Notes from the Field: Why Native Plants Are Good for the Bay

Native plants
Native plants are good for the Bay and all of its inhabitants.
Photo by Rick Lewis

As I was commuting from Berkeley to our native plant nursery at the MLK Jr. Shoreline in Oakland, I had to use my windshield wipers on a perfectly sunny day.  A number of automated sprinklers were watering the grassy median strip, the road, and my car. This scene reminded of why I continue to advocate for the use of native plants in our landscapes throughout the Bay Area.  It’s just a little excess water, right?  What’s the big deal? And what does have to do with native plants and the San Francisco Bay?

According to the Save Our Water campaign, nearly 50% of California’s residential water usage is dedicated to watering lawns and ornamental landscapes.  Furthermore, over-watering is one of the most common gardening mistakes causing plant stress and other problems in your landscape. One broken sprinkler isn’t much in the great scheme, but excessive water usage adds up to a tremendous loss of California’s most precious resource.

Nearly 40% of the state drains into the Bay and this freshwater source provides critical habitat for many aquatic and wetland species. Many terrestrial species, such as birds, insects, and mammals, depend on native habitat and native flora that is usually removed in urban and suburban developments and replaced with lawns and non-native ornamental plant species. Although they may be aesthetically beautiful, many non-native plant species do not provide the same habitat values as native species.

Native Plants are good for the Bay for the following reasons:

  • Native plants use less water. They are adapted to our cool, wet winters and dry summers. There are many different species that thrive in all the various microclimates throughout the bay area region. Select the right communities of species for the right areas, and your landscape will thrive without supplemental watering, once the plants are established. This allows us to conserve water without damaging our gardens.
  • Native plants don’t require additional fertilizers.  Native plants are adapted to local soil conditions and can thrive without the addition of supplemental nutrient supplies.  Excess application of fertilizers leads to eutrophication- where excess nutrients flow into bodies of water and create excessive plant growth of both native and non-native, sub-aquatic vegetation as well as change delicate chemical balance in water bodies for fish and other organisms.
  • Native plants don’t need herbicides and pesticides to thrive.  Native flora have evolved to compete with other plants and animals in their communities. Planting at the right density, using mulch to control weeds, and a little hand pulling can quickly replace the use of herbicides.  Actually, less than 1% of insects are considered to be pests in your garden. The vast majority are considered to be beneficial insects, also called natural enemies — dragonflies, ladybugs, praying mantids, just to name a few — and beneficial insects help control pest populations. Furthermore, studies have shown many of the pesticides on the market, persist in the environment and end up in our streams, flowing directly into the bay. Many are known to be harmful to wildlife and aquatic species, but worse, there is much that unknown at the long term effects of these chemicals in our environment. Play it safe, try non-toxic alternatives in your landscape, support wildlife diversity, and protect the bay starting at your garden.
  • Native plants provide a sense of place and connect us to the Bay area. These plants are the authentic landscape of our region. Planting these species in your garden instead of choosing something native to other parts of the world, creates a deeper connection to where you live and helps make this region even more special and unique.

To learn more about native plants and how to protect San Francisco Bay,  join us at our native plant nurseries the first and second Wednesdays of each month.

Hope to grow with you soon!

– Doug Serrill, Nursery Manager