Are you a Native Plant purist?

When we design, we talk about “purpose.” In the established garden, we use the term every few years -to reconsider the garden. Guiding principles, such as water-efficient and beneficial-to-nature, are big-picture “purpose” values in many modern gardens. On the micro, unique level, has the purpose in your existing garden changed? Are there new activities that should be accommodated? Is the maintenance too difficult, leaving you to always feel overwhelmed? Have you decided to start growing some of your own food?

While every garden should include “water efficient,” as a guiding principal purpose, we can use hydrozones and irrigation systems to add both lushness and edibles into our landscapes. Native plant gardens are not desertscapes unless you want yours to be. While every garden should be able to be maintained in a way that is not overwhelming or cost prohibitive, that will mean different schemes to different people. While every garden in the foothills and mountain zones must be fire-safe, that does not mean devoid of plants or wide expanses of lawn. While every garden should be ecologically beneficial, that does not mean you need to have a wildscape or use nothing but native species.  If you can’t or don’t wish to work with a professional designer, there are written, website, podcast, and local-nursery expertise to help you. Two good on-line resources are Calscape ( and the worldwide Summer-Dry program ( I wrote a book, Gardening with California Native Plants: Inland, Foothill and Central Valley Gardens, to help local gardeners with choosing native plants, and perhaps that could also be useful to you.

I am not a native plant purist, and Quercus is not a native plant purist company. I manage to fit in California native plants on all my projects, but I love plants from all over the world, and I love to grow food-giving plants too. I believe the garden should solve problems, including the loss of world-wide habitat. Our Quercus clients try to provide habitat for as many wild creatures as feasible. Mostly this means birds and butterflies, but sometimes we can do more without causing harm, especially on larger properties.

 It is possible to weave plants together to form a new community unique to your garden or property. Organize according to water needs and sun/shade requirements. Organize according to soil drainage. Bring in plants from other states and other continents to solve the “purpose” riddle if a native plant won’t do. Yes, there is a “California peach,” but it isn’t one humans generally eat these days. Go for an Elberta or other grafted modern variety if you want the better-than-store-bought appeal of home-grown fruit.

On the other hand, if you want to be a native plant purist, then go for it! Even then, you will be asking, “how native?” Meaning, how locally native? Just to your micro-climate? To your larger geographical region? To the state of California? Will you accept a plant that slips back and forth across the political-state boundary but is sometimes only native to Nevada or Arizona or Mexico? Will you include plants from Baja California? If you are reading this, you are probably at least interested in California native plants. Perhaps you have a few in your garden? If you live on rural property in the foothills or mountains, are the native plants in your yard only the wilderness that surrounds your managed landscape? If you live on the valley floor, do you have an idea of what the area surrounding your property used to be when it was wilderness?

Start with your guiding principles. Helping nature. Water-efficient. Then what?

Peyton Ellas

All photos combine CA native and non-native plants. From top: Dudleya with geranium and jade plant; buckeye tree (Aesculus) with rosemary; brittlebush (Encelia) with bulbine; apricot mallow with hedged bulbine.