Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Yard Garden & Patio Show - The birds and the bees - and the bugs!

Portland's Yard Garden and Patio show was this weekend, which always signals to me the beginning of the gardening season. The display gardens are fun but I look forward to the seminars most of all. I woke up on Saturday with a terrible sinus headache, then I took medicine on an insufficiently full stomach, then I started throwing up . . . I realized that the show just wasn't going to happen that day. So Sunday it was!

I made it to only one seminar: "The birds and the bees - and the bugs!" which was moderated by Nancy Goldman (of Nancyland). The panel included Glen Andresen or Bridgetown Bees, Matthew Shepherd of the Xerces Society, and Nikkie West of the Audubon Society. So we had a honeybee keeper, someone focused on native pollinators, and a bird expert.

There was a lot of conversation volleying around about honeybees versus native pollinators and whether we should care about honeybees (who are not native to North America), none of which was resolved in an hour. The one thing that the panel could agree on was that native plants provide the best nectar for native pollinators. Most of our native pollinators are solitary, which makes it hard to study them like we do honeybees. They don't produce honey, so it's harder to evaluate the quality of their diet like we do honeybees but preliminary studies are showing that non-native plants are a bit like junk food. They provide energy but not necessarily as much nutritional value as natives.

But I don't want to become a native purist! I can hear you saying. Me neither!

Here were some of the takeaways:

  • You don't need to have all natives in your garden. You can get a lot of bang for your buck by making sure you have one native in bloom at any time throughout the year. In theory you could get away with including just four or five natives in your garden.
  • But which ones? For those of us in the NW, The Xerces Society has created a document highlighting some of the best of the natives with their bloom times. It's located here. The best part? They are some of the prettiest natives like lupines, camassia, and milkweed.

Camassia leichtlinii 'Blue Danube' handles soggy clay soils like a champ and it's GORGEOUS.

I planted straight species Camassia quamash this fall (from Brent and Becky's) and I'm noticing it is showing up in nurseries right now. The foliage of my Camassia doesn't turn ugly after blooming the way daffs and tulips do, which makes it extra appealing. It's tall and structural and gorgeous. I can't recommend it enough.

Anyhoo, more takeaways:
  • The city of Portland maintains a list of natives to our city, so you can claim to have planted hyperlocal natives. Think of how miserable you can be at dinner parties! The list is located here. Go get your smug on!
  • If you want to provide shelter for mason bees, less is more. Smaller boxes or bundles of bamboo (or whatever) in several locations around your garden are better than having one gigantic box. When you get a lot of pollinators in one spot you increase the chance of disease and pestilence. 8-10 holes are plenty.
  • Bumblebees need cavities to nest in, like old mice nests. Xerces has instructions on building boxes, if you want a fun project.
  • Keeping your garden untidy is a good thing. Bare soil, just a little, allows bees access so they can build underground nests. When you cut back grasses and perennials, bundling them and leaving them on the ground instead of composting them gives pollinators habitat to raise their young. Glen calls it "Laissez faire/laissez ass" gardening.
  • We need to look at aphids differently. 96% of terrestrial bird species feed on aphids. They are an important food source, so having them in our gardens isn't a bad thing. 
Is everyone familiar with the "Everybody Reads/One City, One Book" idea? It's a program where they encourage everyone in the same city to read the same book, like we're all in a giant book club together. It was championed by a librarian by the name of Nancy Pearl. She has an action figure, guys.

I had the good luck of taking a class from her in grad school and the woman is a BADASS. Wouldn't it be great if our cities championed an "Everybody Plants" program? Is this already happening anywhere?

In Portland they could dispense camassia bulbs in the fall to residents. In the spring we'd have a city-wide wash of gorgeous blue flowers to link all of our neighborhoods together. If you get all the landscape designers and nurseries on board, you could hit a large number of home gardens. Then next year they could champion meadow foam!

Meadow foam (Limnanthes douglasii) is available from Annie's Annuals

It seems like the conversation around natives is changing to be less purist and sanctimonious, which I welcome. I think discussions about natives leave a lot of people feeling like they're being asked to rip out all the non-natives they love so much. I would never want to garden without agastache or agave or any number or plants that aren't native to Portland. But ask me to incorporate four or five natives that provide the most bang for the pollinator buck? I'm not just willing to do that, I'm excited.

Anyway, it was a good talk. I've had pollinators on the brain a lot so I really appreciated it. And (for me, at least) the gardening season has begun! Let's do this.


