San Francisco Environment Department

Gardening for Pollinators - Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Which pollinator plants do you recommend for beginning gardeners? Which plants are easy to grow and maintain in San Francisco?

The SF Plant Finder has hundreds of choices for gardeners who want to build habitat.

Which plants do best in sandy soil? In clay soil? In shady areas? In fog?

The SF Plant Finder website has filters for different soil types (clay, sand, loam, rock) and for site conditions (sun, part shade, shade).

The best way to think about the San Francisco fog is that it creates a cooler, often more hospitable environment for many plant species. A species that would have a hard time surviving on a southwest-facing slope in Oakland or San Leandro due to getting overheated, would have a much easier time on many slope aspects in western San Francisco where the fog is heavy in the summertime.

The city itself has some of this climate variation as well, and it’s just best to know your location and learn the needs of your plants.

If I only grow San Francisco native plants, do I ever have to water? I would think that if San Francisco native plants grow on their own here, I wouldn’t have to do anything but put them in the ground.

Great question! The simple answer is that, ideally, no watering is needed because you have learned which plants should be planted where.

When you plant a seed or transplant a seedling you will need to make sure it gets established in its new place. It needs to recover from being moved, adjust to its new conditions, and grow roots into the soil. Since we have so few hot days, and summer months are significantly moderated by the fog, you may need to water a plant in for a year. Then you will likely get away with not having to water it again after a year or two when the roots have found their way down.

San Francisco harbors a rich native flora that spans grasslands, woodlands, dunes and wetlands, and so the plants all have different water needs. If they are planted in the right location, then they can survive the summer drought. But if, for example, you plant a wet meadow or moisture-loving coastal scrub species in a relatively hot south-facing backyard in the Castro, then your plant may not make it through the summer without additional water.

I don’t have access to a yard, but I do have a patio or paved area. Can I grow native plants in containers? Which plants do you recommend? What type of soil do you recommend?

The SF Plant Finder will soon include a filter for “potted plants”. San Francisco has many species of perennials that are small enough that you could grow them in pots, as long as you trim them back. Regular potting soil is generally fine, but since many of our natives are adapted to nutrient-poor soil, you could mix in some sand, clay, a mixture or whatever you have on hand to keep the soil from being too rich.

Are there any places that give soil or compost away for free or at low-cost?

Yes! Recology and San Francisco Public Works sometimes have free mulch and compost giveaways.

I love sunflowers, zinnias, daffodils, and dahlias. Aren’t they also beneficial to pollinators? Is it OK to plant ornamental flowers and vegetables as well as San Francisco native plants?

Yes, yes. We encourage local food production through organic gardening, as well as beautification in general. We focus on using local native plants since they are adapted to our local climate and thus are the most environmentally sustainable and they provide the best habitat for our local wildlife, with whom they have co-evolved through the millennia. There are many non-native plants that provide habitat and food for pollinators. The most important things are: 

What do you think about growing plants native to California, but not specifically San Francisco?

The SF Plant Finder has many California natives. These are species which are native, and often endemic, to California, but don’t happen to naturally occur in San Francisco. Good examples are species of Salvia, Ceanothus and Arctostaphylos that many experienced gardeners use in their properties. Since they are native to our California Mediterranean climate, they generally do very well in San Francisco, though some may require hotter weather. The one thing to look out for are plants of the same species but a different subspecies or variety that could end up inadvertently mixing with our unique San Francisco genome of that particular plant.

Since there have been so many changes to the natural landscape (like new buildings and an increase in the number of people), is the vegetation that once grew here still applicable and recommended today?

While it is true that modern civilization has paved over or planted trees into 95% of the ancient landscape, our city is still blessed with a remaining legacy of our natural heritage. Natural areas are the places throughout San Francisco that are remnants, vestiges of our original natural environment, and they harbor a tremendous biodiversity of native plants and animals. These places are our guide for how to plant sustainably in our own gardens.

Are there native pollinator gardens in San Francisco that I can visit to learn more about pollinators?

Yes, visit a native habitat garden.

Are there volunteer opportunities, events, or organizations where I can learn more about native pollinator gardens?

Yes, volunteer at a native plant stewardship project.


Related Content

Protect Our Local Pollinators
Pollinators - FAQs
Pollinator Resources
Urban Greening Areas Report (PDF)

Additional Resources

Invasive Plants - California Invasive Plant Council


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