Gardening with plants native to the Santa Ynez mountains and Carpinteria’s coastal bluffs is a beautiful way to honor the ecosystems in which we live, as well as providing an environmentally sustainable alternative to water-guzzling landscapes such as lawns.  

Native plants bloom and fruit prolifically throughout the year with almost no water, providing crucial food and shelter to animals, birds and insects and a limitless palette of textures, colors and scents for even the most formally landscaped garden. While the care requirements for natives are different from water-loving ornamentals, once established they require little time and effort to look lovely year-round.

Native plants have evolved in Southern California for millennia, adapting to the extreme conditions of rocky soil and an extended dry season. Our local flora has responded with vigor to the challenges, providing a riot of bloom after the winter rains and an immense amount of food for the Chumash, the original inhabitants of Carpinteria Valley, as well as diverse fauna which appear following native plantings. Brilliant moths and butterflies hover above flowers, while the hum of pollinating bees merge with the rustlings and chirpings of birds delighted to discover new places to hide and feed.

Selecting the right plants for your garden is a matter of observation and research. Take a walk in a favorite wild space, and pay attention to the layers and textures of a natural garden. You can mimic these plant communities in your own design by including plants of varying heights (creeping, herb, shrub and tree) and textures to add diversity and interest. Plan year-round food for birds and pollinators by selecting plants with varying bloom and fruit periods. Choose plants for their beauty alone, for their edible or medicinal properties, or for their value as a cut flower to bring into your home.

Although the possibilities are endless, some of my favorites natives include narrowleaf milkweed, the preferred plant for all the life cycles of monarch butterflies; hummingbird sage, a fragrant and shade-tolerant food for local hummingbirds; goldenrod, with lovely yellow flowers that provide fall color and food, and any of the California buckwheats, a diverse array of plants with four seasons of blooms and gorgeous rusty-red seed heads.  

Top picks for native shrubs include any of the coastal sages such as white, purple, or black sage, which are incredibly fragrant with long bloom periods beginning in early spring; California fuchsia, a vibrantly red-blooming shrub that is important fall food for pollinators; and thorny plants such as wild roses and currants that provide edible fruit and flowers, as well as protection from cats for our native bird life.  

Small native trees perfect for urban planting include the many cultivars of manzanita, with the profuse flowers that native bees love; the many cultivars of California lilac, one of our earliest blooming and most fragrant trees, and toyon, one of the only native trees to produce fruit in the winter, which will attract migrating birds such as cedar waxwings.   

And don’t forget to include a few graceful native grasses such as deer grass or creeping rye grass, as well as ferns such as maiden hair fern, bird’s foot fern, or chain fern for extra texture and dimension in your garden.

Fall is the perfect time for planting, allowing winter rains to thoroughly nourish transplants before next summer’s heat and drought.  In most cases, your soil should need little to no amendment to support healthy natives. Since most natives prefer well-drained soil, I often choose to mound topsoil, especially if there is a hard-packed layer of poorly draining clay from construction. Mounding soil into a raised berm of a few inches to a foot creates optimal conditions for native plants, ensuring they don’t suffer from “wet feet” (when plant roots stay soggy), the number one killer of native plants.  

After planting, water in once and keep an eye on the weather. Hopefully, winter rains will give you a reprieve from irrigation. Once the rainy season is over, plants in their first summer will require supplemental irrigation a few times during the dry season.  Dig into the soil around plants to determine moisture levels before watering, since over-watering is harmful. Mulching, or covering the topsoil with a three to four-inch layer of leaves or wood chips, retains moisture and decreases watering needs. There is a pile of high-quality mulch in front of City Hall on Carpinteria Avenue for use in home gardens.  

Planting a native garden or incorporating a few native plants into an existing landscape will greatly increase the diversity of your garden, as well as promote resilience in the face of a changing climate. There are many resources available to you as a beginner, including the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s well-established, inspirational landscapes and year-round native plant sale (sbbg.org), the talented nursery growers at Santa Barbara Natives (sbnatives.com) and Yes Yes Nursery (yesyesnursery.com), and the incredibly informative and cross-referenced plant and insect guides of Las Pilitas Nursery (laspilitas.com).

There are many books related to native plant gardening, including Bornstein, Fross, and O’Brien’s “California Native Plants for the Garden,” Keator and Middlebrook’s “Designing California Native Gardens,” and Rubin and Warren’s “The Drought-Defying California Garden: 230 Native Plants for a Lush, Low-Water Landscape.”

In addition, there is a Waterwise Landscape Rebate Program through Carpinteria Valley Water District for replacing lawns with drought-tolerant landscapes, including money for native plantings. Learn more at cvwd.net/.  

Explore the Carpinteria Garden Park’s own native plantings, which are in their infancy but already providing shelter and forage for many birds and insects. The perfect opportunity is coming up on Oct. 27, when we will celebrate the garden’s first year with a garden-to-table potluck brunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.  Share a long table with community members and enjoy live music, warm drinks, and kids’ activities.  Bring a dish and your own utensils for a zero-waste event. All are invited.  

Alena Steen is Coordinator of the Carpinteria Garden Park, an organic community garden located at 4855 5th St. developed by the City’s Parks and Recreation Department. Community members rent a plot to grow their own fresh produce. The garden is a center for public education, with classes on organic gardening, nutrition, and sustainability. Upcoming classes include a Rainwater Harvesting workshop on Oct. 20 from 2 to 3:30 p.m., and a class on Herbal First Aid on Oct. 21 from 2 to 3 p.m.  For a complete class schedule or more information visit carp-garden.com or follow the garden on Instagram @carp_garden.

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