Heuchera growing in a native shade garden

Plant a California Native Shade Garden

by | Mar 12, 2023

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!

Freckled Californian Bloom Ambassador with a Bloom campaign sign

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.

garden design template for a California native shade garden.

Photo credit: BloomCalifornia.org— The goal of this project is to take this design template (created by Miridae Landscapes) and create my own “shady refuge” planting. My native shade garden will be along the foundation of my home.

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.

foundation native shade garden shown before and after planting

This area along the north side of our home just grew weeds and random plants for the last seven years! I wish I had known about California native plants and the ones that love shade way back when.

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.

close-up and full view of a california golden currant ribes aureum

A beautiful ribes specimen at Tree of Life nursery. Many native ribes (also known currants) do well in partial or full shade.

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

visual diagram of native plants placed in swaths or large groupings

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.

Before & After of our California native garden for shade. Previously, this area was overgrown and had a random assortment of plants. Now, it is both water-wise and also a native haven for pollinators.

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!

how to plant a California native plant

How to plant a california native plant: dig your hole, fill hole with water and let drain (or skip if saturated), place your plant so the base is about 1 inch above the soil line, and plant!

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?

native California manzanita growing near a rock in a backyard garden

This is a small manzanita specimen (arctostaphylos ‘byrd hill’) that will eventually grow to be a focal point and create shade in this California native garden area. Manzanitas are stunning winter blooming shrubs!

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.

Plant a California native shade garden


  1. Susan F Foy

    Thanks for all the great information on native shade plants. Your garden looks wonderful, and you have given me ideas for my northern facing planters. Glad you are supporting the local pollinators!

    • FreckledCalifornian

      Thanks Susan! It’s always such a good feeling when another piece of the garden falls into place. I wish I had done this sooner! I’m sure you’ll turn those planters into a beautiful space.

  2. Steven Perry

    Hi, Your formula is interesting. After the rain and into the summer, how is it holding up? Does your soil retain moisture to keep it going in the drier months?

    Thank you,

    Steven Perry

    • FreckledCalifornian

      Hi Steven! I can happily report that the shade garden is doing incredibly well. In fact, it’s almost completely filled in and I barely have to water it at all. With native plants in the hot, full sun you usually have to water it more regularly until it establishes, but it was so different for this particular space. After a long, rainy spell the soil retained moisture and I only did a deep water right before the Summer heat set in. It’s completely unbothered by our heat so far. You’re right, the soil retains more moisture anyway, as it has more clay and is mostly shaded. I’m hoping to do a updated post either here or on my YouTube channel about the progress. Thanks for asking about it!

  3. Su

    Thx for sharing. I am planning my part shade garden. Which manzanita do you have and how are they doing? Is it in part shade at all? Thank you!

    • FreckledCalifornian

      Hello! I’m happy to report that the manzanita is growing very well (they are typically slower growers, so larger sizes are best to start with). Ours is in mostly sun (it gets morning shade from our patio cover). Originally we were going to get a ‘byrd hill’ manzanita, but something in my brain tells me they ran out and gave me a substitute that day. I honestly can’t recall! I’ll try to find out, but haven’t been able to find the change written down.


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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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