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Native plants are the new darlings of the landscaping world, which is shifting its focus from ornamentals to building habitat to help hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and other beneficial pollinators find the food they need to survive.
But — news flash!—you don't need a yard or vast tracts of land to promote biodiversity. Pollinators are more than happy to dine on native plants growing in pots on balconies or patios.
If every balcony in L.A. sprouted at least one native plant, "we could create green buildings supporting the entire food chain in a very small space," said Evan Meyer, executive director of the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers & Native Plants in Sun Valley.
Even a pot of California buckwheat, with its showy white flowers and abundant seed pods, can provide lots of food for beneficial insects and birds. "It does great in containers," Meyer said. "It takes full sun."
Urban development has destroyed much of the habitat and food sources for native animals that evolved to eat and live among particular native plants. But Meyer said studies have shown that once you introduce native plants into an inner-city matrix, "all of a sudden the pollinators will come. We're talking about charming insects — not mosquitos or cockroaches who don't need help living in an urban environment — but butterflies and native bees who are not only amazing pollinators but beautiful in their own right. And they support the food chain by feeding birds and larger animals."
The Theodore Payne Foundation is one of several nurseries devoted to growing native plants and rebuilding habitat in Southern California. Its nursery has even developed wildflower seeds meant to be sown and grown in balcony pots.
Growing even a few native plants in pots "is really a way for individuals to participate in restoring nature," Meyer said. "Our mission is to create conditions where nonhuman life can thrive along with human life in our city. We know there's a path to get there, and this is the path."
Late fall and early winter are the best times to start growing native plants in Southern California because the cooler, wetter months give them time to get established before things get too hot.
Before you start, however, here are a few important tips:
Consider your space
Some native plants require full sun, others prefer full or partial shade. Figure out how much sun your balcony or patio receives, then take that information with you to the nursery. For instance, white sage is a total sun lover, but hummingbird sage, its sweetly fragrant cousin, prefers shade.
Choose the correct soil
You don't want to plant in a richly amended organic soil. Native plants are used to dry, nutrient-poor soil that drains quickly, said Flora Ito, Theodore Payne's nursery manager. A soil with rich organic material holds on to its moisture for a long time. That's fine for some garden plants, but it promotes root rot in native plants. Theodore Payne makes its own soil mix for native plants, but any nursery should sell good potting soil for cactuses and succulents that crumbles easily and drains quickly.
Pot size matters
Many native plants send out deep roots, so a deep pot will be your ultimate goal. When plants are young, you want to start with a pot that's about double the depth and width of its original container. Otherwise, you have too much soil that never dries, encouraging root rot, Ito said. You could move a plant in a 4-inch pot into a gallon-size pot, Ito said, but nothing much bigger until its roots are pushing against the sides of the pot. Transplanting in the fall or early winter is best, when the cool weather will make it easier for the plant to adjust to its new home.
Spare the fertilizer
Native plants in the ground don't need any fertilizer besides what they get from decomposing leaves, etc. But because nutrients are leached out of pots with repeated watering, Ito recommends a light application of fertilizer, diluted to quarter strength, once or twice a year at the beginning of the growing season. Do not fertilize after transplanting or when plants are dormant.
Water with care
Most California native plants don't need much water in the ground because they have evolved to live in dry conditions. But plants in pots dry out more rapidly, so they will need regular watering. Ito recommends using your fingers to probe the soil to check for moisture. It's OK for the top inch or two to be dry, but the soil should be moist farther down. When you water, soak the soil until water drains from the bottom. Never let the plant sit in water, which can cause it to "drown." Ito recommends adding pebbles, rocks, wood mulch or even corks to the top of the soil to help it retain moisture and add color and interest to the overall display.
Want to know more?
Visit nurseries (or their websites) that specialize in selling native plants. There are several in Southern California besides Theodore Payne, such as the California Botanic Garden in Claremont, Tree of Life in San Juan Capistrano and Artemisia Nursery in Los Angeles.
Here are Theodore Payne's picks for 12 native plants that can be grown easily in containers. But Meyer and Ito also encourage experimentation. For instance, Ito said, white sage will grow in pots, but it can also get very large, so be prepared to keep it trimmed. When possible, we've paired young plants with older ones in these photos, so you can see how they grow.
Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) is fragrant and low growing, with spikes of deep magenta flowers that bloom from March to May. The plant prefers shade or partial shade.
St. Catherine's Lace (Eriogonum giganteum) is a rare, endangered buckwheat with gray-green leaves and clusters of large, creamy pink blooms that turn to rust as they age. It grows quickly in full sun.
Giant chalk Dudleya, a.k.a. Britton's Dudleya (Dudleya brittonii ) is a large, showy succulent with chalky blue leaves tipped in pink and large clusters of yellow flowers. Prefers part shade; keep out of direct afternoon sun.
California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) is a sun-loving shrub with clusters of white and pink flowers that are highly attractive to butterflies and native bees.
'Emerald Carpet' manzanita (Arctostaphylos 'Emerald Carpet') is a low-growing shrub with glossy green leaves, red stems and white flowers that bloom in January and February. It prefers sun in coastal areas but part shade in inland locations with intense afternoon sun.
Chaparral yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei) is a round succulent with spiky, silver-green leaves and a tall, cream-colored bloom that looks like a feather duster. It grows in full sun.
Wildflower balcony mix is designed by the Theodore Payne Foundation to be grown in pots 12 to 14 inches wide and at least 6 inches deep. A packet includes at least five flowers — red maids, foothill poppy, bird's-eye gilia, goldfields and baby blue eyes. Grow in sun or part shade.
Shaw's agave (Agave shawii) is a dramatic succulent with textured, deep-green, serrated leaves edged with sharp magenta "teeth." It blooms with red and yellow flowers on a tall stalk and likes full sun.
Catalina currant (Ribes viburnifolium) is a bright green shrub with red stems, a citrus fragrance and reddish flowers that attract butterflies. It prefers part shade.
Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) is a slow-growing succulent with spiky leaves ending in sharp, dark points. The plant prefers full sun and grows to a tree in the wild, but its size is stunted in containers. It produces creamy conical blooms.
Island snapdragon (Gambelia speciosa) is an easy-to-grow perennial with vine-like branches, bright green foliage and deep-throated red flowers that attract hummingbirds and other pollinators. Can grow in full sun to part shade.
Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) has deep green, holly-shaped leaves that turn purple and red in the winter, as well as clusters of yellow flowers and purple berries that look like grapes. The plant grows in sun and full and partial shade.
For the record:
11:25 AM, Feb. 04, 2021: An earlier version of this story failed to credit photographer Genny Arnold for the image of the wildflower mix on the balcony. An earlier version also used an image of a miniature Joshua tree (Sedum multiceps) instead of the kind of Joshua tree (Yucca brevifiolia) found in California deserts.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.