California Perennials Guide: How To Pick The BEST Perennials For Your Garden

San Diego’s warm weather and plentiful sunshine make it a great place to live or visit.

But those of us who call San Diego home know that all of this sun and heat can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to gardening.

After all, we aren’t exactly known for our rainfall, and our water bills can take a significant chunk out of our paychecks if we have expansive natural grass lawns or lush gardens filled with tropical plants.

But that does not mean that we have to choose between high water bills or barren earth in our yards; we simply have to make good choices that allow us to have beautiful gardens while also keeping an eye on our pocketbooks and our home’s environmental impact.

One of the key components in having a beautiful San Diego garden is to choose the right plants that are known to thrive in this area and this region’s soil without huge amounts of water and extra care.

California Perennials

There are many ways to accomplish this, such as xeriscaping, minimizing the space dedicated to conventional grass lawns, or choosing ground cover options that require little or no water.

One of the best ways to achieve a colorful, blooming garden in San Diego is to design a drought-tolerant garden with a combination of succulents, shrubs and native perennials.

This provides an inviting mix of textures and colors, as well as seasonal blooms to liven up your yard.

When used as borders along your driveway, walkways – or in flowerbeds bordering your lawn – this combination is a particularly attractive visual that can reduce your water bill and increase curb appeal.

Colorful blooms and the variegated leaves of some drought-resistant plant options also make a becoming frame around patios and pool decks, and using this type of landscaping throughout your yard is a great lawn alternative.

Green Hosta with Textured Leaves

How to Prepare to Plant Perennials

Before picking out your perennials, you will first want to prepare your soil, determine how you will be watering your garden and come up with a general design that will guide your purchasing decisions.

Preparing the Soil —

Native perennials need good drainage, and the dense clay soil in this region does not always allow for that in its virgin state.

While this may sound like our soil is not ideal for gardening, there are actually several pluses to clay soil, such as its ability to hold on to nutrients that will help to ensure healthy plants.

Because of this dual nature of San Diego soil, you will likely want to add amendments, but it does not require heavy fertilizers, which can actually work against you and introduce unnecessary chemicals into the environment.

You will likely find that just mixing in a bit of sand or compost is all you need to do to create a soil in which your garden can thrive.

You are going to need to till your garden area before planting to break up the soil anyways, so that is a good time to add any soil amendments you plan to use.

Watering Your Perennials —

The best option for saving both time and money on watering your garden is to install an automatic irrigation system.

In the case of gardens that are designed around perennials and succulents, an automatic drip system is likely your best option.

This will help you avoid over-watering and will deliver the water more efficiently to the roots of your plants.

Group your plants into watering zones for the most efficient watering and to make sure that each type of plant gets the amount of water they need without drowning or depriving its neighbors.

Limiting Weed Growth —

One of the easiest ways to naturally limit weed growth without using chemical-laden, expensive commercial products is to choose a good ground cover.

You will want a ground cover option that does not require water and will not compete with your plants for water, soil nutrition or attention.

Mulch, compost, wood chips, bark, gravel, and recycled rubber that has been shredded and looks like very small wood chips are all options that do not require water, will aid in limiting soil erosion and will help keep weeds away.

Each of these options also adds another texture to your garden and, depending on which you choose, can add another color dimension as well.


San Diego Gardening: Picking Perennials for Your Garden

To help you get started picking perennials for your garden, here are 15 options that include ornamental grasses, native plants and non-native species that thrive in San Diego.

To create an attractive, low-maintenance garden in your backyard or front yard, consider planting some of the following perennials intermixed with succulents and native shrubs, such as agave, aloe, yucca, ladies’ fingers, sage or coyote bush.

1. Silver Carpet

Silver Carpet (lessingia filanginifolia) is an evergreen, perennial ground cover that loves sun, grows well in San Diego and is drought tolerant.

It requires good drainage, will provide you with small blooms during the summer, inhibits weed growth, and is a particularly good choice for use around or in between paving stones or flagstones in walkways.

While it is not native to Southern California, it does very well in Southern California gardens.

2. California Aster

The California aster (aster chilensis) is native to coastal California and is a low-growing, drought-tolerant perennial that provides beautiful color in late summer and early fall.

If you are looking for a ground cover to use in areas where you need erosion control, this fast-spreading option is a particularly good choice.

3. Blue Fescue

Blue fescue (festuca glauca) is an evergreen, perennial grass that adds texture and a silvery-blue color to drought-tolerant gardens.

This ornamental grass is a versatile option that grows in clumps, making this a great choice for rock gardens, planting around taller landscaping features and setting off the colorful blooms of the other perennials in your garden.

