Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

How to Pick the Right Plant for the Right Place in Your Garden

Come find out at the Marin County Fair, June 30 to July 4

Know your San Francisco Bay regional climate zone

Fruit trees and many colorful perennials appreciate hot summers and cold winters
Fruit trees and many colorful perennials appreciate hot summers and cold winters
Our Bay Region microclimates are affected by topography and proximity to the coast and the bay. The coastal hills can affect summer heat and winter cold, moderating temperature extremes in those communities located west of the coastal range. Communities farther inland to the east, away from the coast and the bay, experience hotter summers and colder winters.

Plants that do well in coastal regions may suffer if planted in areas with winter frost or summer heat - even though these regions can be just a few miles from each other.
The Sunset Western Garden Book, one of the most widely used references for plants grown in western North America, assigns regional zones to bay communities. Knowing your Sunset climate zone can help you pick the right plants for your garden. Most San Francisco Bay Regional zones are 7, 9, 14, 15, 16, and 17. In general, zones 15, 16 and 17 are considered coastal communities.

To find your zone, click on the following: http://www.sunset.com/garden/climate-zones/sunset-climate-zone-bay-area

How to increase the odds of success in your garden

Know your garden’s microclimates
Even within a small garden, climate can be affected by slope, structures, orientation and wind. A south-facing wall will radiate a lot of heat when the sun is out, whereas the area on the north side of your house will remain cooler and shaded for most of the year. Cold will “sink” to the bottom of a sloping hillside, creating cooler temperatures. Deciduous trees will allow winter sun to warm your soil, but they may shade out and affect the number of blooms on summer-flowering plants. Windy conditions may affect growth and increase water loss.

An attractive mixed border thrives in this Bodega Bay garden, where summers stay cool and winter frost is rare
An attractive mixed border thrives in this Bodega Bay garden, where summers stay cool and winter frost is rare

Know how much sun you receive during the growing season
In general, plants that require “full sun” need at least six hours of sun during late spring and summer in order to thrive. If your garden does not receive that minimum amount of sunlight, then look for plants that tolerate “part sun” or “part shade.”

Know your soil type
Some plants grow well in just about any kind of soil, but most have a preference. Much of our native soil in the Bay Region is clay, composed of tiny, microscopic plate-like particles. Clay retains water for a long time, but drains very slowly. Plants that prefer good drainage should be planted on slopes or in soil that has been amended with compost to facilitate better drainage. Some plants like moist, rich soil – amended with lots of organic material to retain moisture like a sponge and offer a good supply of nutrients. Adding organic material to your soil can improve water retention in sandy soils, while increasing pore space for air and drainage in clay soils.

Know how much water you wish to spend
Plants that grow well in Mediterranean climates are accustomed to wet winters and dry summers. That does not mean that all plants can do well without supplemental water. In fact, many Mediterranean climate plants appreciate a few or several good soakings during the heat of summer and early fall. However, some plants can become drought tolerant so long as they are irrigated regularly and deeply during their first few years of growth. Overwatering can kill some plants. Many plants, if watered properly, require less water than you might think.

Look for plants that require less than “average” amounts of water – moderate, occasional, or infrequent amounts – to stay within your water budget. Water is a precious resource in California, so invest in plants that will not break your water bank.

Know which plants attract pollinators and other wildlife
When selecting plants for your garden, you have the opportunity to create a backyard ecosystem that attracts native insects, birds, and other animals. Try to select plants that offer a year-round food supply, such as pollen, nectar, seeds, and berries. Choose plants that offer nesting spaces and cover to protect against predators. And by adding a water feature, such as a recirculating fountain that also serves as a bathing spot, you will invite a host of birds and other wildlife attracted by the burbling sounds from your fountain. Your garden won’t just be a pretty picture; it will be a haven for wildlife and will enhance your viewing enjoyment.

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