Three Books for California Native Gardeners

As a landscaper, my focus hasn’t always been on designing with natives. In fact, until a year or two ago, I only used a few sturdy natives in my designs. But once I realized that native plants play a role in sustaining local wildlife that no other types of plant can fill – well, I can tell you that I began rushing to learn more about the beautiful native plants that make my region special.

But learning about native plants isn’t as easy as one might think. Sure, there are online resources such as Las Pilitas Nursery, but I needed more than information on a few specific plants. I needed a broad overview of the types of plant communities that exist in my region, so that I could understand how to use the plants so they’d thrive and contribute to wildlife most effectively.

Not only that, but in speaking with my local native plant aficionados, I’ve learned that many natives simply don’t perform well in garden or landscape conditions. Either we water and fertilize too much, or perhaps the plants rely on specific soil conditions that are hard to replicate. So knowing which plants can thrive in a low-maintenance landscape is critical.

The following three books aren’t the only books on landscaping with California natives, but they’re the three I have found most helpful in my journey to learn the practical skills to design with my region’s native plants. If you’re a wildlife gardener in CA, your bookshelf won’t be complete without them.

California Native Plants for the Garden

ca plants for the native gardenThis classic, by Bornstein, Fross and O’Brien is the book I refer to most often. It’s indispensable because it covers just about every native plant one could conceivably want to use in the garden. And while so many books skimp on the photos, this book has multiple photos on every page.

And the authors don’t sugar-coat the info, either. If a plant gets straggly in summer or needs to be replaced every few years, they say so right up front. Because they are brutally honest about what plants will do, I feel I can trust their advice and move beyond the few “standby” natives that are commonly used and branch out into more unusual varieties that also have merit in the garden.

The most battered and underlined section of my book is the “Recommended Plant Selections”, a thorough listing of plants for every condition or gardening need. If you need fast-growing trees, vines, or groundcovers, they’ve got you covered. They discuss plants with attractive bark, which ones are deer-resistant or good for narrow garden beds, and which are suitable for meadows. Whatever your design need, they’ve got a quick start guide to get you rolling. I have photocopied some of these plant lists to take to the nursery or native plant sales so I know what to look out for.

Designing California Native Gardens

designing ca native gardensMy copy of this book by Keator and Middlebrook isn’t as muddy and well-used as the last book I discussed. But it’s no less useful. While the first book is more of a reference guide that you’ll come back to often, Designing California Native Gardens is more about the concepts involved in designing to the different styles, climates, and plant communities in California’s varied regions.

This is a book I take into the bathtub or lounge in the sunshine with. It’s beautifully illustrated and photographed, and the point of it is to give you that broader understanding of the types of plants that thrive in the region you call home. This is important for two reasons. One, California’s a big place, and the plants that thrive in my redwood forest region do NOT like the desert, and vice versa.

But an even bigger reason why understanding plant communities is important is that you want your garden to reflect your region’s beauty, and be helpful to the bugs and animals that actually live in your area. For me, planting a cactus next to my redwoods and hoping an owl will know to nest there would be silly. But if I plant the trees and shrubs that my local birds are familiar with, THEN I’ll see some wildlife.

If you’ve learned some things about native plants, but are struggling to put all the pieces together, this book is the next step for creating a California garden that has regional flair and supports your local wildlife.

Reimagining the California Lawn

reimagining the ca lawnThis book, again by Bornstein, Fross and O’Brien, takes on the monumental task of showing water-conserving plants and practices that can replace the wildlife-free zone known as the lawn. While this book isn’t native-only, they do rely heavily on natives to create the lovely examples shown, and the non-natives are appropriately low-water and friendly to pollinators and birds.

What I love best about this book is they show how to design with natives in a way that is beautiful and fits into most people’s ideas of what a lovely garden or landscape should look like. So many books about native plants show them in the wild, and while it’s nice to be able to ID the plants – actually seeing them in use in the garden, draping over a wall or mingling with other plants, is massively helpful.

This book also has a set of plant lists in the back for quick reference, and they don’t shy away from tackling the toughest design problems, either. Dry shade, “bulletproof”, poor drainage – they cover a number of specific scenarios that are tough to find effective plants for.

This shouldn’t be the only book in your native plant arsenal, but if you dream of chipping away at your lawn and planting something more beautiful, friendly to wildlife, and that uses less water, then this book will be an invaluable guide along the way.

© 2011, Genevieve Schmidt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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    About Genevieve Schmidt

    Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and garden writer in the redwoods of Northern California. She writes regularly for Fine Gardening Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor. Read more from Genevieve at North Coast Gardening.


    1. Ursula Vernon says:

      Gardening in the Southeast is hard enough–I can’t imagine trying to do it in California, which has a whole ‘nother set of crises to deal with! Good that there’s reference material available.

      • Genevieve Schmidt says:

        Ursula, I feel the same way about the Southeast! It’s funny – I guess familiar challenges are easier to mentally deal with than unfamiliar ones. I dig my clime.
        Genevieve Schmidt recently posted..The Envelope Please! The Winner is—–

    2. Edith says:

      I love the Bornstein, Fross and O’Brien books! Ive been fortunate enough to hear both men speak and could listen to them all day. So knowledgeable!!

      I am going to hunt up that third book you recommend. I’m in the process of removing my lawn and need all the help I can get.

      Another good book with lots of info and pics is Landscape Plants for California Gardens by bob perry.

      • Genevieve Schmidt says:

        Oh, yay! I miss living in the big city – so many great speakers to see. Thanks so much for the rec for the Perry book. I’m off to look for that right now.
        Genevieve Schmidt recently posted..The Envelope Please! The Winner is—–


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