When I tell Cassy Aoyagi, the friendly and knowledgeable co-owner of C&K Landscape Design, that I want to talk to her about xeriscaping, she laughs.

"The term xeriscaping is so '70s," she says. "I think there are really weird associations with it — people see gravel and cactus."

In case you missed the coining of the term "xeriscape" in 1978, it can very simply be defined as dry landscaping: Gardening in dry regions without much in the way of supplemental irrigation. Seems easy enough — just plant a bunch of cacti, throw in some rocks, and call it a day — but there's a tad more to it. The term xeriscaping is more and more often interchanged with the phrase "native gardening." It's a growing movement that strives to reintroduce plants that are native to dry regions such as Southern California, where they've long been squeezed out by thirsty and needy exotics.

Aoyagi and her team are a full-service, Southern California-based landscape design, construction and maintenance company. Specializing in sustainability, they endeavor to make every project as environmentally friendly as possible, which means using lots of natives along with recycled, repurposed materials.

Despite what she calls "terrible stereotypes" associated with natives, Aoyagi has noticed a marked increase in requests for native gardens in the last year. That's partly thanks to a growing interest in the environment, and partly because native gardening means less water and less maintenance. And although those "terrible stereotypes" about native plants exist — "When people bring up natives, they envision woody, weedy stuff that's half-dead by the end of summer," Aoyagi explains — the reality is that xeriscapers aren't limited by a lack of options.

According to Louise Lacey, whose website Growing Native offers a wealth of information on working with native California plant communities, there are more than 5,000 species native to the Golden State — and that's not counting subspecies.

Lacey fell into native gardening years ago when living in a shady place on a shoestring budget. With a 60-mile commute, she didn't have the time or money to care for a needy garden. She fell in love with the plants at a local native plant botanic garden, and quickly realized that they would solve all of her gardening problems.

"I wouldn't have to water; I wouldn't have to do anything," she explains. "They didn't need me."

It's an amazing concept for those accustomed to gardening with exotics, whose care requires water, fertilizer, pesticides and lots of time, but Lacey stresses that even natives do need some attention in the first few years.

Aoyagi echoes that sentiment.

"The biggest misconception about natives is that they don't require any maintenance," she warns. "Don't do any planting, including natives, if you're not willing to maintain it, because you'll be disappointed."

Once they're established, though, they know how to take care of themselves. Lacey insists that three years after getting started, her native garden only required eight hours of care — per year.

What was born of necessity quickly turned into a life's passion. Through trial and error, Lacey learned the basics of native gardening, which she now offers online. She's also quick to speak about the healing aspects of native gardening — both for the earth, and for the gardener.

"It's really a spiritual experience," she says, going on to describe how growing native plants creates natural habitats for native fauna such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Lili Singer, special projects coordinator for the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley, Calif., designed her own native garden specifically to attract hummingbirds. A horticulturist, garden consultant and garden writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Singer grew up in the San Fernando valley, where she hosted a garden show on KCRW for more than a decade, and worked as the publisher and editor of The Southern California Gardener and The Gardener's Companion, both specifically focused on gardening in Southern California. Throughout her career in radio and print, she has always included native plants and endorsed the Theodore Payne Foundation, a nonprofit nursery dedicated to promoting the understanding, use and preservation of California's native flora.

"The foundation has 22 acres, most of it undeveloped, in the middle of residential," Singer explains. "It's kind of like this little oasis. We have demonstration gardens, a big retail nursery, an art gallery and an education center with programs all year."

One of the things Singer was hired to do was get the Theodore Payne Foundation into farmers markets, and she says the Hollywood Farmers' Market has made Sunday her favorite day of the week.

"We had a native coyote mint plant in there one week, and it had a flower on it. Coyote mint is a butterfly attractor, and there we were, in the middle of this urban farmers market with 7,000 people walking by and all of these booths, and butterflies came in and found the plant."

The anecdote is a testimony to Singer's belief that putting natives into home gardens may be the way to save certain species.

"Most insects will not eat non-native plants," she explains. "Butterflies will not lay their eggs on non-native plants. If we don't have those little caterpillars, we don't have birds eating them, and we don't have the birds. It's a picture of the food chain, and the fact that we've destroyed most of our wild lands means that we can't depend on that being the sanctuary for the wild animals anymore."

It's a bad state of affairs, but the good news is that Aoyagi, Lacey and Singer are all optimistic about the positive impact of native gardening, not to mention the growing interest in it. The moral of the story: Whether you're planting your own small garden or hiring a landscape design company, try going native.


Interested gardeners across the United States can contact their state's Native Plant Societies, where they'll find helpful information and local native nurseries.

California-based gardeners can check out Louise Lacey's small book, The Basics, available on her website, and those in Southern California can visit the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley. Take one of its courses, such as California Native Plant Garden Design with board member Cassy Aoyagi. Want to know more about the relationship between native flora and fauna, and how you can make them both a part of your life? Lili Singer suggests reading Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, by Douglas W. Tallamy. 

Xeriscaping is more than gravel and cactus
California rediscovers the environmental benefits of native gardening.