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Rock Creek Watershed Partners

2001 Newsletter

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Landscaping With Native Plants

The Pacific Northwest provides our region with a diverse palette of native plants. Imagine if you will, bringing a bit of the coast, temperate forest, mountain ranges, and dry inland basin to your backyard.

Native plants are gaining popularity as people discover their aesthetic and environmental values. Such landscapes provide several benefits, including lower maintenance, conservation of water, and creation of wildlife habitat. As our urban and suburban environments continue to displace native habitat, the restoration of native plants in these areas provides crucial corridors for wildlife.

Few ornamental plants provide the elements necessary for wildlife: food, water, cover, and places to raise young. Native plants, on the other hand, have evolved a web of complex relationships with pollinators and other local wildlife. As stated by Sara Stein in Noah's Garden, "If wild rose blossoms are pink, single, and bloom in June, if wild rose hips are red, small, and hang on the canes all winter, then planting large-hipped ever blooming yellow doubles is bound to sabotage someone's expectations." In addition, by choosing native plant species over ornamental varieties, one can achieve greater seasonal interest.

A small outdoor pond provides food, water, and cover for wildlife in Mike McKeag's yard

Native plants also are a good choice for low maintenance because they have evolved with local climate conditions. For example, native plants are adapted to local soil types, and therefore require fewer fertilizers and soil amendments. They also require fewer pesticides, having built up natural resistance to pests and diseases.

The use of native plants can also reduce irrigation requirements. Native species have evolved with our summer droughts and heavy winter rains. As a result, supplemental irrigation is only necessary during the first growing seasons while plants get established. In most cases, this can be accomplished with drip irrigation, which is less intensive and costly than traditional systems, and has the added benefit of conserving water.

In this yard, a moss-covered stump, rescued during clear-cut logging, serves as a nursery to young trees and shrubs

It also makes economic sense to preserve the character of our region by incorporating native plants into the landscape. Visitors are to Oregon's beautiful landscapes. Tourism, for example, has grown at a higher rate in Oregon than the national average over the past 5 years. Visitors spent an estimated $4.5 billion in Oregon last year.

Using native plant materials, however, has been challenging in the past because of misconceptions. First, many people are unaware of the origin of plant materials. With our favorable growing climate, the nursery trade has made thousands of ornamental plant varieties available, most of which are not native. Second, there was some resistance to using native plants when only a handful of species were available commercially.

Fortunately, more and more people are recognizing the value of native plants species. The appearance of nurseries specializing in native plants over the past 5 to 10 years has made numerous species commonly available. In addition, some nurseries deal with salvaged plant material, native plants that have been rescued from development sites. Not only do these plants have all the low maintenance and wildlife habitat benefits of other native seed species, they also preserve native seed stocks and genetic diversity.

Ocean spray, a native shrub, brings a bit of the coast to this native bunch-grass landscape.

Whatever their source, these trees, shrubs, groundcovers, perennials, ferns and grasses can be used in a variety of growing conditions. Native plants like lupine, wild rose, and red flowering currant do well on hot, sunny sites, Species like salal, evergreen huckleberry, or indian plum are more suited in the shady understory. Riparian (streamside) and wetland plants, such as Douglas spirea, red-twig dogwood and slough sedge, work well in bioswales or areas with poor drainage.

As our region continues to grow, using native plants will be critical to preserving quality of life in all of our built environments. Native plants will provide much needed wildlife habitat in urban and suburban areas while preserving the natural beauty of the region. In addition, they will reduce our dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, require less maintenance, and use less water.

So what are you waiting for? Follow the inspiration of Mike McKeag and chuck the lawn mower and pruning shears. Go wild!

We thank Kathleen Baughman of Gretchen Vadnais, Landscape Architects, LLC, for donating this article, and native plant enthusiast Mike McKeag of Aloha for the photos.

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