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Picking plants with water conservation in mind

Penstemons are native to the West and there are as many as 250 different varieties.
Penstemons are native to the West and there are as many as 250 different varieties.

Q:I have a large empty area in my yard that I would like to landscape but I don't want to use a lot of water. What kind of plants should I be looking for? — Bill Widner, Arroyo Grande

A: The easy answer to your question is California native plants that are drought tolerant. The harder part will be choosing from among the beautiful myriad of drought tolerant natives available to us here on the Central Coast.

Whether brilliant reds of California fuchsia, delicate hues of yarrows, or flamboyant blue clusters of Ceanothus, many of our native ornamentals have beneficial features suited to home landscaping. As natives, they have evolved over thousands of years to be naturally adapted to our Mediterranean climate of cool wet winters and hot dry summers. Their physiology and deeply spreading root systems permit them to flourish without summer watering. They tolerate occasional pest predation, and they are generally resistant to disease.

Native plants also have distinct environmental benefits. Since they typically need no fertilizers to feed them or insecticides to protect them, they eliminate the possibility of chemical runoff into the watershed.

When planted on a hillside, their deep and spreading root system helps to stabilize the slope and prevent erosion. These natives also provide welcome food and habitat for birds, butterflies and many fauna who often lend their names to the plants. California fuchsia, for example, is commonly called hummingbird flower.

The best time to plant native plants is at the beginning of our rainy season. Typically they can be planted without any soil amendment or fertilizers. Determine what type of soil you have and which plants would thrive naturally in that location. A plant that is typical ly found in fast draining, sandy soil may not survive in heavy clay soil. Once planted, make a circular berm around the planting to contain water, and give the new planting a good and thorough watering. Then only water occasionally when the rains are too infrequent.

During the first summer, the plant may need supplemental watering, especially if the roots have not become established. Once the roots are well established in the second year, the plant shouldn't need supplemental water. In times of dry winters or a long-term drought, watch your plants for water stress to determine if you need to irrigate.

To see the beautiful myriad of native plants available to us on the Central Coast, you might visit the Cal Poly Learning Pine Arboretum or the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. You can also view these and other California natives online at http://calphotos.berkeley.edu//flora. With a little planning and a little planting, you can also see them in your own yard.