A Native Garden

California Cottage Design

Abundance is the key visual element.  The California climate allows us to have this garden year round.  Plants are tightly spaced vying for your attention but getting along together quite happily.  Pathways are important design elements inviting you to enter and encouraging you to move through the garden.  Fragrances lure you deeper.  Something is always in bloom.  A bench or other seating is a visual design element and it invites you to linger.

DSCN0154Native plants are perfect for this type of garden.  Cottage gardens originated with natives of the area where the gardener lived.  We often think of English gardens but they are found worldwide.  The plants aren’t fussy or expensive.  Once you have planted, you will have many visitors.  If it is your front yard your neighbors will stop by and talk to you, the birds will come by and sing or show you their aerial gymnastics, bees hum and butterflies flit.  A sudden tiny metropolis appears.



iris pathA Cottage Garden is usually designed with deep beds and a path bisecting the area.  The beds have large masses of textures and flowers.  To do this you will want to determine your area – fix the focal point – and then when planting make groupings of 3-7 identical plants.  Texture is as important as color.  Since California has a year round outdoor season pay close attention your bloom cycles.  Spring is the easiest time for color, but with careful selection you should have color year round look for plants that bloom in the summer and fall.  When the plants are resting texture will be the garden’s saving grace.  Select your plants 1st  for proper location (sun/shade-dry/damp), then for size, then for texture and finally for color.


Focal Points – A well designed garden is more than just a bunch of pretty plants.  Where is your eye directed?  What is the important thing to see?  What’s next?  Your eye needs clues to where to look.  Focal points say this is important, look here

Bold colors, texture or large plants non plant items like a chair, path or bolder are focal points.  In a small garden one major focal point is enough.  Example: Front yard with a sidewalk.  The sidewalk is always a focal point your mind wants to know how to access the home and yard.  However you still want a bold element that says HEY LOOK AT ME!  A large Agave (size and texture) or tall tree (size and flower or foliage color) a tall brightly colored pot and a Large Rock will all work, but if the space is limited and you use all it will feel crowded. 


Scale – To make a small front yard look larger, use scale to your advantage, place the larger plants toward the house and the smallest plants at the street.  Your eye will see the yard as a deeper space.  If all the plants are the same size it will look boring, no eye movement through the garden.  For a path use small plants at the beginning of the path then use a large bush to obscure the destination.  This will make the path mysterious and draw visitors further into the garden.


Annieinaustin, Poliomintha longifloraTexture – Smooth and spiky.  Tiny leaves and big leaves Coral Bells Opal Heuchera surrounded by Yerba Buena Yerba Buena Satureja douglasii Wispy and bold Agave and Purple three awn grass.  Texture will carry the day when your blooming garden needs a rest.  Boulders are a perfect counter to leaves.  Boulders come in many colors and textures.  You can find smooth round boulders and sharp craggy boulders.  White stone to black stone.  Think about what the garden will look like on its day off.  You can still look good in jeans and a tee shirt if you do it right.  Look at your choices for bloom and color do all the plants have tiny leaves?  Can you substitute something with a strap leaf like Iris?  White monkey flower white Mimulus and Canyon snow iris all P1010680love shade bloom around the same time, but each is very different in leaf structure.  Grasses are great in front of bolder leaved plants.  A Ceanothus, Carpenteria cal, sugarbush Rhus Ovata, coffee berry Rhamnus or Manzanita Arctostaphylos will all benefit by having a wispy purple three awn        Aristida purpurea or Tufted Hair grass Deschampsia cespitosa in front.  The balance of texture and scale and leaf color anchors both and is interesting year round.


Color Combinations – To achieve a serene garden use one or two colors close to each other on the color wheel.  You can vary the shade or intensity but use only one color.  The purple/blue and white garden could have the deep purple of Tree mallow Lavatera assurgentiflora, Cleveland sage, Desert mallow Sphaeralcea ambigua “Hamilton”, mirabilis or blue-eyed grass.  Mix in lighter shades of Monardella, Erigeron “bountiful”, foothill Penstemon, Night shade solanums, Mexican oregano poliomentha maderensis, Coahuila sage Salvia cohuilensis, Dune Lupine Lupine chamissonis or electric blue sage Salvia chamaedryoides.  For white use Dana Point buckwheat Eriogonum fasciculatum chalk Dudlea Dudlea brittonia, white monkey flower Mimulus hybrid, white iris Canyon Snow Iris esch sis and chickendouglasiana, Heuchera whites, Yarrow, white autumn sage, Artemisia tridentata or David’s choice Artemisia for silver leaves and texture.  A Lively garden will have several colors.  Using opposite colors on the color wheel pops up the intensity.  Red/Green, Yellow violet, Blue orange.  Foothill Penstemon (violet) and Damnia, or Sundrops calylophus are knock out sure fire combinations.  Heuchera Wendy, Galvezias, red autumn sage Salvia greggii are all red and green in one plant.  Orange monkey flower or Cal. Poppies and blue-eyed grass or lupine will knock your socks off in early spring.  Dust off your color wheel and go to town.  Just remember to combine plants that will bloom at the same time.