4. Yarrow

Yarrow (achillea millefolium) loves full sun and needs little water, making it a great addition to a San Diego garden.

This native perennial provides a beautiful white color throughout the summer with its small, clumping blooms, and is a perfect choice for gardeners who like growing their own flowers for creating bouquets or drying.

This one may require a bit more water than some of your other perennials during the summer, so keep an eye on it until it is well established in your garden.

5. Parry’s Larkspur

Parry’s larkspur (delphinium parryi) can be a bit more finicky than other native species when it comes to the acidity of the soil, but the beautiful blooms that grace your garden throughout the summer are worth it.

You may want to test your soil before planting this variety, and add a bit of agricultural lime if it is on the acidic side, but they are easy growers and are great for full-sun areas.

Indian Paintbrush

6. Indian Paintbrush

Indian paintbrush (castilleja species) is a hardy perennial that grows along the coast of North and South America.

There are many varieties available, which allows you to choose from oranges, reds, purples, yellow and white when selecting the right option for your garden.

7. Beach Evening Primrose

Delicate yellow flowers will appear in your garden each morning throughout the spring and summer months, if you choose beach evening primrose (camissonia cheiranthifolia) as a native perennial ground cover.

This coastal perennial grows well in the San Diego area and creates a dense ground cover that helps to limit weeds and soil erosion.

8. San Diego Sedge

San Diego sedge (carex spissa) is a tall, clumping, grassy perennial with small blooms.

While this option likes full sun, it is also a good option for gardeners dealing with partial shade.

This perennial requires more water than some of the other options on this list until it is well established; after which, it is drought tolerant.

9. San Diego Sea Dahlia

San Diego sea dahlia (coreopsis maritima) is a particularly good choice for oceanfront gardens, since it is native to the coast and can tolerate salty spray from the sea, but it also grows will throughout San Diego County.

This drought-tolerant perennial likes full sun or a bit of shade and provides yellow blooms throughout the spring.

The sea dahlia looks like a native wildflower and, therefore, is not a good choice for gardeners who prefer a more formal-looking garden.

10. Hostas

Hostas may be native to Asia, but they are so striking in perennial gardens that they are definitely worth mentioning here.

The wide variety of hostas available allows you to choose from an array of sizes and colors that range from blue to white to variegated greens.

These gorgeous perennials are a superb choice for shade gardens, but many varieties can tolerate sunnier spots.

11. Sea Lavender

Sea lavender (limonium latifolium) is another good choice for oceanfront gardens, but can also grow well in other parts of the county.

This lavender-like perennial is perfect for rock gardens or planting between paving stones, and is a great choice for gardeners who enjoy drying flowers or making floral arrangements as a hobby.


12. Matilija Poppy

Matilija poppies (romneya coulteri) are the perennial of choice for gardeners in search of a tall plant with large, white flowers that add color and fragrance to your garden.

These impressive flowers require good drainage, love full sun and will be more than happy to fill a hillside or flowerbed with little effort on your part, but they might not be a good choice for small garden beds.

13. California Fuchsia

California fuchsia (zauschneria californica) can grow to about two feet and blooms in red or orange, making it a good option if you are looking for a plant of moderate height to add a pop of color to your flowerbed.

This perennial shrub prefers full sun and good drainage, is drought tolerant and tends to attract hummingbirds.

14. Coast Sunflower

The coast sunflower (encelia californica) is a shrubby, evergreen perennial that is best for wildflower gardens and less formal flowerbeds.

Coast sunflowers, as the name implies, grow quite well in coastal gardens, but they also thrive in more inland areas of San Diego.

The beautiful, yellow flowers will add plenty of color to a border or hillside, and these grow well in either full sun or partial shade.

15. Douglas Iris

If you have partial or full shade in your garden, Douglas irises (iris douglasiana) may be a good choice.

While this beautiful perennial with blue-lavender flowers that bloom during the spring is actually considered a native species a bit further up the California coast, it will grow well in San Diego under the right conditions.

It can tolerate sun, but grows best with at least some shade, and requires regular watering, which can be accomplished with a drip irrigation system.


Final Thoughts

This list includes just some of the many options available. When you are ready to purchase perennials, you should have no trouble finding them locally at San Diego nurseries that specialize in native plants or native plants sales events put on by the San Diego Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

The California Native Plant Society also has a great list of trees, shrubs, perennials and more to help Californians choose plants that will thrive where they live.

For more ideas about using native plants in your garden, check out our post: Can I Add Year-Round Color to My Garden Using California Native Plants?

You can also learn more about adding low-maintenance plants to your garden by reading our post: 20 Low-Maintenance Plants for Your Yard.

Your Turn…

Which perennials do you love growing in your San Diego garden? Let us know in the comments below.

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