Plant a California Native Shade Garden
Today I want to share a California native plant project, in collaboration with the California Native Plant Society (CNPS). This garden project celebrates plants that thrive in shade and low light conditions! What inspired me to choose a project dedicated to native, shade-loving plants was the fact that I personally know many gardeners that struggle with shade areas in their own gardens. Honestly, I think these areas are perfect candidates for featuring California native plants for shade that will attract pollinators, support local wildlife, save water, and bring luscious colors and textures to the landscape!
This year I am honored to be a Bloom! California ambassador. Bloom! California is a campaign brought to you by CNPS to help more people plant native plants in their garden! If you visit BloomCalifornia.org you’ll find numerous free resources—-from a nursery locator, to sample plant layouts, plant profiles, and more! For example, the California native plant garden I created here is based off a free design template available on the Bloom! California website called the “shady refuge.” As you can see, this free layout features California native plants for shade and low light conditions. There are a myriad of other native garden design templates available as well.
Starting a California Native Garden
Don’t I need a lot of space? I’m here to (hopefully) ease your mind and share a very practical garden makeover that utilizes California native plants for shade. As you can see, our backyard area was much smaller than the proposed design template (and a different shape), so it was essential that I understood the needs and limitations of our space. Truly, you don’t need a huge backyard or acres of property to embrace native plants and help support local wildlife.
The “shady refuge” design was created around a tall focal point (like an oak) and all the understory plants would be native plants that thrive in that shade. Essentially, instead of a huge oak tree providing shade, I realized that the north side of our home created a shaded area for most of the day, so it came down to choosing which understory plants I wanted to include in the garden.
This little area next to the foundation of our home is about 12 feet by 4 feet. You can see our irrigation valves reside here, the hose is strewn about, there’s an air conditioning unit, and obviously this space is kind of an ignored, non-productive area. I’ve literally spent the last several years wracking my brain for ideas so this space could come alive. It’s now a low maintenance, water-wise paradise for pollinators!
The California Native Plant Society has a great breakdown of things to consider before starting your native plant garden, such as scope, cost, wet areas, etc.
California Native Plants for Shade
One very important design tip that I followed was to place plants in larger groups or “swaths” throughout the area to create a very peaceful and textural space. To accomplish this in a small area, I had to really narrow down which native plants I wanted to include. Including one of each plant, or too many varieties, would really make this smaller area look chaotic. Thankfully, I already had some heuchera growing next to the house that was incredibly happy and blooming, so I knew I’d leave those in place and create a grouping of heuchera in our little California native shade garden. Heuchera is beloved by hummingbirds!
For some height and visual appeal, I did want to include a larger shrub towards the back of the garden. Thanks to the shady refuge template, I knew currants would be a good option to consider. Have you ever seen any of the native flowering currants (also known as ribes) growing in real life? They are all incredible, their down-turned trumpet flowers attracting hummingbirds and their glowing currant berries luring local birds to feast.
For this project, I sourced the plants from Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, where they had two different flowering-currants available for purchase: ribes speciosum (a red flowered variety) and ribes aureum gracillimum (with yellow flowers). Luckily, I was able to see both in full bloom in their display gardens and felt that the yellow would be a better choice for my space.
For the rest of this garden space, here are the plants that I decided to include:
My California native plants for shade + why:
Ribes aureum gracillimum. Golden Currant (attracts hummingbirds, edible berries for wildlife)
Heuchera (attracts hummingbirds, evergreen)
Pacific coast iris (evergreen, beautiful colors to brighten shade)
Salvia spathacae. Hummingbird sage (beautiful scent, attracts hummingbird/bees)
California fescue (texture, host plant for some moths/butterflies)
Achillea millefolium. Yarrow (supports pollinators)
*both the fescue and yarrow are planted towards the edges where it gets slightly more sun
If you’d like to take it one step further, talk to your local native plant nursery to see what species are native to your specific area! This can be huge for restoring truly local ecosystems, and Bloom! California has a page where you can search for your closest native plant nursery (HERE).
