Gardening Advice for Bay Area Residents – Highly Successful Plants

Gardening Advice for Bay Area Residents  –  Highly Successful Plants

Gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area can be an extensive and confusing task.  Due to our incredibly temperate climate, we can grow tens of thousands of different varieties of plants here.  Also, there are all the micro-climates to keep in mind.  On top of that, we have our own set of pests and diseases to contend with.  It may be difficult to know what to plant with all of these rules, particulars, and possible problems to deal with.

It can be utterly overwhelming trying to learn all the different plants since they all have different needs to keep them alive– the main factors being watering frequency, sun exposure, temperature, soil type, pH level, and feeding frequency.  But there are other things to consider also, when picking the right plants to survive in the SF Bay Area– what types of pests and diseases are these plants prone to, how much room does it need in your garden, is it sensitive to other plants growing close to it– does it compete for resources?  Then there are the maintenance factors: how often does one need to prune this particular plant, how messy is this plant– does it drop it’s leaves in the fall, reseed itself all over the place, send up suckers?  How does this plant grow– does it have the structure you are desiring, does it grow compact and neat, or leggy and messy?  Does it take to sheering, or will it need to be pruned by hand?

The San Francisco Bay Area climate is extremely similar to five other regions in the world– Japan, South Africa, Australia/New Zealand, certain parts of South America, and the Mediterranean.  Within this generalized climate are many “micro-climates”, mini environments within our main climate.  For example, the same plants that grow in the hot and sunny hills of Berkeley are not necessarily the same plants that grow in the foggy, salty air of the seaside community of Pacifica.  Even within the same city, one can experience many different micro-climates as they travel through– San Francisco being a stellar example of this.  The moist and cool climate on top of Mount Sutro is the complete opposite of the hot and arid neighborhood of the Mission.  The wind tunnels in downtown San Francisco makes for a difficult environment for successful plantings, whereas the same struggling plants in downtown may thrive in the sheltered Golden Gate Park with it’s many over-story trees providing protection from the wind.

The pests and diseases found here in the Bay Area are extensive– some of them imported, while others are native.  The insects that do damage to plants and seem to be the most prevalent here are snails, thrips, white fly, scale, caterpillars, Fuschia mite, and Japanese bark beetle (that has killed off over half of our mature Monterey Pine trees).  The larger pests, which can be much more difficult to prevent and control, include gophers, deer, raccoons, and rats.  The diseases that seem to pop up over and over are the Armillaria (Root Rot Fungus or Honey Fungus), Sudden Oak Death, rust, black sooty mold, and powdery mildew.

I have devised a list of plants that will work in all the various micro-climates of the bay area, and are resistant to the prevalent pests and diseases for your reference.  If you would like more advice, please feel free to hire me as your personal garden coach as I can work with your micro-climate and particular set of pests and diseases that your neighborhood is accustomed to, as well as suggest what is right for your garden’s soil type and exposure.  But for now, I would like to offer your this free garden advice: please feel free to try out this list in your garden– it should work in any San Francisco Bay Area garden, from Pacifica to Mill Valley; from the Sunset district of San Francisco to the Piedmont neighborhood of Oakland.


Fresh succulent planting
Fresh Succulent Planting

Succulents as a generic term cover a wide range of plant genii, and come in an extensive array of shapes, sizes, and colors.  I love succulents and I use them often in my designs to provide a variety of texture and shades of year-round color without the reliance of fleeting flowers.  Aloe, Agave (“Century Plant”, Echeveria (“Hen’n’chicks”), Senecio (“Blue Fingers”), Jade, Iceplant, and Sedum are some of our most popular varieties, and within these families or genii there is a wide variety of sizes, leaf shape, and colors/patterns.  For example, Aloe comes in green, pink, and striped; can be kept small in a pot, or can overtake the back corner of your garden if planted in-ground.  Sedum can be a delicate groundcover, each leaf being as small as a pinhead, or it can be a sprawling perennial with flower stalks as tall as your knee and big, fluffy, fist-size flower heads.  I clump succulents together in one category as they are all extremely
similar in their care, and they are incredibly well-suited to the Bay Area.

succulent growing on concrete
Succulent Growing on Concrete

Succulents don’t require much water at all, but will thrive with regular water, growing quickly and filling in the intended space with grace.  If you overwater them, they will rot out and die.  If you under-water them, they will not grow but very slowly die back, killing off leaves, but will hang on for years with absolutely no water except what they pull out of the air of our humid environment.  They would prefer soil that drains well, like sandy soil, but will thrive in loamy soil, and will do just fine growing out of bedrock.  I have seen them naturally growing out of the cliff walls of Montara Mountain in Pacifica, and blooming alongside delicate annual flowers in humus-rich soil of a garden, and just plugging along at the beach in the sand dunes of Pacifica State Beach, adding a riot of color in an otherwise drab scene.

Succulent growing on rock cliff
Succulent Growing on Rock Cliff

Succulents don’t require much care, other than occasionally remembering to water them.  They will be fine with or without food.  They don’t make much of a mess, unless you never water them (then you will be picking up dead leaves) or unless you water them regularly (then you will have to prune them a couple of times a year; not bad!)  They are highly resistant to pests and diseases.  Snails and slugs don’t care for them, neither do deer, gophers, or all the tiny creepy crawlers that attack more sensitive, less tough plants.  I have never had to spray a succulent, or plant them behind a fence, or in a gopher basket.

