GROW: Creating a Native Plant Garden - Part 2
In my earlier blog post, Why You Should Create A Native Plant Garden - Part 1, I discussed the benefits of utilizing native plants in your yard as part of your overall landscape design. In this post, I share some practical advice on creating a native plant garden. If you are a non-gardener, the word ‘garden’ can be a bit intimidating. Gardening implies intentional design, planting and maintenance. But if you can cook, you can garden; it’s all about following directions and seeking help when needed. And like cooking, there will be a few mistakes now and then.
MYTHS ABOUT NATIVE PLANTS
Myth #1: If it is native to North America, it must be native to my region.
Plants thrive in the biological communities they have adapted with over many years. A native plant that thrives in the northeast deciduous hardwood forests will likely not survive in the Sonoran desert of the American southwest. You can plant native plants from other parts of U.S. that live in similar growing zones but they may not support your native wildlife and may end being fussy or unhappy plants. Look around your immediate region and utilize species that are native to your eco-region.
Myth #2: Native plants are unruly and act like weeds.
Some native plants may be too “wild” for a person who likes a pruned and uniform landscape but a bit of research can help eliminate plants that won’t fit with the garden you have envisioned. It is important to note that some native plants will thoroughly embrace a cultivated garden bed. I learned this the hard way when I planted several starts of Solidago canadensis (Goldenrod) in my medicinal herb garden and they assumed total control, pushing my Monarda fistulosa (our native bee balm) to the outer edges of their shared bed, in two growing seasons! Normally, goldenrod grows 2-3 feet tall and offers a burst of tiny yellow flowers in late summer as well as late season nectar for bees. My plants grew 5-6 ft tall, lazily drooping out and over the garden bed. I have removed them from the good soil and planted them in the native clay soil, with little irrigation and they are behaving like their old selves.
Myth #3 Native plants need soil amendments and are drought tolerant.
One of the benefits of native plants is they prefer their native soil. Gardeners who plant cultivated non-native plants often need to amend their soil to make it a garden loam that drains appropriately. In the northwest, a mineral-rich mucky clay soil is the norm for many of us and so take a look at nature to see what does well in that soil. As illustrated above, a soil that’s too rich will often lead to plants that are overgrown, flop or otherwise perform poorly.
The assumption that all native plants are drought tolerant can cost a gardener a lot of money and heartbreak. Native perennial starts need additional watering during our hot, dry summers during their first three seasons while they are maturing and would benefit if watered a few times during a long period of (weeks) of no rain.
SELECTING YOUR GARDEN SPACE
The first step is to observe the space where you want to plant your garden. What are your options? Do you want a hedgerow of sorts to hide a fence, or a simple landscape to enhance the appearance of your house? Or are you ready to rip out the front lawn (and all of its maintenance and costs) and create a native plant garden that incorporates small trees, shrubs, and wildflowers?
How much sun does your selected space receive? If you want to grow native wildflowers, you will need full sun (6-8 hrs per day) but if you have a partially shaded area due to tree canopy, then your selected plants need to be able to survive and thrive in partial shade.
Who else uses your garden space? Dogs and cats seem compelled to do their business in garden beds (a friend once explained that cats clearly view a garden bed as the ultimate litter box). Do you want to entertain and show off your garden bed? Will children be running around in the space playing tag, hide and seek or practicing soccer kicks?
One of our readers sent me an email, asking me to remind readers to consider septic systems - you do not want to plant a garden over a septic system because the roots of some plants like willow will seek water and become entangled with your septic field. Likewise, pay attention to underground utility cables and overhead wires.
Native wildflowers take a bit more work than native shrubs and trees. The most important advice is to start small if you have limited time or resources; you can always add onto a bed or create a second one.
HOW TO SELECT A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER
The easiest way to design a native plant garden is to mimic nature’s design. Visit some wild places and take notes of the plants and their placement. If you decide to have a professional design your landscape, be sure you hire someone who has a portfolio of past projects that demonstrates knowledge and expertise about regional native plants in urban or suburban settings. Next, state your goal of attracting pollinators and other wildlife because there are many choices. A native plant specialist should have some knowledge of the relationships between native species. A common issue among landscape designers is they often include showier cultivars (cultivated varieties) of a species or use a species that is a cousin to your native species but not from your region (See Myth #1. These common errors can affect pollinator relationships.
HOW TO PREPARE THE SITE
If you have a bed cleared of grass and weeds, then you are ready to plant. If you are creating a bed in the center of your lawn, you need to remove the grass. I never recommend herbicides but for some people that is an option. The best option is to dig up the grass to root level which is usually about 3-5 inches. Remove the sod pieces, you can put them in your compost pile or use them to fill in around your new plants by placing the sod pieces grass side down to decay.
WHERE TO FIND NATIVE PLANTS
Never remove plants from public lands. Check with those who have many native plants on their property about cuttings or division. Research your area for native plant nurseries and native plant sales.
If you are in the Columbia River Gorge, Portland OR and Vancouver WA:
Humbleroots Farm and Nursery in the Columbia River Gorge offers a wide range of plants.
The dates for the popular Hortlandia Plant Sale offered by the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon are April 14th & April 15th.
And don’t forget your Conservation Districts who may have annual native plant sales going on right now. You can’t beat their prices!
Here in the Gorge:
Underwood Conservation District in WA Native Plant Sale
Hood River Conservation District in OR Native Plant Sale
BE AWARE: When purchasing plants, ask if the plants have been treated with any systemic pesticides, like neonics, which leave a residue in the plant and can kill or harm any insect feeding on the leaf, nectar or pollen. If no one can answer your question (common in big box stores) and/or is not labeled as free of neonics, then don't buy them.
Native Plant Garden Checklist
IdentifiY and research native plants for your region.
Locate the right place the plants you have researched.
Create planting map that includes the mature size of each plant.
Prepare garden site for planting.
Purchase and/or propagate plants.
Pick an overcast spring day to plant your plants.
Water plants thoroughly before planting.
Before digging holes, place your plants in their location. Don’t skip this step because you may need to make some changes.
Dig holes that are large enough to allow you to drop the unpotted plant in the hole and be able to fill in with the dirt.
Tamp down soil to remove air pockets and water each plant.