Showing posts with label natives. Show all posts
Showing posts with label natives. Show all posts

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.

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.