Plant elements       

Pyramid of size – Generally you want your largest plants at the back of the garden so they will not hide other plants and a succession of plants getting smaller as they progress to the front.  However there are exceptions.  A tree or other specimen may need to stand alone, leave a clear area around it and then place other bushes behind it acting as a backdrop.  You may also choose to break this rule if you want to create garden rooms.  In that case you choose a hedge of bushes to form a separate area.  Use a path leading into the room as a focal point.


A small garden is more of a challenge than a large garden.  The larger the plant the fewer individuals you will want.  In the small garden it is very important to choose wisely.  You may want a big tree, a Manzanita, a large Ceanothus, some coffee berries, some Matilija poppies and a Toyon.  All are beautiful, but will overwhelm the yard leaving it look choked and struggling for space and independence.  Better to have one sterling example and a wonderful collection of supporting plants. 


For a small area choose 1 major player (over 8’), 3 larger supporters (4’), 5-7 med (3’-1’) and lots of short ground cover sized plants. 


When choosing plants be sure to read the label at front of the display for the size and refer to the Tree of Life Catalogue available on line at



My personal favorites

Large plants

Trees – 20’ or taller

Byrd Hill Manzanita Arctostaphylos Byrd Hill

Coast Live Oak Quercus agrifolia

Desert Museum Parkinsonia x cercidium

Desert Willow Chilopsis linearis

Fern of the Desert Lysiloma fendlari

Flannel bush Fremontodendron Californica

Mandrone Arbutus menziesii

Orange jubilee Tecoma Orange jubilee

Sycamore Platanus racemosa

Toyon Heteromeles arbutifolia

Western redbud Cercis occidentalis

Medium large

Bushes 8’-20’

Anemone Carpenteria Californica

Golden Abundance Mahonia

Louis Edmunds Ceanothus

Mock Orange Philadelphius

Sentinel Manzanita Arctostaphylos

Sugar bush Rhus ovata

Agave Americana


Bushes 4’-8’

Abutilon palmeri


Artemisia tridentata

Baja Fairy Duster Calliandra californica

Ceanothus many

Cleveland Sage Salvia clevelandii 

Concha ceanothus

Coffeeberry Rhamnus Californica most

Coral fountain Russelia equisetiformis

Coyote Bush Baccharis pilularis consanguinea

Flannel bush Fremontodendron most

Galvezia speciosa

Giant Chain fern Woodwardia fimbriata

Golden Abundance Mahonia

Golden Currant Ribes Arum


Matilija poppy Romney coulteri

Mock Orange Philadelphus lewisii

Nolina parryii

Spiraea western Spiraea douglasii

St. Catherine’s Lace Eriogonum giganteum

Sugar Bush Rhus ovata


Bushes 1’-3’

Artemisia most

Bear Brass Nolina bigelovii

Brittle bush Encelia farinose

Buckwheat most Eriogonum

Ceanothus many

Coast Sunflower Encelia Cal.

Coral bells Heuchera

Coyote Bush many Baccharis

Coyote Mint most Monardella

Damiannita Chrysactinia mexicana

Deer Grass most Muhlenbergia

Desert mallow most Sphaeralcea

Electric Blue Sage Salvia chamaedryoides

Fescue most Festuca

Foothill Penstemon


Iris Douglas

Lupine most Lupinus

Manzanita many Arctostaphylos

Meadow Rue Thalictrum fendleri

Milkweed most Asclepias

Monkey flower Mimulus

Our Lords Candle Yucca whipplei

Penstemon most

Pitcher sage most Lepechinia

Pineleaf Penstemon

Purple Night shade most Solanum

Rushes most Juncus

Sage most Salvia

Sedge most Carex

Snow Berry Symphoricarpos

Sundrops calylophus

Woolly Blue Curls Trichostema lanatum

Yarrow Achillea millefolium

Really short

Under 1’

Bee’s Bliss Sage

California Fuchsia most Epilobium

Coral bells Heuchera



Seaside Daisy Erigeron glaucus

Skylark sage Salvia skylark

Sundrops Calylophus

Wild Onion Allium

Yerba Buena Satureja douglasii




California Bush Anemone Carpenteria californica

Coyote Mint Monardella

Damiannita Chrysactinia mexicana

Pitcher sage

Mexican Oregano Poliomentha maderensis

Mock Orange Philadelphius lewsii


Woolly Blue Curls Trichostema lanatum

Yerba Buena Satureja douglasii

Categories: Blog

Please leave a comment