Gardening with Natives, Randy’s Do’s and Don’ts: A Sunset District Perspective

My yard is beginning its third spring as a native plant restoration experiment. A few years ago I moved to a house in the Sunset District blessed with a neglected yard and a landlord who didn’t care what I did, as long as I didn’t ask him to help. I started, with the help of many friends, to cut back more than 20 years growth of mirror plant (Coprosma) and Himalayan blackberry, chopping, yanking, and swearing while progressing toward the back corner of the yard. Along the way we uncovered a stone walkway complete with two terraces, several engine blocks, and innumerable unidentifiable rusted car parts. Spurred on by these achievements, I descended upon our Yerba Buena Chapter’s first native plant sale.

Thus began the experiment. It turns out that my yard, and I suspect many a Sunset yard, is amenable to local native plants. The soil is mostly sand overlain by a foot of clayish top fill. The sand provides excellent drainage, which most natives prefer. It’s not very hard to dig through the clay layer, provided it’s still moist, and mix it with some of the sand to ensure drainage. My yard slopes westward, which provides fog and wind exposure, bad for tomatoes but good for locally adapted native plants. Coyote bush, poppies, scorpion plant, lupine, yarrow, yerba buena, columbine, and purple needlegrass are all thriving. The yard is now chock-full of insects and birds.

If you find yourself wondering whether you have what it takes to grow native plants, stop wondering and just do it. Native plant gardening can be started on a small scale with very little effort, and can reap substantial rewards as you become more in tune with nature’s cycles, processes, and inhabitants. The following list of do’s and don’ts will promote biodiversity in your very own backyard.

  • DO plant as many different species as possible. Select many growth forms, from trees and shrubs to grasses, perennial herbs, and annuals. Also try to select plants that flower over the entire season: red flowering currant, seaside daisy, and rock cress bloom in early spring, whereas coyote bush and native aster bloom much later in mid to late summer. This provides food for critters throughout the year.
  • DO bum seeds from friends. What grows well in a friend’s yard will likely do well in yours too. I got California poppies, coast buckwheat, scorpion plant, and bee plant from a friend’s yard and they’re now spreading rapidly through my own. Native bumblebees flock to the poppies and scorpion plant.
  • DO be careful when weeding. When in doubt, don’t pull it out. I have two additional native species in my yard only because I didn’t give in to my initial urge to yank out unknown seedlings. Rather, I waited until the mystery seedlings grew and flowered, revealing them to be meadow foam and a native rush.
  • DO create as many types of habitat as feasible. I like to keep at least a small patch of bare soil open throughout the year. In spring, birds seem to enjoy pecking for seeds, worms, and insects in these patches, and later in the season I see lots of large steel blueblack wasps burrowing tunnels into the soil. Last year I found a few of those tunnels in a forgotten flower pot and uncovered grubs of some kind in various stages of poor health. One tunnel revealed a live grub with a small yellow egg attached; another housed a completely shriveled grub with an apparent wasp pupa surrounded by a cottony cocoon. Obviously these were some kind of parasitic wasp preying on my backyard grubs. This discovery felt every bit as exciting to me as a PBS nature show.
  • DON’T use pesticides. One of the greatest pleasures of a native garden is seeing the diversity of insects increase over time. Pesticides harm beneficial insects as much as detrimental insects.
  • DON’T be too neat; allow entropy to work for you. Don’t clip and prune everything at once. Some insects need different parts of a plant at different times of year to complete their life cycle. Consider pruning only a third of your shrubs each season. This will give those creatures that overwinter as pupae a place to hang out undisturbed until spring or summer. If pruning or removing trees or large shrubs, why not leave a few open branches as perches for birds? Don’t cart away all yard scraps to your compost pile or trash can-let them compost in place. Pile pulled weeds in the sun for a few days until they’re completely dead, then return them to the soil surface as mulch to encourage earthworms and minimize evaporation. Leave some old logs, branches, or lumber in a corner pile on the ground. This makes great salamander habitat, as well as food for saprophytic fungi or even slime molds. A friend of mine has found three species of salamanders – arboreal, slender, and ensatina – underneath a lumber pile in his San Carlos yard, while I’ve noticed at least two types of slime molds and several types of fungi fruiting on decaying logs in my yard. And don’t rake up those leaves. Piles of decaying leaves are great places to find all kinds of small creatures, and they give birds like brown towhees a place to hunt for lunch.

Happy experimenting!


aster, Aster chilensis

bee plant, Scrophularia californica

California poppy, Eschscholzia californica

coast buckwheat, Eriogonum latifolium

columbine, Aquilegia formosa

coyote bush, Baccharis pilularis

lupine, Lupinus spp.

meadow foam, Limnanthes douglasii

purple needlegrass, Nassella pulchra

red flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum

rock cress, Arabis blepharophylla

scorpion plant, Phacelia californica

seaside daisy, Erigeron glaucus

yarrow, Achillea millefolium

yerba buena, Satureja douglasii