Master Gardeners: Using Washington Native Plants in Your Landscape, Helpful Resources

So you want to create a habitat for birds and other wildlife in your landscape?  Where do you start? Nature is actually the best model for a healthy and attractive wildlife habitat.  In nature, flora and fauna survive where they grow and are distributed there because of complex ecological relationships.  It is a well thought out and beautiful landscape design.

I capture ideas of how nature provides for wildlife by studying the arrangements of plants along a stream or pond, around a meadow, or in a forest. The number and arrangement of plants in a good backyard habitat should be similar to these natural areas. Mother Nature is the great teacher when it comes to creating a natural habitat using our beautiful native plants.

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Native plant, Red Flowering Currant.

Not only do native plants create a beautiful and easily maintained yard, but they are beneficial for several other reasons that you may appreciate.  Washington natives not only enhance our wildlife habitat, they provide garden variety and help protect our homes from heat and wind, add color and varied textures, help purify our water and air, enrich the soil, and even help slow climate change by cooling the planet.

Well-established, native plants control erosion by holding soil in place with established root structures.  In addition, the plants clean the water by absorbing and filtering out sediment and pollutants before they reach our waterways. Natives cool our streams and lakes with their leaves thereby adding food, shelter and cover for Washington’s fish.  I left the best reason to use natives in our landscapes for last: native plants, when established, are easy to maintain.  They require little-to-no fertilizer and relatively little pruning or water as compared to non-natives.

They provide a natural habitat for wildlife because native plants and our native wildlife developed together in the same environment for thousands of years before settlers starting planting shrubs and trees from other parts of the country and the world. Native plants are more closely matched to local soils, climate and wildlife. They will be better, in the long run, at providing the right kinds of food, shelter and diversity needed by wildlife than non-natives.

Flowering native plants such as Red Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum), are spectacular and add unusual color and fragrance. You should also consider planting several Penstemons – their flowers add great colors that attract bees and hummingbirds.        

Here are a few tips to get you started on using natives in your landscape:

  • Maximize undisturbed areas, preserve existing native trees which provide canopy cover for smaller bushes and scrubs, such as Oregon grape (Mahonia), salal (Gaultheria shallon) and sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) to name a few.
  • Plan a place that will provide opportunities for viewing wildlife, especially birds.
  • When choosing your natives pay attention to sun, water, and the soil needs of each plant species and place them in your yard where they will have the conditions they need to survive.
  • Also, study aspects such as height at maturity and features such as fall color, showy flowers, aroma, or unique leaf shape.
  • You can learn more and find living examples of native plants at some nurseries and plant sales, and from a good books on native plants.
  • Some native plants may be difficult to find – check your local nurseries. Call the Urban Horticulture Center (206) 685-8033 at the University of Washington, or check their website.
  • You can also call Washington Native Plant Society (888) 288-8022, or check their website.
  • The Washington State University Cooperative Extension website  publishes a nursery guide including native plants sources.

An organically maintained native landscape is healthy for kids of all ages, pets and our environment. Your yard can make a difference!

Native Plants: A Book and a Garden

“It is pleasanter to eat one’s own peas out of one’s own garden, than to buy them by the peck at Covent Garden; and a book reads the better, which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots and dog’s-ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins, or over a pipe…. “~Charles Lamb, letter to S.T. Coleridge, 11 October 1802

I must agree after looking at the gardening books I collect, the ones I refer to most – they are kept in the garage and have a distinctly earthy appearance (not content).

About 10 years ago I began to take an interest in native plants of the Pacific Northwest and planted a few in an area of my garden that did not get much attention and I knew would not for a while.

We put in a Pacific Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus), a Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), Red Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum) and a Garry Oak (Quercus garryana), all of which have flourished except the Garry Oak which is definitely defying the “Right Plant Right Place” rule. We’ll move it to a better location this coming autumn.

One book that was very helpful on this path of discovery was Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Arthur Kruckeberg, published by UW Press. My copy is the 1996 edition; there’s rumor that Dr. Kruckeberg, a UW professor emeritus of Botany, at age 90, may be working on an updated version.

The book is a delight, jam-packed with information on almost every northwest native plant you would want to know more about: trees, ornamentals, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and grasses. Multiple appendices cover everything from the issues of plant collection in the wild to a section on the derivation of plant names. A scholarly work for sure.

 In my research for this article I uncovered the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden in Shoreline founded by Dr. Kruckeberg and his wife in 1958. After 56 years of loving development, it has over 2000 species of natives and exotics.

Today the Garden is run by the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden Foundation and the City of Shoreline, with deeds of conservation in place to protect the Garden in perpetuity. There are tours, programs and events happening throughout the year and the MsK Rare Plant and Native Plant Nursery is open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The website – www.kruckeberg.org – has a delightful video of Dr. K. explaining the history of the garden and his hopes for it as he entered into his nineties!

This time of year is a good time to visit the garden and absorb how native plants can enhance your own landscape.

[Acknowledgements. Bev Morrow (Native Plants) is a Native Plant Steward and a master gardener; Paul Gardiner (Book Review) is a book lover, neophyte blogger and a master gardener intern in the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program. Extension programs and employment are available to all without discrimination. Evidence of noncompliance may be reported through your local Extension office.]

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