Native trees – are they right for home landscapes? |

Native trees – are they right for home landscapes?

By JoAnne Skelly

In an arid environment, home gardeners sometimes consider using native trees in their landscapes to conserve water. However, the term “native” can be misleading.

All plants are native to somewhere. If the goal of the gardener is to use only trees native to the environment around the home, without supplying any supplemental irrigation, the native tree options may range from limited to none. When the selection is broadened to include trees native to all of Northern Nevada, the number of possibilities increases.

People often think that native trees will survive on the natural precipitation that occurs around their homes, no matter what the tree’s native environment is. This is rarely true. All trees need water while becoming established. Throughout their lives, some trees need more water than others to grow and thrive, particularly if they are planted outside their natural range. There are very few trees in the deserts of Northern Nevada, usually only piñon and Utah juniper. There are occasional stands of cottonwoods, willows, and a few others growing near streams.

In many cases, native trees are inappropriate for use in the home landscape because their growth requires a certain elevation, a specific soil type, or appropriate soil drainage. Native soils are very different from landscape soils. Planting native trees in a clay soil when they are accustomed to growing in fast-draining, sandy soils will probably kill them. Planting piñon pine or Utah juniper, which thrive on a few inches of water each year, in an irrigated home landscape is a recipe for failure.

Additionally, native trees are not always available from local nurseries. They can be difficult to propagate or slow to mature, rarely surviving in containers. These factors make it economically difficult for nurseries to grow and supply them. If a “native” tree comes from a nursery in another state, it is probably not from genetic stock native to Nevada, even though it may be hardy and appropriate for use here.

Sometimes, although a tree may be outside its native range and elevation, it may grow well in a home landscape with supplemental irrigation, increased management, and awareness that the tree may experience some stress. For example, incense cedar, a common tree on the moist west slope of the Sierra Nevada, can work well in a large home landscape outside of its normal “native” environment, if it is watered properly at the right time of year.

For more information, contact me, 887-2252 or, for a copy of “Selected Native Trees of Northern Nevada, Are They Right for the Home Landscape? (Special Publication-06-04).”

You can “Ask a Master Gardener” by e-mailing or call your local University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office. Check out many useful horticulture publications at

• JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.