Honest question, how much do you think about the plants in your garden? How did you pick those plants? Did you pick those plants, or did someone else pick them for you? Did you see just see something you liked and pick it up? Did you have a landscape designer pick it out of their repertoir?
I'm really curious about how this goes for most people. I bet the reality for many people is a big mix of all of it.
Setting aside food plants for now, just because we treat them differently on this website. Let's talk about the plants in your garden.
If you aren't already growing native plants, they probably started life in some factory grow operation, far from your home. They would have gone through all sorts of unnatural growing conditions, fertilizers, several repottings, maybe artificial lighting. Before showing up in a garden center or wholesaler's wherehouse and finally your yard.
If that's the case, I'd suggest your options were dictated by considerations like looks good in a nursery, flowers a lot, transplants well, flexible with watering schedules, responds well to fertilizer, grows well in many different environments under much varied temperatures, easy to reproduce in a consisten way, looks good young, matures fast.
When you think about your goals for your plants, do those align? You can easily cross off a few of them, "grows well in many different environments" is not necessary since you only have one. "Transplants well" is only important once in the plant's life. "Mature's fast" is a difficult one to overcome. Plant growth can sometimes feel so slow and we all want the instant gratification.
Then again, the tradeoff to that is when you do have a slow growing plant, when it looks great it is extremely gratifying.
I don't know about you, but my goals for my plant lists looks quite different. I want:
I don't want to oversell here, but native plants are superiour in all of these categories to those at your local garden center. I believe this is true no matter where you are, but I'm only familiar with the issues of California Native Plants and that's all I can speak about specifically.
Native plants have spent thousands of years at a minimum, adapting to the environment they call home. Their process of adaptation has occurred alongside the other local flora and fauna. They have worked out their relationship with the local bugs that would eat them, often forming specialized symbiotic relationships.
In my experience, almost all native plants are quite cheap to buy. I don't know why, but Yarrow is overpriced, usually about $10 for a plant that grows easy and fast from seed. But most native plants I've found at about $5-15 for 4 inch or 1 gallon sizes. Not bad. And after that they cost so little because they don't need fertilizer, they abhor fertilizer, and most need almost no water once established.
My next-door neighbor probably has fifteen different bird feeders and birdhouse mounted all around their backyard. They work so hard to attract the various birds that come to visit. They must buy a lot of millet.
Ironically, those birds would probably prefer my toyon berries and golden current that I don't have to water and never have to replenish. And those sunflower seeds are native, by the way. It's hard to know who's food they prefer since the birds are always bouncing back and forth between our two yards. The same goes for the copious butterflies that visit throughout the year.
I'm not trying to do a side by side comparison here, but this is one place people might attack native plants, mostly on the basis of seeing plants that grow in the wild. But wild native plants are somewhat different than homegrown native plants, kind of like the difference in look between a mangy street dog and your own domestic best friend.
When you have native plants, you might give them a small amount of supplemental water which will keep them blooming for longer in the season. You will also want to prune out the old, dead growth, much like you would any other plant you grow. This will keep them looking alive and fresh.
The other reason for this criticism is that some native plants have a seasonal dormancy. We're used to seeing common plants go dormant in winter, but that's the grow season for California's native plants. California's natives tend to go dormant in summer, a form of protection against the hottest, driest weeks of the year.
Since native plants are adapted to the environment they are in, once established they will outcompete most weeds. This is particularly true once you reach the point where you get to stop watering them. All of those invasive weeds and grasses get thirsty, but if you aren't watering them they won't survive but your native plants will.
So this is a huge topic, what is the health of the Earth anyway? Among the reasons already discussed, Native plants excel at fighting what I consider to be the biggest threat to the Earth today: desertification. I'm not a scientist, and I really need to research this: my belief is that desertification is a big part of Global Warming. All of the worlds deserts are growing. Once fertile land is turning into dead, lifeless dirt. Desertification.
Desertification happens because of soil erosion. In a natural cycle, plants extract carbon from the atmosphere, drip it onto the earth as leaf litter and deposit it in the ground in a natural growth and decay cycle of root formation. We've interrupted this cycle in so many ways across our planted. But our native plants are able to do this with the most efficiency because they are growing in the environment they fit into best.
Drought tolerant plants use very little water. I put a plus on that for Native Plants because they actively fight water loss. 60% of our rain cycle comes from large bodies of water such as the ocean. But the other 40% is from microcycles, puddles, stream, plant canopy.
We are destroying these microcycles with hardscapes: paved storm drains, streets, sidewalks, all designed to move the water as quickly and efficiently out to the ocean as possible. Our plants, on the other hand keep the water in place. They are adapted to the flood and drought cycles of our dry climate. They want to hold onto every drop they can while it's there.
Hopefully I convinced you of something there. Chances are if you are here you already had some of these ideas in mind. I don't think the philosophy is the greatest challenge to getting people to change though. I think it's familiarity. Unless you've already been studying native plants for a while, you probably aren't aware at how easily California natives can be subbed in for non-native plants.
For example, I've got some olive trees I planted because I love the wild, irregular shape of their branches. What I was really going for when I got these was Manzanita.
There are so many good trumpet flowers out there that hummingbirds love, like the much loved Fuchsia from South Africa. But there is a California Fuchsia that looks almost exactly the same!
I recently replaced Morning Glories I had growing on my fence with Island Morning Glories ("Island" because they are prolific on the Channel Islands, but they are naturally on our side of the Pacific as well). I also tore out my roses, contemplated replacing them with a California Rose.
There are some definite options here. Again, I don't want to oversell, you probably aren't going to throw out your vegetable garden for California natives. But there are a few good options out there. There's a native grape, in fact many of our prestigious orchards grow their European clones on California root stock.
There are also a couple of strawberries, currants, and of course blackberries and raspberries! Elderberries are finding popularity right now, and we have our own variety, the "Mexican Elderberry." Chia is popular with the health food community. The common store version is Salvia hispanica, our is Salvia columbariae, an nearly identical seed from a culinary perspective.
For heartier foods, there is the Calfornia Black Walnut, known to be somewhat stronger in flavor than the European walnut, but it is available commercially with some searching. Most of us learned in school the native's lived off of acorns. We even learned the process of preparing them, since the natural tannins are mildly toxic. It isn't hard, just requires some boiling. Wouldn't it be great if we were all growing and eating acorns?