Go Native: 6 Plants and Design Tips For Your San Francisco Home and Garden

When you're working with nature rather than against it, maintaining a native garden can be relatively painless — using fewer resources like water and fertilizer can mean less maintenance. Not only does greenery increase the overall value of your home, but, fun trivial fact: looking out at a garden and plants can increase one's overall health and is said to help hospital patients recover more quickly. Whether you want an attractive yard to view from your home or a place where you can get your hands dirty, growing a garden is known to make you a healthier individual.

California native plants are collected by botanists and horticulturalists and developed for use in gardens. Most are drought-tolerant, allowing you to use less water, making them a safe bet for your yard, deck or patio, or kitchen window! In the same way that there can be microclimates within the Bay area, the same goes for a garden. Conditions can vary in small but significant ways on the landscape scale as well. When gardening with local natives, you are celebrating these differences. And you are literally going to the source — you can’t find plants better adapted to life in the SF than native plants and they also support local wildlife, to boot. I had a chat with my friend, go-to urban gardner and landscaper, Katherine Harbaugh, who also volunteers at the San Francisco Botanical garden nursery (where you can also purchase native plants). She gave me a short list of six of her favorite native plants and why you want to plant them in your garden.

California Golden Poppy

You've probably seen these all around! This flower was named the California state flower in 1903. Poppies are perennial in most areas of the Southwest but can be grown as annuals in the Bay Area. These beautiful wildflowers bloom starting as early as February into May and with regular water can bloom all the way through September. The cheerful four-petaled, cup shaped blossoms are 2 - 3 inches across and range in color from bright yellow to gold to a deep orange. The poppy's foliage is a bluish gray-green with a feathery, fern-like appearance.

Poppies prefer a dry, sandy soil and full sun. The weather is known to play a major part in the color of the blooms. In the lower elevations the flowers may be more golden than orange. As the blooming season progresses the blooms may change from bright orange to pale yellow. Some even make a tea by using one slightly rounded teaspoon of the chopped aerial parts of the poppy. It can safely be taken for anxiety, insomnia, or suffering from mild aches or muscle spasms. A tincture can also me made and used for the same problems. It contains flavone glycosides that provide a gentle sedative action. It is a much less powerful, non-addictive and of course, not to be mistaken for the Opium Poppy.

As a part of your garden landscape these poppies will attract bees and butterflies to your garden, and their deep taproots can be effective against mild erosion. Once the petals have fallen off, simply collect the seeds from the seed pod and scatter them anywhere, for a hearty next-season growth.


The easy-to-grow Lupine — one of Katherine's favorites — thrives in cool, moist locations. It prefers full sun to light shade and average soils, but will tolerate sandy, dry soil if need be and thrives in Twin Peaks and the southern dunes of Fort Funston beach. Lupine develop long taproots, so it's best to loosen the soil to a depth of 12-20 inches.

The endangered Mission Blue butterfly spends most of its year-long life fluttering around the Lupine, laying eggs that hatch in March through June each year. The new caterpillar eats Lupine leaves to grow, and as the lupine puts out new leaves the following spring, the caterpillar resumes feeding and growing eventually emerging as an adult butterfly. During its brief adult life, the butterfly can no longer eat solid food but instead sips the plants nectar to fuel its primary activities: mating and egg-laying. Adult mission blues are weak flyers, seldom leaving their Lupine patches.

Although it's not very likely that growing just one Lupine will bring the extrmeley rare Mission Blue to your garden, but Katie suggests that sometimes, if a community of neighbors grow them together, it can create a habitat islands — increasing the chance of birth and survival. The Lupine must be planted with other nectar flowers such as native Yarrow to increase hospitality. She also adds that the Presidio has a big volunteer program that does habitat restoration for people want to plug-in into the Mission Blue scene.

California Maidenhair Fern

This is a somewhat rare and elegant fern that normally tolerates going dormant in dry summer conditions. You usually see them a lot as house plants. The lovely delicate fern has tiny leaves that look similar to the Ginko tree seen planted up and down the sidewalks of the city. They thrive in partial to full shade and are native to San Francisco, Angel Island, the East Bay hills, and other local regions.

Like all ferns, they require partial to full shade and consistently moist soil. It's best to pick the right place in your garden that gets mostly shade and will require less watering. The Maidenhair fern will grow to a height of one to two feet and similar size in width. Maidenhair ferns are also used in the creation of herbal medicines. Parts of the fern are used in the herbal medicine for colds, asthma, sore throats, kidney stones and liver problems. Some also use Maidenhair fern as a tea in various different forms.

Coast Rock Cress

This is a charming and edible cress with bright blooms and grows wild on Twin Peak, the Presidio and other natural regions in the Bay Area. It is listed as uncommon by the Jepson Manual, mostly due to habitat loss. Found usually in a grassland meadow, this pretty little flower is delightful when tucked into rock crevices or walls. Excellent for slopes and perfectly sized for rock gardens and border fronts!

The rare, native perennial species of the Mustard Family grows up to 12 inches in height with showy, fragrant, pink to purple four-petaled flowers with white centers; leaves are long, with distinct individual hairs on edges and it blooms from February to April. The Coastal Rock Cress enjoys full sun with little to no plant food, but be sure to allow soil to dry between thorough waterings. Simple, right?!

California Bay Laurel

This is a slow growing very large tree that can be kept pruned and neat for a minimalist, modern or mid century style garden. It grows well in containers if you don't want to commit to a big tree. But as you may already know, it's fragrant leaves can be used in cooking soups and vegetable side dishes. Moderation is the key with the leaves of this tree so do proceed with caution in using it medicinally or as a flavoring in foods. The strongly aromatic mature leaves, like the leaves of many other aromatic plants, are reputed to be an insect repellant as well!

Besides the obvious use as a lovely tree in garden situations, the bay can also be used as a tall screen or clipped hedge. This very adaptable plant enjoys an array of sun/shade, water/drought, fertile soil or clay, making it an easy to care for and a wonderful plant for your garden.

Blue Eyed Grass

For those who are trying to attract wildlife to your gardens, blue-eyed grass will serve you well. Bees visit the flowers for pollen or nectar and seeds are even attractive to prairie chickens, wild turkeys, and songbirds. Pretty cute, huh? The Blue-eyed grass is a star performer in rock gardens, cottage-like gardens, and sometimes used at the front of borders and pathways.

Blue-eyed grass occurs naturally in wet fields so it prefers full sun and damp soil. But if you don't have a wet field in full sun for a backyard, don't fret. Blue-eyed grass gets along quite nicely in ordinary, well-drained but moist garden soil in sun to partial shade. And like the other native plants mentioned in this article, medicinal uses have been found for blue-eyed grass; usually tea made from the roots have been used by American Indians for treating stomachaches.

I know that was a lot of information jam-packed into one interior design blog post. But we want you to feel free to use this as a reference for if and when you decide to design that (other) room of your home — your garden. We work closely with the lovely Outer Space Landscape Architect firm here in San Francisco, if you're looking for someone to take on the more difficult work of outdoor design. They provide a variety of landscapes, from: Architectural, Drought Resistant, Deer Resistant, Native, Erosion Control, Fragrant, Japanese, Wildlife Habitat, Child/Pet-Friendly/Non-Toxic. So no matter what you're looking for, they have you covered.