Having an attractive yard in California used to mean that you spent copious amounts of water to water the lawn and followed the schedule of “Water Days” for your street with fanatical devotion. However, the concept of using native plants to ornament one’s property instead of water-guzzling imports has been growing more popular of late. There are many great reasons to switch to native plants and create a mini-tribute to the natural beauty of California.
The term “xeriscape” (Greek: xeros = dry; -scape = view, scene) means landscaping in such a way that you do not have to supplement your climate’s natural rainfall with extra water. If you don’t live in a rainforest – most Californians don’t – you will find that xeriscaping saves you money and conserves precious water supplies. A xeriscaped yard doesn’t have to look dull, either. There are a wide variety of native California plants that can create a stunning effect in your yard. There are native shrubs, grasses, vines and trees that will grow happily in the California yard. An added bonus is that native plants tend to support and encourage native birds and insects such as butterflies and bees to view your yard as a habitat.
Inspecting your yard and testing your soil is a good start to a successful xeriscape. Get an idea of the purpose of your outdoor space and what you want to do with it – is it going to be a playground for the kids and pets? A peaceful retreat from the world? A site for barbecues? Thinking about how you want to use your space can help you determine what kind of plants you want and where.
Since many lawns have not been designed with xeriscaping in mind, you might have a job ahead of you, removing the wasteful plants in order to make room for native newcomers and tilling the ground so it provides a good habitat for them. A good idea is to consult with a local nursury or xeriscape expert to determine what plants will best serve your needs.
If you are fond of lawns, you can still have an open, grassy space, but it won’t look like a conventional lawn that’s green all year long. Most California native grasses go through dormancy periods and, thus, are going to be brown at least some of the time. One option to address this is to combine your chosen cover with wildflowers or carefully placed native trees and shrubs. Combining plants that bloom/look their best at different times of the year can also make your property look good year-round.
Xeriscaping does not mean that your property won’t need regular maintenance to look at its best. Regular pruning, mulching, deadheading and weeding are necessary to maintain each plant’s health and appearance. Pest control is also an issue, just as it is in conventional lawns and gardens. Encouraging native wildlife to find a home on your property can increase the likelihood that you will have natural pest controllers.
A couple of books to check out on the subject are: “Growing California Native Plants” by Marjorie Schmidt (UC Press, 1980) and “Gardening with a Wild Heart” by Judith Larner (UC Press, 1999). A great tool can be found at mynativeplants.com – an online plant finder based on your California zip code, soil composition, mulching plans and desired types of plant. The California Native Plant Society can be found at cnps.com and has a lot of information for the budding native plant enthusiast.