What does vegetable gardening have to do with California native plants? Plenty, it turns out.
When I first became interested in native plants, my philosophy was that it would be a good idea to use water, time and chemicals (if needed) on the edibles and use ornamental plants that wouldn’t need so much from me. I thought that was amazing insight. Years later, I still believe that philosophy but am no longer deluded into thinking I am the only one with such genius. There are many gardeners who enjoy native plants for their ease and habitat value, and also love their high-maintenance edible gardens that attract insect pests and sometimes succumb to disease.
The longer I garden, I see that there is a balance between the two that goes beyond my early resource-budgeting. Plant a garden that includes mostly native plants, and your fruit trees and annual edible crops will produce more abundantly and have fewer insect and disease problems. We plant pollinator gardens for the Monarch butterfly and the hummingbird but turns out these plants also attract a variety of tiny native wasps, native bees, dragonflies, damselflies, assassin bugs, ladybugs, lacewings, spiders. (Plant a native garden not specifically intended for pollinators, and you will still attract and support the pollinators and all the others I mentioned.)
Many gardeners, new and old, love the way gardening gives as much as it asks. We hear the words “therapy,” “calming,” “centering,” and “relaxing” tagged onto vegetable gardening. Managing a native plant garden is also all those things, plus it can help build habitat for native creatures of all types and sizes. Both types of gardening can also be good for physical health, “borrowing” from many practices: from yoga, Pilates, strength-training, and sometimes even cardio (does anyone still double-dig their garden? How about installing gopher caging?).
Plant native yarrow (Achillea millefolium, including all the varieties) and native buckwheat (Eriogonum) and native sage (Salvia) near the vegetable garden or orchard, in a hedgerow or any other pattern that you take a fancy to, and your vegetable plants will be healthier. Healthy plants not only produce more and better-quality fruit and vegetables, but they also stave off pests better. Any little thing we can do to keep the annual vegetable plants healthy during their brief season is worth doing. Better than reaching for the chemical spray or having to yank plants mid-season. Yes, there are many non-native plants that will support honey bees. But native plants support other critters beyond the honey bee, which came from Europe and aren’t the best beneficials for your vegetable and fruit garden. Cram in all kinds of plants with lots of flowers; just make at least a few of them native to where you live.
If you are a new gardener, don’t be discouraged and don’t be overwhelmed. There’s a lot of information out there to learn. What to grow when? What pests to look out for? Is tomato pruning really necessary? Having grown up as a gardener, I constantly forget that not everyone knows the things I know, and then I’m always learning new things! When did I learn how much water is too much water? When did I learn not to worry about a few chewed leaves (but to worry if those leaves are a seedling’s very first, not even true leaves?) When did I learn not to worry about those brown leaves, but those other brown leaves mean trouble? When did I learn that the first green things out of a dicot seed were not really leaves? When did I learn what a dicot is?
You don’t have to learn everything right now to be a successful vegetable gardener. You don’t have to learn everything right now to be a successful native plant gardener. And when you need help, there are plenty of gardeners that love to teach. Just ask! And have fun.