Plants for both shade and sun
Do you have a mix of shade and sun? There are some California native plants that can tolerate part-shade and also some full sun! California fescue, yarrow, currants, and coyote mint are some examples. As you can see, I placed my fescue and yarrow towards the edges of the shade garden, and then I actually repeated those plants in a sunnier part of my native garden. There’s also another currant and a manzanita to tie the whole space together. Eventually, the manzanita will grow into a small tree, and these adaptable shade/sun plants will get a little shelter. One thing I’ve learned about garden design, is the importance of planning for future growth and the maturity of your plants. It helps to think about how the sun exposure and shapes might change as everything grows in.
Preparing to plant
There are wonderful resources from CNPS (like this one) for planting native plants, but I know all of you appreciate gardeners’ individual experiences, so I’ll share what I’ve learned. It is absolutely true that you do not want to pamper your native plants like we do our cauliflower or tomatoes. Native plants are much more adapted to the original soil in your backyard than you might think and don’t want tons of compost or fertilizers!
Some sand isn’t a bad thing though. For this project, we had to cut away some part of the decomposed granite path next to the house, but we actually threw some of that DG in the shade garden because having some sand in the mix isn’t a bad idea if your soil is extremely clay.
We have added compost to this bed before when we planted our camellia (see the “before” photos”), so I knew that we didn’t need to add any extra organic matter. If you’re planting in soil that’s been kept from any nutrients for many many years, then adding some compost is also great. Previously, I’ve added some sand and a slight bit of compost to native soil before planting in other areas of my garden.
How we plant native plants
Before starting this garden, we just had that huge rainstorm in Southern California and our soil was completely saturated! Therefore, we didn’t water at all during this process, which is not typical when planting. With even more rain predicted soon, I didn’t want our plants to rot before they had a chance to establish.
To start, you dig a hole that is about twice as wide as your plant pot, and one and a half times the depth. Typically, you’d fill the hole with water now and let it drain, but we skipped this part due to our soil being thoroughly saturated.
Ideally, you want the base of the plant to sit about one inch above soil level, so push some soil back into the hole until you reach the desired height. Finally, remove your plant from the container and plant it!
Sometimes, the weather is on your side. The day after we planted this garden, everything got a slight bit of rain and glistened with raindrops. As many of you know, rainwater is incredible for transplant shock, and planting California natives during the cooler months is best for them anyway. It was a thrill to see everything looking so fresh and green!
Soothing Design Tips
Have I mentioned how much I love our irrigation valve cover? Maybe I’m the last to know, but they make faux rocks to hide this stuff! Keeping the space less cluttered— painting the water heater door and foundation covers to match the house and hiding the valves—is one way to bring a sense of calm to the space. Soon we will be installing some sort of hose reel.
As I stated earlier, narrowing down the list of plant types and planting in swaths really gives any garden a more relaxed feel. Furthermore, as you are choosing plants, try and include different leaf shapes and textures. I personally love grasses for how they move in the wind!
Make your garden ROCK. I pulled from our rock/flagstone stash, and used these items to create more visual interest. The rocks aren’t only for show though—it’s been shown that many native plants appreciate large rocks close by as they regulate soil temperature, keep in moisture, and mimic many of the natural landscapes. Honestly, as a gardener I’m always the one who will take anyone’s landscape rocks if they no longer want them, leftover flagstone pieces, etc. Always keep an eye out for these treasures, right?
Ready to celebrate shade-loving California native plants?
As gardeners, many times we are chasing sun exposure. I get it, as our beloved tomatoes and many food crops require rather consistent sun exposure to grow successfully. For me personally, transforming this shady area into a water-wise, native, wildlife supporting garden was such a thrill! Our hot, inland sun can be relentless and it makes me so happy to think of the birds and other wildlife that can visit this shady refuge during the Summer.
I hope you’ll join me in planting some native plants this year and don’t forget to visit BloomCalifornia.org for all the resources.