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GOING WILD WITH NATIVES: “Circling Back to Nature”, CA Native Gardens of East San Diego County

By Susan Lewitt, for Let’s Talk plants! April 2022.

Photo by Judy Lincer.

On Saturday, April 9, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., you will be able to feast your senses on California’s wonders of nature. The California Native Plant Society, San Diego Chapter (CNPS-SD) will be presenting an East County California Native Garden tour. Exploring these gardens will give you the sense of a diversity of habitats with many features including dry streambeds, pool to pond conversions, water catchment devices, slope gardens, bridges, sculptures, and other enchanting water features. The areas covered includes Mount Helix/La Mesa, Allied Gardens, and Santee. There will be five private gardens to wander through, seven front yard inspirational (FYI) gardens, and two public native gardens. At each private garden there will be docents, owners, and designers, who will be glad to answer any questions you may have. Docent guided tours, educational talks, CNPS chapter book and seeds sales, and Moosa Creek native plant sales will be featured at the Water Conservation Garden.

Tickets are currently on sale at or and will be $30 per person until April 8. There will also be tickets for sale the day of the tour for $35 per person at the Water Conservation Garden check in hub, where you will be able to pick up your tour booklet.

There are many benefits from the use of native plants, such as supporting native pollinators and biodiversity, conserving water, and minimizing the use of fertilizers and other potentially harmful chemicals. Native plants also add beauty to your landscaping in many ways. Part of the support system for native plants can be achieved through creative and functional landscaping, such as bioswales, waterfalls, pool to pond conversions, adding your own natural swimming pond, bridges, and water catchment features.

To get a better idea of the differences between dry riverbeds and bioswales, I asked a CNPS member who is a native plant landscaper. According to Greg Rubin, “ … bioswales tend to be completely carpeted with wetland species, (while) dry streams typically use fewer plants to help define the meandering flow of the stream, and carry your eye onwards. Plants are often spiky and/or colorful to contrast against the horizontal massing of the rock work. Regardless, the plant types selected are appropriate to riparian settings… (In contrast) a bioswale implies a collection basin designed to retain moisture completely on site. Dry streams … are meant as conveyance devices that mimic (as closely as possible) the functions of a seasonal creek. It is not unusual for both features to be used together. A dry stream can act as the conveyance device that dramatically yet slowly moves water to a final bioswale collection device …. It is not unusual to create little "eddy pools" along the way that collect water, as well as small waterfalls that add to the visual and auditory impact of the feature.“

Their functions of minimizing and collecting water runoff allow you to use more water thirsty plants in your landscaping. These may need supplemental watering during the dryer months especially during the summer. According to Calscape, there are 91 native plants for San Diego, that do well in damp soil. They include smaller perennials herbs such as Narrowleaf Milkweed annual/perennial herbs such as the Seep Monkeyflower, plus huge trees such as the Western Sycamore. Many grasses also do well by these water features.

Photo by David Clarke.

If the water is not diverted from your roof gutters into a dry riverbed or a bioswale, an alternative to holding on to that excess water are rain barrels connected to the downspouts of your gutter system. A house on the coast may have as much as 11,200 gallons per year of water from a 2,000 square foot home. ( Inland areas, such as El Cajon, allow water tanks up to 5,000 gallons without a permit. (

Another feature that you may already have in your garden that can be redesigned to be more functional, and eco-friendlier is your swimming pool. Just imagine sharing this with turtles and koi and never having to add chlorine to your pool again! Also, if you underutilize or no longer use your pool, I understand that to fill it in was costing about $10,000 several years ago, but at the same time, the conversion to a pond was only around $2,000. Swimming Ponds from scratch can be an expensive proposition, around $75,000. Either option, if done correctly, will give you a place to share with wildlife and native plants while you enjoy a cool swim.

Many of these features work in San Diego with any type of Mediterranean plant, but keep in mind that native plants will fit any garden style you choose, and they are the ones that have been genetically adapted to our regions. They are the ones that will help us retain our status as a biodiversity hot spot and support the goal of 30 x 30 (30% of planet Earth protected in a natural state by 2030) Please come enjoy the CNPS-SD garden tour and be inspired with all the possibilities of native plant landscaping.


Susan Lewitt is a member of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), participating in their Native Gardening Committee, and their Conservation Committee.


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