Designing a California Native Garden

Today I am highlighting a few California native plants that provide a formal foundation for a home landscape. Planting a California native garden is a beautiful solution for the state’s water challenges because native plants reduce water consumption while also supporting nature.

If you have space in your home landscape, a Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) will provide a full canopy of shade while also supporting more species of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife than any other tree.

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) growing in a home landscape. (E. Wallace).

Coast Live Oaks can grow 40-feet-wide and 40-feet-tall, so be certain your garden has the space to support the tree when it reaches maturity.

These trees support many butterfly species, possibly as many as 122 species of butterflies and moths according to Calscape, including the California Sister butterfly shown below.

California Sister butterfly on an oak leaf (Photo by Alan Schmierer).

If your landscape is too small to host a native oak tree, consider a smaller native tree for habitat and beauty. The Toyon is an evergreen shrub/small tree that flowers in the springtime and produces bright red berries in the winter. Toyons grow from 8-feet-tall to 20-feet-tall, depending on the growing conditions.

Three Toyons (Heteromeles arbutifolia) growing in a home landscape and pruned up for fire safety. These Toyons are in flower. (E. Wallace)

Migrating birds feed on the Toyon’s red berries at Christmas time, and in the spring, butterflies feed on the nectar of the shrub’s white flowers.

Cedar Waxwings enjoy Toyon berries in January. (E. Wallace)
Monarch Butterfly sips nectar from Toyon blossoms. (Photo by K. Alison)

The Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a small ornamental native tree that grows 15-feet-tall and produces fragrant, pink flowers that hummingbirds love. This tree loses its leaves in the winter, but the showy flowers and delicate leaves make up for that through the spring and summer months.

Desert Willow growing in San Luis Obispo. (Photo from Las Pilitas Nursery).

I have highlighted just a few of the many lovely California native trees you can install to provide structure and elegance, as well as nature value, to your garden.

There are many other terrific California native trees beyond those highlighted here including Scrub Oaks, Englemann Oaks, California Sycamores, native Willows, and Elderberry trees. For more information, go to, type in your zip code, and search for native trees that grow in your area.

In the next blog post, I will feature small and medium-sized native shrubs that serve as companion plants to native trees.

2 responses to “Designing a California Native Garden”

  1. Oak trees take many years before they reach their full mature size. Until then they fit in smaller gardens while still providing food and habitat for wildlife. People get too discouraged by their size and dont plant them.


    1. Dear Marilyn,
      Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I agree that Coast Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia) can take years to achieve their full size. I have lived with a newly installed Coast Live Oak that outgrew its space within about 20 years. This oak grew about three feet per year as it matured, and its rapid growth made me uneasy.
      After living with native plants in home landscapes for about 30 years, it is my belief that native plant gardeners should not install a plant that will overwhelm the space it is designed for. It would be a tragedy to have to remove a native oak tree because it grew too large for its location–I have seen multiple mature Coast Live Oak trees removed because they outgrew their space.
      The good news is that there are terrific smaller oaks like the Scrub Oak (Quercus berbidifolia) that provide excellent habitat value and that don’t overwhelm the smaller home landscape. Also, the Englemann Oak (Quercus Englemanni) is a taller, thinner oak that can get large but doesn’t have the massive spread exhibited by some Coast Live Oak species.
      I appreciate your comment Marilyn and I agree that its always a great idea to plant a native oak, however, choosing the right species for the size of the space is also important.


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