I suggested this to a friend who was preparing to, once again, mow the sunny square of grass covering his back yard. It’s not that he particularly likes the grass, he said, but it’s there and it is relatively simple to mow once in a while. But truly, by itself it lacks charm, and it would definitely be nice to have some vertical articulation, as well as some semblance of shade when the dog days of summer arrive. (Okay, I’m biased, but I really love trees.)
Living in the Pacific Northwest, we are richly endowed with an incredible variety of beautiful plants, capable not only of serving our aesthetic needs, but also able to provide much needed sustenance and protection to our local fauna. And, in terms of my friend – who is a non-gardener – their greatest beauty would lay in the fact that they are non-fussy plants that essentially take care of themselves, once established. (“Established” generally means that they have been tended for and watered for a couple of seasons. By then, their root systems have developed enough that they will survive on their own.) “Why don’t you write a blog entry about natives?” he said. I suppose I could try, but it would only nibble on the edges. It is such a HUGE topic!
Anyway, some basic facts never hurt… The word “native” can be somewhat misleading. Just because it grows beautifully in the blazing sun on the wind-whipped expanses above the Cascade timberline, does not mean that it will thrive in a Portland back yard. Never mind that geographically, the two locations are less than 100 miles apart. No, as always – what it really comes down to is matching the plant’s needs and site requirements. You could, of course, create an “alpine” environment even in the lowlands, but this involves skill as well as lots of work, and is best left to plant geeks with five green thumbs on each hand. For the average non-gardener, the path of least resistance applies. In this case, that means; work with what you have, not against it. My point is; there are plants for all environmental circumstances. Figure out what you want (sun or shade), what you have (dry or wet soils, acidic or alkaline, clay, silt or sand etc.), and go from there.
Another source of confusion – especially to those not afflicted by hardcore plantoholism – is that just because you see it everywhere, doesn’t mean it is necessarily native. What you could be looking at, is perhaps an invasive specie, or a “noxious weed” as they are also referred to. Take for example, the Chinese Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii). In my previous home state, this shrub is considered a great way to bring butterflies to your garden. Not so in Oregon. Sure, the butterflies go nuts over it here too, but no mind. Here, it ferociously covers any and every bit of naked soil it can get its seeds into. Same with Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). Originally from Eurasia, I have seen it extensively used in plantings in the Midwest. Here in the Pacific Northwest, it aggressively takes over marshlands as it crowds out all other plants and subsequently causes a decrease in the number of waterfowl and songbirds. If you are planting near water, be especially careful as exotic aquatics or waterside plants are often good candidates for rampant spread. Purple loosestrife illustrates that perfectly, as it is near impossible to eradicate from smothered wetlands. For Portlanders, the Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, provides a great source of information pertaining to our local conditions. They happily hand out great, informative brochures and posters with color photos to increase public awareness of these environmental thugs. I imagine that other states render the same applicable information available to gardeners, as well. One last word of caution regarding invasives; even as they are indeed a bane to indigenous wildlife, they sometimes show up in local nurseries, especially those of large box store chains. I’m not sure if it depends on the location of their central distribution centers or what, but proceed with caution. If you see something that is on the s-list, steel yourself and don’t buy it. Once established, it could be nearly impossible to eradicate from your garden, not to mention your neighborhood and beyond. Even if you really, really love the looks of it, there are plenty of great alternatives out there that are far better behaved.
Lastly, there is the exuberant abundance of so called adaptables, or near-natives. These are plants from areas that in many ways match the climate in which your garden exists. For example, western Oregon has a Mediterranean climate. By this, I mean that our winters are mild and rainy, and our summers are warm and dry. Plants that excel in the poor, rocky soils of southern France, or along the Adriatic coast do incredibly well here. Lavenders, rosemary, agaves, etc. grow like gangbusters in our climate, but they are certainly not native. Their climatic, soil and cultivation requirements match those of our Pacific Northwest natives well enough that they thrive even with neglect. Personally, I have a really difficult time walking the hard line of native v/s non-native, and am constantly led astray by interesting color combinations, textures, fragrances and to die-for foliage. As the experimental juices flow, I often throw some of my good intentions to the wind, and include some of these foreign primadonnas (quite a few, actually) in my horticultural tapestry. And I have to say I think that’s okay, as long as I’m aware that, even though the adapted plants may provide food and sustenance for some species of birds and insects, they are not going to be as beneficial to all the animals I may be trying to lure into my backyard. Noël Kingsbury put it best: “… an English oak in its native northern Europe will support over 200 insect species, but in Canada only two or three.” There you have it – the more importance you put on biodiversity, the more truly native plants you will include. But as long as you provide a varied enough homegrown buffet, it is okay to cheat. So, with that in mind – humoring the straying tendencies of my raging plantoholism, I try to treat it as a simplified food pyramid. I let natives be my base layer, allow the adaptable near-natives create the second tier, and embellish with whatever true exotics strike my fancy. To my thinking, as long as you stretch the boundaries in a reasonably educated, non-destructive way, and stay close to the overall proportions of this plant pyramid, the buzzing, flittering and croaking resident natives of your kingdom shouldn’t get too restless. And, best of all, since native plants are perfectly capable of surviving on their own, they will afford you plenty of time to lay back in your hammock and lazily gaze at the web of life unfolding before you. That, if anything, will turn the act of gardening into pure pleasure, as opposed to a chore – especially for a non-gardener like my friend!