Succulent garden example
Succulent Garden Example

Design wise, succulents work well in pots, hanging on a wall in a frame, in the ground, mixed in with other types of plants, or even growing out of a hole in a lava rock.  They create an amazing display of color and texture when you mix up different species– I have seen leaf colors in all shades of pastels; powder blue, light orange, and red being popular colors.  They generally bloom in the winter with the rains, but have been known to bloom year round with regular water.  Their bloom colors range from pale pink to hot fuchsia, yellow, white, orange, and everything in between.  Finally, one of my favorite aspects of succulents is that they take well to rooting from cuttings.  Which means that you could plant up your garden with them for free, if you can gain enough free cuttings from your friends and neighbors.

California Natives

california poppy
California Poppy

We are in California, so it is only logical that the natives to this state would do wonderfully here.  They also require little care as they are so well-suited to our climate and environment that they tend to take care of themselves.  Some home gardeners resist CA natives because they say that they are “ugly” or that they never bloom, but I have to disagree with that, and will introduce you to some of the natives that blow this theory out of the water.

clarkia in nature
Clarkia in Nature

Clarkia (Farewell-To-Spring), Eschschlozia (CA poppies), and Checkerbloom (a mallow groundcover) are all perennial groundcovers that will carpet the ground in pink or orange blooms.  Mix in some Indian paintbrush, Douglas Iris, Wild Strawberry, and Globe Lily, and you will have a riotous field of spring and summer color.

sticky monkey flower
Sticky Monkey Flower

Perennial blooming shrubs include Sticky Monkey Flower, Huckleberries, Penstemon, and Lupine for a variety of heights and colors, including purple, yellow-orange, blue, and pink.  Both Coffeeberry and Elderberry have interesting and colorful foliage along with their brightly colored summer berries.

douglas iris
Douglas Iris

Colorful and interesting trees and shrubs are numerous.  Ceanothus comes in tree, shrub, or groundcover form, and whose dark green glossy foliage is covered so thick in tiny purple or blue flowers in the spring that you cannot see the green under it.  Flannel Bush (Fremontodendron californica, native of Fremont, CA) is a shrubby tree that grows as wide as it grows tall, and sports fist-size, stunning dark yellow flowers with rich orange buds.  Both Manzanita shrubs and Madrone trees have an amazing display of peeling bark that reveal a rich reddish, smooth trunk underneath, and also both sport clusters of tiny, bell-shaped, white waxy blossoms that attract hummingbirds.

CA natives are drought tolerant, pest and disease resistant, low-maintenance, and can grow in any soil condition, especially in crappy soil that most imported ornamentals would shrivel and die in.

Other Specific Plants That Grow Great Here

Agapanthus orientalis (Lily of the Nile) is a Bay Area standby, and tends to thrive with or without water, in good or poor soil, in the shade or the sun, in the garden or on the side of a freeway.  The only problems I’ve ever had with them is mammalian pests– deer like their flower buds, and gophers enjoy their juicy roots.  Snails make the plant their home although don’t eat it.

flax (phormium)
Flax (phormium)

Phormium tenax (Flax) is the plant with sword-shaped leaves that come in all colors and sizes; there seems to be at least one of every block in the Bay Area.  “Tom Thumb” is a small, chocolate-brown flax that grows no bigger then 1’x1′, whereas “Allison Blackman” variety has olive green to bronze leaves with yellow stripes and red margins and grows as big as 5’x5′.  ‘Maori Maiden’ and ‘Maori Queen’ are known for their brilliant red and pink striped leaves, lending year-round color to any garden, and never growing taller more than 4’x4′, tending to average out at 3’x3′.  The ‘Sundowner’ sports leaves of orange and bronze that light up when the sun’s rays shine through it for an amazing impact.  Plant Flax in the back of a small garden to lend the garden depth and make it appear larger than it is.  Flax will take any soil, any amount of water, tend to not be bothered by pests (except the occasional gopher), and are not known to catch any diseases, although they do prefer full sun.  Their blooms are interesting, but insignificant; the plant is used more for it’s leaves.

Gaillardia (Blanket Flower) is a perennial plant that lays down and acts like a groundcover, taking up a lot of space and providing a never-ending supply of bright and interesting flowers throughout the early spring through late fall.  In the early winter, they must be cut back to the base, when there is new growth there.  The flowers are red balls with yellow centers, fringed with red petals that are dipped in orange and then yellow at the tips.  Very colorful!  The buds are flat and yellow, with an outer ring of red.  The dead flowers are even interesting, dark, fluffy balls of fading color, and can be left on the plant for a variety of texture (but should be deadheaded every couple of weeks to keep the plant blooming).  This plant never gets pests or diseases, can thrive in a drought tolerant garden or in an irrigated one, and handles different types of soil well.  It’s only fussy point is that it prefers full sun.

I hope you have been enjoying my blog posts.  I am attempting to share some free knowledge with you, but if you desire more hands-on garden training, my husband and I are available for hire as a garden tutor for you to provide you landscape consultation tailored to your specific needs and desires.  Click here to visit our contact page.  Thanks!

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