The Theodore Payne Foundation, located in Sun Valley, is a 22-acre gem with a sprawling collection of native California plants. Its eponym was a horticulturist who started California’s first public native plant garden in 1915 and his friends started the foundation in 1960 to carry on his legacy.
Today it is Los Angeles’ largest native plant nursery, with an assemblage of 600 to 700 plants at any given time.
There’s an impressive medley of sages, a handful of Manzanita varieties, yarrows, and different sorts of agaves. In the gift shop, they have wildflower seed packets for people who want a bit of color in their yard and soaps flavored with native plant scents.
At the nursery, the plants are divided up into sections — shade-friendly plants, plants for hummingbirds, plants that need full sun exposure. Annotations on each individual pot make it easy for first-timers to navigate around the nursery. The signage indicates whether or not the specific seedling is good for hummingbirds, butterflies, for scent, or all of the above. There’s also a seed program, where customers can choose from over 200 different species.
While there’s an abundance of resources at the nursery, Kitty Connolly, the executive director of the foundation admits that there’s a learning curve when it comes to starting out. For one, native plants prefer native soils, which require more mulch than the rich, amended additives typical of most store-bought composts.
”It takes a bit of being mindful,” she says. “People aren’t used to the watering regimes of native plants.”
Although not every native plant is drought-tolerant, many of them are. On average, California native gardens use 80% less water than conventional gardens.
“If we reduce our water use, we could be water independent of Northern California,” Connolly says. “If a big earthquake comes and cuts off that supply, we’re on our own.”
But the case for native plants is much more than just saving water. Native plants attract native pollinators, which are crucial to local ecosystems. Over 80 percent of the world’s flowering plants require a pollinator to reproduce and some pollinators, like butterflies, require native plants to lay their eggs.
Pollinators are on the decline. According to a report from the National Academy of Sciences, between 2008 and 2013, wild bee abundance decreased across 23 percent of the United States.
It seems like a no-brainer, to convert all gardens to native plant gardens, but old habits die hard.
“Our gardening traditions are based on New England and before that, England,” Connolly says. “There’s this prevailing aesthetic that that’s what a garden should be, with a green lawn and everything. It’s most difficult to change people’s watering region. It’s about making this transition.”
To help make the transition, the foundation provides educational workshops and events weekly. There are garden design classes, bird walks, and lessons on propagation and horticulture.
Operating as a non-profit, they have helped design and install more than three dozen native plant gardens throughout the Southland, including the Silver Lake Meadow Native Garden.
And every year, they also host a self-guided garden tour, where people can visit various homes around the greater Los Angeles area that landscape with native foliage. This year, they have 32 participating sites. The goal: to prove to people that a native plant garden is both doable and beautiful.
“We have to encourage people to have native plants in their palettes,” Connolly says. “I have this vision of a city of butterflies.”