Earth Month might be coming to a close, but planting season is just around the corner. Those looking to plant a new garden or add to an existing one, while helping out the planet, may want to consider native plants.
Woodinville resident and garden club member Jean Fowler and her husband Chuck have had success with this concept on their two-acre wooded property since they moved there in 1979.
“Noticing the many ferns that graced the property, we aptly named our home ‘Fernhaven’ and decided to build on the collection of native plants that were already here” Jean Fowler said in an email. “Not only have we preserved what was here, but over the years we have added significantly to our native plant collection.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture encourages growing native plant gardens because of the significant benefits to the ecosystem. These plants, which are defined as having occupied a particular area before human settlement, don’t require fertilizers and need fewer pesticides than many garden staples or lawns, the department’s website states. They also need less water and don’t require mowing, which can reduce carbon emissions from gas-fueled lawn mowers, the website says.
The Fowlers have watched some of the plant varietals on their property evolve naturally over the past 40 years, she said. For instance, the red alder trees died out and were replaced by western red cedars, