Planting with native plants
People have really caught onto the benefits and beauty of gardening with native plants. Many of my clients are asking for “carefree” “low water use” native plants in their landscapes. Others are looking to reclaim disturbed or exotic plantings with native trees, shrubs, forbs, and grasses. And what is more exciting is that people really appreciate the beauty of the high desert. They want these plants closer to their homes, not simply at the outer edges of their gardens as they have in the past. The high desert is a stunning environment.
So how would you like to garden with native plants? There are several ways you can enjoy the beauty and ease of native plants in your garden. You can mimic the more traditional lush plantings by selecting native trees, shrubs, and perennials, then complimenting them with low water lawn grasses. In this scenario, you would plant the plants closer together so that their foliage will touch at mature size. Keep lawn, paths, and planting bed edges manicured. Mulching will help to refine the look. Or, you can plant native plants in a looser, more open manner mimicking our natural environment, its plant patterns and densities. This natural style allows for some soil and plant debris to be visible. You can also simply replace some of your exotic plants or fill in gaps with native plants for a mixed style garden. Just be sure to match water requirements and sun exposure.
You can get started by finding some photographs of gardens you like. Your photographs will reflect your style. If you want a truly natural environment, take a photograph of an area you especially like on your next hike. Once you’ve collected your photographs, examine each for elements that you can apply to your property. Do a simple concept sketch of your property drawing the footprint of your home, existing paths, patios, and planting beds, as well as the new paths, patios, planting beds, and other desired elements that you would like to add. Consider which areas on your concept plan that you would like to look like your garden photographs. Determine the sun exposure of those areas and write notes like “full sun” or “shade” on you concept plan. Next consider which native plants could replace those in the photographs. Do you want to replace a tea rose in the photograph with a native rose, or a native currant shrub? You can continue to go through your concept plan and photographs selecting native plants that will grow well in the areas on your plan. Select native plants that will offer similar qualities as the plants in your photographs. Before you know it you’ll have a native plant list to take with you to the nursery.
At the nursery be sure to ask how much water the plant is currently receiving. Nursery plants are often watered every day and will need to be watered every day in your garden until they are settled in from the move. Then continue watering as you would any garden plant for the first few years. The nursery plants have grown their foliage mass based on a steady supply of water and if you back it off now, you will have plant die back. Water your native perennials at regular garden levels for the first year, and then you can drop it to twice a month. Water trees and shrubs at regular garden levels for the first 2 to 3 years, then deeply once or twice a month depending on the species. Don’t forget to water all of your garden plants every 3-6 weeks in the winter when the ground will take the water. You will notice a big difference in the spring if you water in this manner. Your plants will be healthier and look better than if they were left alone. The exceptions to this watering method are the really dry plants like sagebrush and Oregon sunshine. Many of the dry natives do not need any supplemental water. They will only need a little water at first to settle them in.
I like to water my native perennials and grasses once or twice a month through the growing season to prolong their blooms and green color. Many natives will go dormant toward the late summer if they do not receive supplemental irrigation. You can decide whether to prolong their season with irrigation or not. It really depends on whether you want a lusher garden or strictly dry native garden.
Also, ask the nursery people where the plant came from. If the plant came from a wetter or higher elevation than where you are going to plant it, you may need to baby it for awhile. Select plants that were grown in an environment similar to your garden. They will have an easier transition and will be better adapted to those conditions.
When planting native plants do add compost and for pants that like dry rocky soils, add gravely soil too. Most natives won’t need fertilizer, but add some mycorrhizae fungi in the planting hole. Mycorrhizae fungus is a beneficial fungus that infects a plant’s roots and increases its ability to take up nutrients. Try to get it to touch the plant’s roots.
I find it very satisfying to plant with natives. They are easy to plant, adapt well, and are nicely suited to our environment both physically and visually. But, I do wish the rabbits and deer didn’t feel the same way. It seems the rabbits love a new plant as much as we do and will eat it to the ground repeatedly until is gone. Funny though, they don’t eat the exact same plant species that has been there a few years. My theory is that the new plant is very tender and tasty without any dried or rough parts. Particularly grasses. Once a plant winters over, they don’t seem to have the same attraction. My new strategy is to cage the plant the first year and spray it with pepper. Hopefully this will deter the rabbits and deer long enough for the plant to get established.
I hope you enjoy gardening with native plants as much as I do. To help you get started, I’ve developed what I consider a comprehensive native plant list for our area. You can find in on my blog. It will continue to evolve with more comments and guidance as I learn more. Be well and enjoy the dirt!