Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Competing for natives

Before I bought my house I knew I wanted a garden; in fact I kept announcing to people, "I need a big yard because I'm a gardener." I had but one season of vegetable gardening under my belt but I just knew I was destined for great plant lust.

I'd never landscape gardened before so I checked out every single gardening book from the library where I worked and kept them for the better part of a year. If the east county was lacking in new gardens that year, you can blame me. I took every single one.

Backyard in 2010

Before I replaced the fence and had the slab removed

My favorite to read was the Encyclopedia of Northwest Native Plants for Gardens and Landscapes. The pictures are beautiful and plentiful and the descriptions are thorough. I also signed up for the Backyard Habitat program, so I could buy native plants on the cheap. It was a good way to get my garden started at a time when I had no money. At one point I thought I'd have a 100% native garden but then I discovered that other plants exist. Really great plants that I like a lot!

I like you too, Oregon iris. You can stay.

I got certified as "backyard habitat" at the silver level in 2011, which awarded me a metal sign, continued participation in plant sales, and bragging rights. It also nourished the part of me that enjoys meeting arbitrary goals.

Did you know that Geum triflorum is native to the PNW? I bought it
because it was pretty.

The volunteer they sent to evaluate my yard in 2011 didn't have the broadest plant knowledge and I had to bicker over some plants with her. She was also hellbent on me removing my bamboo. I exacted my revenge my planting a lot more of it in subsequent years.

Dichelostemma ida-maia is another plant that I bought without realizing it was native.

I had to get recertified this year and I didn't want any quibbling so I came armed with spreadsheets and a diagram. I printed the map Greg created of our yard and labeled where all the natives lived. I cataloged every native in our garden and I was shocked to discover that we had 59 unique species. I ran out and bought Thalictrum occidentale so I could round it out to 60, because . . . math? even numbers? I don't know.

Meadow rue (Thalictrum occidentale)

The volunteer who judged my garden this time was much friendlier and didn't give my bamboo the side-eye. He also informed me that I had easily qualified for gold certification and was this close to platinum, which made me crazy. You just gave me a new arbitrary goal and informed me I'd failed!

Clarkia amoena, one of our prettiest native annuals

Maybe platinum is in my future or maybe I won't care anymore. I think this is a great program, even if I have a few quibbles with it. The plants I've purchased through them have been terribly root-bound and they don't perform as well as plants I've bought from nurseries, though they certainly cost a lot less. It's been a couple of years since I bought from them, so I hope they're improving. I also wish there was room in the program for certain non-natives.

Hummingbird feeding from non-native Mahonia x media 'Arthur Menzies' on January 7th.

My mahonia hybrids provide food for hummingbirds and insects in December and January, when nothing else is blooming. I think year-round nectar trumps native purity in certain cases.

My last complaint, because I am nothing if not a complainer: don't take pictures of people with a wide-angle lens. It's so unflattering.

Do you have native plants in your garden? What's your favorite? The pointlessly competitive part of me thinks I should incorporate more, so I can get to 75 species. Maybe then they'll give me a wristwatch or a commemorative clock.


  1. Fab post, Heather! I know, the program is really cool, and I too have the same encyclopedia (plant bible for me), which I refer to often. Have had some convincing to do myself with the good folks at BHCP! Your garden is GORGEOUS, and you have given me some wonderful ideas! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks so much! I wish I'd had more time to spend with you on Monday. And I can't wait to see Chickadee Gardens!

  3. I was just scanning through my ' Wildflowers of the PN ' book ; because I was excited to find a wild rose growing , couldn't ID , as it had closed up for the night. Couldn't ID the Erigeron I brought for Port Townsend ether ...

  4. I like arbitrary makes me feel like I've at least accomplished SOMETHING! I was so surprised when you told me that the Geum was native here too...such a crazy-wild range! I sheepishly don't have very many PNW natives. I'm hopeful for my Asclepias speciosa (another with a really wide range), but for the moment, my fave is still Epilobium's not suited for most people's gardens in tends to pop up wherever it feels like it...but it's so pretty for such a long time...and it must be a nurse plant for ladybugs...because it's where I find the most ladybug larvae :-)

  5. I can see why you like it--that color is totally in your wheelhouse.

  6. I have that book about Native Plants of the PNW too. I have a lot of natives in the back garden. I bought a bunch when I first started gardening here, from the Pierce Conservation District sale. They always have great bare root plants in February for really cheap. I think year-round nectar trumps native purity too. I think my fave is probably Ribes sanguineum, although I do absolutely adore vine maples too.

  7. I think I have a native sedum, does that qualify me for anything?

  8. Oh yeah, you get to be insufferable at dinner parties, looking down your nose at people with exotic sedum.

  9. Great post! I'm certified too, but shh-- I've been ripping out native thickets of Mahonia, Indian plum, and snowberry. But on the other hand, I planted a huge incense cedar, more evergreen huckleberry, waxmyrtle, ceanothus, and more -- should be an overall increase in the end. Love the Clarkia. Is the color of that Thalictrum for real? I'm getting some!

  10. It really is that color! That's the 'Black Stockings' form.

  11. I'm surrounded by native plant growth and have even been transplanting some into the garden proper. Well see how that goes. The ones that do best are the ones that pop up on their own (thanks, birds). Not sure what the native plant police would make of this place. I don't think I'll invite them. If an unsolicited testimonial is of any use, I definitely think you are worthy of platinum.

  12. Aw, thanks! Life is too short to only plant natives. And I think the hoards of birds at your place are quite happy. :)

  13. Do you need a water source in your garden to be certified as a Backyard Habitat? I'd like to get such certification, but I don't have any fountain or even a birdbath right now...

    PS - I've added Just a Girl with a Hammer to my blogroll at I'd be honored if you chose to reciprocate.

  14. Super interesting post! And, wow, such an elite program. Adding natives to my garden is of high interest to me and thanks for the mention of the book. It sounds like a worthy investment. I adore my Ribes sanguineum, but my new favorite is Acer Circinatum 'Sunglow'. I think your commitment to natives is awesome, but I also appreciate your balanced approach.

  15. That book helps when you're hiking and people keep asking you what certain plants are. Of course, I can only remember what's in my own yard . . .

  16. Gold, platinum, titanium, ruthenium,rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium...whatever level you get to, your garden is fabulous! What happens when the natives get restless?

  17. I definitely see platinum certification in your future! Though your backyard habitat program is a lot more rigorous than mine. All I did was fill out a questionnaire on the honor system and send it to the National Wildlife Federation. Actually I think NWF's program is mostly just a way for them to collect $30 from people. Anyhow, I have many natives (and non-natives) but I couldn't possibly pick just one as a favorite. Well, maybe Agastache foeniculum. Or Asclepias tuberosa. Or Ratibida pinnata...