A properly planted native garden often starts out looking sparse and fills in gradually. At first, most of the growth is below the surface. It may look like nothing is happening, but the extensive root system that makes many natives drought-tolerant takes time to get established. It may take two or three years before you see significant growth above ground.
The rule of thumb for native gardens is “sleep, creep, leap.” The first year the plants sleep, the second year they creep and the third year they leap. This applies especially to slow-growing plants such as manzanitas, mahonias and other shrubs, but it also can apply to perennials, grasses and vines. (The “sleep, creep, leap” rule applies to selected non-natives as well.)
In one of my gardens, leap year has arrived. I was warned that Silver Carpet aster was invasive, but my plants looked tentative their first year and spread out politely their second year. Now in their third year, they are taking over their section of the garden – which means lots of propagation as I cut them back. Coyote mint and Margarita BOP penstemon finally burst into full bloom this year, after a year or two of a flower here and there. Some branches of a groundcover manzanita have crept 3-4 feet toward a sunnier spot.
Even the yerba buena, a well-behaved mint that hugs the ground, has spread quite a bit farther. As it travels, the stems root themselves, so as the original plant has gotten shaded out by a black sage planted nearby, new yerba buena plants have colonized more open areas.
Patience is a good quality to foster if you’re growing native shrubs or perennials. The reward, in return for two to three years of care, is a garden that ever after doesn’t require nearly as much care or water as a garden planted with more demanding choices.
Live fast, die young
In the meantime, fill in the gaps or add color with some “live fast, (maybe) die young” plants. A Cleveland sage I nurtured from a cutting a year or two ago is already 3 feet high and has bloomed. I propagate hummingbird sage every time I cut it back, and it will bloom the same year. Tiny yarrow divisions, planted along a sidewalk, have bloomed every year and have now spread at least 3 feet into hummingbird sage territory.
Annuals are best planted each year if you want a reliable show of color. Spring annuals such as globe gilia bloomed a long time and came back every year when I planted them near a vegetable garden and watered them regularly, but they have not returned in another garden that is heavily mulched. Madia, a striking summer annual, did not return in the mulched garden, either.
California poppies will rebloom, with a little water, if they are pruned to approximately 2 inches high after their main bloom has faded. Although they are often treated like annuals, they will come back in the spring from seed (even in mulched gardens) as well as from their robust roots.