7-10 days is better than 10 minutes three times a week. How often you water depends on your soil type, sun exposure and the weather, as well as the age of the plant.” Personally, I use the finger test (simply digging my finger into the soil) to see if the top few inches are moist. When that layer starts to dry out, I water.

Water the soil, not the foliage or the trunks of your plants. While plants love rainfall, wetting their stems and leaves more often can make them more susceptible to disease.

Blue Eyed Grass adds that blue color that is so often treasured in the garden. I love the dainty blue flowers!


Have you read Let’s Talk Mulch! Mulching a Backyard Vegetable Garden? It’s no secret that I love using mulch and you can get all my tips for how I source organic and and natural mulch to use in my garden. For native plants, I mostly use wood or leaf mulch, but our DIY pollinator garden also utilizes some pebbles and gravel to help retain moisture. Hepful hint: I always water my newly planted plants first, and then mulch. This helps to soak the area entirely before applying the mulch (which will help retain moisture).

Where to Source California Native Plants?

Sam and I had so much fun visiting nurseries to select our plants. Oddly, we don’t live super close to any native plant nurseries, so each one was about 40 minutes-1 hour from where we live. Before going, I did call to check inventory and we made a fun day of it! PS: none of these suggestions are sponsored!

The Theodore Payne Foundation – Such a beautiful place to buy plants. They also have a small indoor garden “shed” where they sell various wildflower seeds too. It’s great to visit and see all the native plants growing throughout the property (that is actually what inspired us to purchase manzanita trees).

Tree of Life Nursery – The employees here know their stuff, and they introduced me to some plants I never would have considered from just my online research. This nursery is tucked away off the Ortega 74 Hwy and also has some display areas to offer inspiration!

Annies Annuals & Perennials – Some of my plants were not available at either nursery (like the specific ceanothus I wanted), and so I turned to a favorite online nursery, Annies Annuals. It’s actually been a wish of mine to visit them in-person because their nursery is open to the public and looks so gorgeous! I’ve been a customer of theirs for years and, while they don’t specialize in solely CA native plants, they do offer a fantastic selection.

Those are the three main places I sourced my plants, but I know there are others! Furthermore, visiting these nurseries is such a great way to see California native garden ideas in-person. For instance, Tree of Life and Theodore Payne has gorgeous display gardens to walk through. Feel free to leave your favorite sources below too if you want to share!

This is a beautiful CA native called “california fivespot” or “nemophila maculata”

My Plant List

Want to take a guess of how many CA native plants we have? We have around 30! Honestly, the front yard landscape is not finished (boy, has that been a never-ending project!), so that number will increase over the next couple years. The plan is for the whole front yard to be mostly CA native plants.

*before buying any plant always research the possible toxicity for dogs, cats, children, livestock, etc. Even if a plant is native to your area, that doesn’t mean it isn’t poisonous.

In the DIY Pollinator Sitting Garden:

Monkey Flower (mimulus aurantiacus)- both a red and gold variety

Willowy monardella (monardella linoides)

Beach evening primrose (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia)

Salvia Clevelandii ‘winnifred gilman’

CA Poppy, Eschscholzia californica (sown in Fall)

Clarkia Unguiculata

Sky Lupine (lupinus nanus)

Coast wallflower (erysimum concinnum)

Bladderpod (Peritoma arborea)

‘Gran canon’ Baja bush snapdragon (gambelia juncea)

Fivespot (Nemophila maculata)

Blue eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)

California Fuschia (epilobium)

Heuchera ‘susanna’ and ‘old la rochette’

Monardella macrantha

In other areas of our garden:

Western columbine (Aguilegia formosa)

Hummingbird sage (salvia spathacae)

Yarrow (achillea millefolium) *there are other yarrow colors you can grow, see HERE.

Golden Yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum)

Narrowleaf Milkweed (asclepias fascicularis)

California lilac (ceanothus)


Silver Lupine (lupinus albifrons)

Buckwheat (2 types)

Penstemon (not sure of the exact type)

Scarlet Bugler (Penstemon centranthifolius)

Calamagrostis Foliosa

Island snapdragon (Gambelia speciosa)

Ready to immerse yourself in the beauty of CA native plants?

I hope you enjoyed these California native garden ideas and tips! If there is something in particular you’d like to learn or see about CA native plants? Let me know! I plan to write more about our plantings and hopefully learn about edible plants that are native to California as well!

Meet Randi

Urban gardening is my jam. I’m Randi, California girl who obsessively gardens to grow food and flowers around my urban home. Seasonal, simple living is what inspires me~ I hope it will inspire you too. Join me in crafting a life and home connected to the garden Read More>>>>

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