When I tell Flora Ito, nursery sales manager for Sun Valley-based Theodore Payne Foundation, that I’m interested in native plants for my apartment balcony, she asks a series of questions.
What are the measurements of the space? How much sun hits the balcony and at what time of day is it strongest? Will there be any issues if water passes through the container?
You don’t need a yard to give a home to California native plants and help bolster habitat for local pollinators. A container garden on a balcony or stoop can also make an impact. Ito, who teaches a monthly online container gardening class, has seen an uptick of interest in this area.
“We’ve really increased our container garden capacity here,” she says on a recent phone call. “It’s always been here, and now it’s really caught on after the pandemic.”
Ito surmises that there are a few reasons for that. “I see that people are realizing the value of how native plants can help not only create a habitat garden, but help the environment,” she says. Plus, Ito adds, “I think people are very interested in things that are local and things that come from California, especially with the conditions of fire and other types of unfortunate misgivings that we’ve been happening.”
Just a few native plants can benefit local biodiversity. “We can support pollinator conservation around our homes simply by planting plants for them to use for food,” says Angela Laws, endangered species conservation biologist for Xerces Society, an international nonprofit that works on the conservation of invertebrates, by phone. Bees rely on native plants for sustenance, but, as Laws points out, butterflies rely on specific plants as hosts.
An example is the relationship between the monarch butterfly and certain varieties of milkweed. “If you have milkweed around your home or community, monarchs can lay eggs on those and the caterpillars are able to feed on that plant and mature into adults,” she explains.
“Something that’s missing within our urban environment is appropriate plant species,” says Cris Sarabia, conservation director with Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy. “If there are huge gaps in our urban environment where butterflies aren’t able to get across — maybe the city of L.A. — and continue onward on their migration, then they are going to suffer. There’s going to be a loss there.”
Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, which restores habitat in Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills, Rolling Hills Estates and San Pedro, operates a nursery that specializes in locally sourced native plants both for use in their projects as well as public sales. For residents of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the fact that the plants grow seeds collected there is important. “These plants are adapted to the specific conditions that exist in this coastal area,” Sarabia explains.
That’s something to note about native plants: What works for those living on the coast might not work for those inland. “The nice thing about potted gardens is that you don’t have to worry so much about what the soil is like in your actual garden because you can put whatever soil you want in your potted plant,” says Megan Wolff, volunteer coordinator for Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy. “But you can’t change your climate. Your little microclimate is going to stay the same.”
Adds Wolff, who has grown native plants in containers at her own Long Beach home, “You’re going to have better success with something that was grown with seeds with those same microclimates.”
As for what plants to pick, there are a good amount of options. Dudleya and monkeyflowers were mentioned by several of our experts. If you have enough space for a larger plant, Ron Vanderhoff, general manager and vice president of Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar, suggests a California native milkweed (asclepias fascicularis, eriocarpa or California). ”Gardeners play a big role in the recovery of that butterfly. By planting milkweeds, we can really have an important role in helping to bring back those populations,” he says. “It’s really important to plant locally native species. That’s probably the most important point. Plant the milkweeds that naturally grow in the same area as your garden.”
To make the best selections, you should consult with someone at your local nursery. Bloom! California, an initiative from the California Native Plant Society, has a map of nurseries and growers across the state that can help.
There are other tricks to keep in mind when working with native plants. Several of our sources say fall and winter is the best time to plant many native species. Vanderhoff suggests adding a scoop of soil taken from nearby ground to the soil that you bought.
You’ll also want to avoid overheating the plants. Wood is a better surface than concrete or paving. Depending on how hot the surface of your space gets, you might want to elevate the container slightly. Another tip, he says, is double-potting, adding soil to the bottom of the exterior pot and on the sides in between the two pots. This provides insulation. “It’s the summer that we’re most concerned about because the heat of the soil in potted plants in the summer can be a lot warmer than that same plant that’s in the ground and, sometimes, it can cause them trouble,” he says.
Just as you want to avoid overheating, you’ll also want to steer clear of overwatering. “These plants are adjusted to our natural conditions and you want to somewhat mimic those,” says Vanderhoff. “You can supplement them a little bit to keep them a little bit happier, but you don’t want to ignore their natural seasonality. It’s very hard to overwater a native plant in the wintertime because they are used to water at that time of the year, but it’s very easy to overwater a native plant in the dry season, when they are generally not accustomed to water and don’t really want that water.”
Remember, even small spaces can contribute to a much larger conservation effort. “It’s not just what you’re doing. It’s what your neighbor is doing, the people across the street and the pollinator garden at the park. Thinking about it on a community scale is really important,” says Laws.
It’s not just about the habitat you’re building in your own space. Laws says, “You’re also adding to a landscape that, as it has more pollinator plants, is going to be able to support a larger and more diverse pollinator community.”
Don’t have a yard? Grow these California native plants in a container garden