  1. Looks like I'm covered for everything but late season plants. Then again, we are surrounded by natives in situ, so I guess we needn't worry about it too much. Thanks for the affirmation of laissez ass gardening...that I can do.

  2. That was the other thing they said--if you have green areas around you that cover bloom times you lack, it's not such a big deal. Vive la laissez ass!

  3. It's funny, I think I've read my encyclopedia of NW natives 50 times cover to cover and I was like, "What is meadow foam?" I'm going to work some in, too. I had never heard of Collomia either. I'm going to get some seed for that and let it loose in the meadow.

  4. Heather, this is a fabulous post. I too was at the Sunday show but did not go to see Nikki and friends, sounds like a good lively discussion. This is why I garden, really...the whole native thing is near and dear to my heart and you expressed it so eloquently here. I too love agaves and sedums and many many many non-native (and non-invasive) plants and incorporate all of them into my garden as well as mason bee boxes, watering holes for critters, etc. Your point is fabulous, one does not need to be a purist to make a huge difference by adding just one native plant to one's garden. Small steps make a HUGE difference. Bravo! Can I link your post to an upcoming post on my blog? I love the idea of hanging out native plants to all of Portland! Cheers to you.

  5. Link away (and thank you)! I wish the talk had been better attended--it was the very last session of the show so there were very few of us. I also wish it had been longer--I wanted to ask them about "nativars." Do you have an opinion on those?

  6. I like them, actually. I've read that they are not necessarily as beneficial as the native plants are (in my humble opinion they very well could be.....), but as a "direct descendant" if you will of natives, they certainly aren't harmful. I think it depends on how far away from the original plant they are. I think that if you want to be successful in getting people jazzed about natives that you have to consider the aesthetic appeal and this is a good bridge. Plus breeders are coming up with such lovely varieties, so I say, go for it.

  7. I'm happy to hear of the shift away from rigid nativism, even as I incorporate more natives into my own SoCal garden. I often hear people tout native California selections without regard to the fact that California is a very big and diverse state and what's native in NoCal isn't necessarily native to SoCal. I also keep wondering how climate change - and evolution for that matter - impact native plant selections. It's hard for me to believe that all of the plants "born" in my locale can be expected to survive, much less thrive, in our increasingly dry and polluted environment, or that birds and insects won't adapt to plants that fulfill their basic needs if imported from similar environments. It seems to me that adaptation has to be part of the discussion.

  8. You raise so many good points! Drought tolerance should be first and foremost in California and so many parts of the country.

  9. I prefer natives to ornamentals but have lots of both. I think it's important to create a balance. LOVE the librarian action figure!

  10. So sorry to hear that you felt so awful on Saturday as it would have been great to see you! You've convinced me to order some camassia and meadow foam to include in my garden!

  11. Do you think the Master Gardeners would take this up? Let's make it happen!

  12. She has a little button on her back that makes her arm swing up into the shushing position! It's rad.

  13. AND with Amazing Push-Button Shushing Action?! I know what someone's librarian brother is getting for Christmas this year!

  14. I was so bummed to miss seeing you and Alison! I don't get to see your faces nearly enough. I've never grown meadow foam but you want regret the camassia. :)

  15. There's a deluxe version that includes the book cart. Spring for that one!

  16. Good report. I'd like to attend a forum like this focused on my region. By the way, I think you mean the smug hyperlocalist can make others miserable at dinner parties, not be miserable, rather he or she would find joy in their smugness.

  17. Jenni @ RainyDayGardenerMarch 7, 2014 at 6:45 PM

    Great summary of the talk. I appreciate it as I was not able to make that one. I am with you 100%, I want to add more natives to my yard, but I don't want to fill pressured to pull out the non-natives that I adore. Your pic of the camassia has me excited to plant some!

  18. Great summary of the discussion, Heather! I was similarly jazzed about the whole native, ornamental conundrum. I really like Douglas meadow foam, but if you plant it, you might want to site it where it gets at least partially covered by something else in later summer - it does a dying swan act after flowering and looks rather sad, then dries up and kind of goes away till the next year.

    And I'm in for Everybody Plants. It's genius!

  19. Wow Heather - Everybody Plants an amazing idea!!! I absolutely LOVE it! I went to a native plant talk by the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation people a couple of months ago, and asked about nativars. The answer was essentially 'Meh!' and it depressed me. For the life of me, I can't imagine just planting natives. I figured if I treat it a little like the food pyramid where natives and nativars are the 'fruits and veggies' and the exotics are increasing toward the top, there would be something in there for everyone. But so far, I'm not exactly practicing what i just said - I think my pyramid is more like a rectangle...