There's never been a better time to go native with your garden.
The arguments in favor of native planting, especially in rural areas, are pretty convincing. These gardens, once established, need minimal care, are adapted to the climate, nourish wildlife and are pleasing to look at. Here in Southern Oregon, local growers give us easy access to a varied selection.
Ornamental garden plants are usually pretty tolerant beings. They will be successful in a wide range of conditions. Not so with native plants, which have evolved for specific niches. So if you plant natives, you usually have to abide by their rules.
Forest Farm Nursery started as a native plant nursery, and their plant catalog supplies more detailed care information than most ornamental catalogs.
Cindy Rochè, president of the local chapter of the Native Plant Society, recommends a booklet published by the Oregon State Extension Service, "GardenSmart," also available for free on the Nature Conservancy Web site at www.nature.org. It gives native-plant alternatives to invasive ornamentals.
For a deeper look, Rochè suggests "Field Guide to the Shrubs of Southwestern Oregon."
"It's useful even if you don't know botany," she says, and it has enough information to be used as a planting guide.
"There really is a place for native plants," says Peg Prag, co-owner of Forest Farm Nursery in Williams. "Lots of them are very ornamental."
Successful native gardening begins with knowing the ground you are going to plant, according to Cindy Roché, president of the local chapter of the Native Plant Society.
"Depending on where (in the valley) people live, they need different plants," she says. Some people live on oak and bunch grass soil; others live where madrone and black oak will thrive. One of the best ways to discover what will be successful in your yard is to look around at undeveloped land near you to see what is growing and thriving, she says.
Before heading to the plant lists, identify the conditions at your site: the elevation of your property, average rainfall and the orientation of the site to the sun.
While you can usually push a plant one or two steps into a different habitat, says Roché, you can't change their basic nature. A south or southwesterly exposure requires drought-tolerant, sun-loving plants. That's a big contrast to the north side of a building, where Roché plants all her ferns and understory forest plants. "No matter how much I watered them, they would die on the south side," she says.
In fact, watering any of our drought-tolerant natives can be dicey business.
"A lot of Western natives object to sprinklers," says Prag. Translated: they die, sometimes quickly. Madrone trees take only a year to die with too much water. Oak trees will survive longer.
According to Prag, when wild seeds sprout in the spring, they send down a deep taproot. When grown in nurseries, they are confined and can't behave that way. So, when first planted they will need extra watering until they can establish a root system that can sustain the upper growth. Then watering must be phased out in successive summers.
The best prevention is good drainage, knowing the plant you've chosen and treating it properly.
Trees for wet areas are alder (Alnus) or big leaf maple (Acer). Both are shade trees, but alder gets the edge for wildlife. In dry areas, madrone or oak are good tree choices and wild lilac (Ceanothus) gets the nod for a flowering shrub. Butterflies will flock to you. Shrubs include lots of native berries: huckleberry, serviceberry, thimbleberry and most others will do best in shade, because they evolved as understory plants in the forest.
Winter is a good time for roots to develop, which makes fall a good time to plant. Prag recommends getting plants in by the end of October so they can begin to establish before the ground gets too cold. And it doesn't have to be all or nothing.
"A landscape certainly doesn't have to be all natives or no natives," says Prag. "It's nice to combine them with non-native by blending them in where they fit best."