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Locally based: Why native plants are perfect for the California garden

Locally based: Why native plants are perfect for the California garden
Succlents, cacti and grasses are a great fit for a drought-tolerant, gorgeous yard. (Shutterstock)

Rain, rain, (it went) away. With spring fully sprung and another dry and sunny summer upon us, it's the perfect time to spruce up your yard for the enjoyment of family and friends. Why not take this opportunity to transform your landscaping into an environment more suited to Southern California's climate (and, bonus, kinder to your overhead)?

Removing water-thirsty plants and grasses in favor of native flora or even artificial turf can give your yard a healthy, hip appearance, while also reducing your water bills, the strain on our drought-prone environment, and hours of yard work. Landscape upgrades can also boost the value of your home, delivering an estimated 105% return on investment, according to a 2016 survey by the National Association of Realtors.

The golden rule for low-maintenance, eco-friendly landscaping is to utilize native Southern California plants. They'll naturally thrive in the region's climate and dominant soils, without help from toxic pesticides or fertilizers. And low-water-use landscaping needn't be dull and uniform, as our native flora can be lush, varied and vibrant year-round. It's worth investing the additional time and money to seek out eye-catching plants from specialized nurseries, rather than the often-drab drought-tolerant offerings at "big box" stores.

Low-water-loving succulents are minimal maintenance favorites in Southern California yards, and provide diversity and contrast in shape, form and texture, adding instant interest to a garden with only negligible upkeep. Other distinctively Californian, climate-appropriate plants include hummingbird sage, Cleveland sage, California lilac and California redbud.  Some non-indigenous plants that originate in climates similar to SoCal's have thrived in the region's gardens for decades. Considering the region's Mediterranean climate, it's no surprise that plants from the Mediterranean, like strawberry trees, smoke trees and the European olive, do well in local yards, adding not just texture and color, but also an independent, globe-trotting look that gives a feeling of permanent vacation to an outdoor design.  Other transplants that may flourish locally include smaller, low-branched evergreen trees such as "Little Gem" and "Teddy Bear" dwarf Southern magnolias and Western Australian peppermint, which produce attractive foliage, bark and sometimes flowers. From New Zealand, the evergreen kōhūhū "silver sheen" upright shrub can be a dramatic addition in SoCal part-sun locations and make an attractive screening hedge.

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And "low water" needn't mean "low color." Although semi- or fully deciduous, the non-native (but longtime resident) crape myrtles, gold medallion trees and pink-lavender trumpet trees can add beautiful accents to Southern California gardens.

While lawns are a staple of traditional suburbs, most green grass varieties are far from native and can prove frustratingly high-maintenance. With many area lawns ending up as scorched brown eyesores for months at a time, more and more local homeowners are turning to less thirsty and demanding options like IdealMow — consisting of lush native grasses and non-grass alternatives — or artificial turf.

Artificial lawns have been, quite literally, gaining ground for some years (synthetic turf currently covers some 50 million acres of America, up from 30 million acres in 2004). These increasingly realistic "outdoor carpets" require no water, fertilizer or time-consuming (and often polluting) mowing and blowing. An occasional brush with a broom is all synthetic turf should need. With newer artificial lawns expected to last 20 to 25 years, they become extremely cost-efficient in comparison to the expense of watering, fertilizing and mowing real grass for that period (experts have calculated that the cost of installing an artificial lawn can be recouped within three to seven years).

With up to 80% of household water use being outdoors in some of the more arid parts of Southern California, drought-tolerant landscaping can make a welcome impact on your water bill. Additionally, rebates are available from municipal utilities for replacing your lawn with sustainable landscaping such as California-friendly plants, mulch and other groundcover (which helps to retain soil moisture), rain-capturing features such as barrels or vegetated swale, and drip irrigation. At the time of writing, the LADWP's California Friendly Landscape Incentive Program was offering rebates of $2.00 per square foot — minimum 250 square feet; maximum 1,500 square feet — with similar turf-removal incentives also available in Pasadena, Anaheim, Malibu and Topanga Canyon.

– Paul Rogers, Custom Publishing Writer