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Guide to Planting Natives

Planting natives don't need any more attention than planting exotics. Similar to anything else that you might plant, paying attention to a few details during and after planting will increase the chances of your plant's survival. Native plants across California have adapted to varying rainfall and soil types. The prevailing conditions in a desert for example, vary from that in chaparral, riparian, or other plant communities. This planting guide is targetted towards addressing the specific needs of water-wise native plants.

Good drainage is essential for most of the native plants in this category unless the plant description explicitly says that it is not a problem. If you already live on a slope, then planting anywhere on the upper or middle part of the slope will provide good drainage. On the other hand clay has poor drainage. With clay it is better to plant on berms (raised areas) that provide drainage similar to a natural slope. For details on building berms, read the notes at the bottom of this page.

Here are some general instructions for planting natives:

  • Dig a hole as deep as your pot and about 2 times as wide. Soak the hole well with water.

  • Remove the plant from the pot by squeezing the sides and pulling gently by holding the base of the main stem.

  • Loosen the soil around the roots and free any root coils unless the instructions on the plant calls for no disturbance of the roots.

  • There are opinions that go back and forth on how much of the native soil to reuse in planting and whether to use any amendments. The only opinion that is should be completely avoided for natives is the one that requires you to haul away your topsoil and and replace it with store-bought topsoil. We recommend the reuse of native soil with some added compost and a large handful of any composting material such as leaves or small mulch.

    For Bay Area clay, use 3 measures of a gallon milk jug (with the top cut off) of compost for a 5 gallon pot, and 1 gallon measure for a 1 gallon pot.

    If you live in sandy or rocky soil, and have picked a plant that cannot survives this soil type, then add compost and perlite-type amendment for nutrients and moisture retainment. Again, you will need to reapply these every 6 months to a year depending on the plants you are trying to grow and whether or not they provide natural composting from falling leaves and twigs.

  • Add some soil to the bottom of the hole and tamp down. Add enough to raise the level of the plant to an inch or two above the surrounding ground level. Keeping the crown above the surrounding soil, especially when it is damp, will prevent crown rot.

  • Place the plant in the middle of the hole so that the level of the soil in the pot is an inch higher than the surrounding soil.

  • As you refill the sides of the hole around the plant, keep watering and tamping to minimize settling. Add some soil, wet it with a hose, add some dry soil and tamp. Repeat this until the soil level reaches the level of the surrounding soil. Leave just the crown an inch or two higher.

  • When the hole is filled, dig a small trench around the planting hole, about 6" wide and a few inches deep to use as a watering moat. If you have clay and are planting in the Fall, Winter, or Spring, and expecting a lot of rainfall then do not build this moat since it would allow too much water to collect near the root.

  • Give the plant a final good soak unless you are expecting a big rainfall in the immediate future.

Planting In a Turf Area

If you are removing a lawn and planting natives, then you are probably following our sheet composting method of lawn removal. Pots that are 5 gallons or larger, should be planted before beginning the sheet composting. Use the instructions above for planting, with the only difference that the crown be kept a little higher, about 2-3" above the level of the soil instead of 1 inch. This is because the grass and compost when composted will build up the soil height by about an inch or so.

To plant the smaller pots (less than 5 gallons), it is best to wait until after the sheet composting method is complete. to plant them dig a hole right into the compost and newpaper and create a planting pocket for the plant using soil mixed with compost. When the plant is settled in the pocket, the crown should be about an 1" above the level of the compost.

How to Build a Berm

The goal of building a berm is to provide better drainage for plant roots when your soil is heavy clay. You can build a berm using the mix of the clay and lot of material that provides good drainage, for example, sand, compost, or nursery potting soil. At least a 25 degree slope is needed to provide drainage away from the roots. The overall size of the berm depends on the number of plants you want to put on it, and whether the plants are all grasses and small shrubs, or whether you plan to put in a large shrub or a tree. Note that the roots of a plant can go out to about 2-3 times the canopy, so provide for this when you plan the berm, think bigger rather than smaller. Try to make the slopes asymmetric on the sides so that it doesn't look uniformly round and artificial. If you natural landscape has undulating slopes and small hillsides, then try to imitate the look and feel of these natural shapes.

Where will you get the extra soil to build the berm? If you have other projects in your garden, for example digging out a pond or even putting in a new fence, then you can reuse the soil that comes out of those holes. The next best thing to do is to borrow soil from your neighborhood. Check around your community for anyone starting a landscape project and expects to have extra soil, try posting a notice in the local coffee-shop . Avoid soil mixed with debris, especially noxious things like broken glass, plastic, etc.

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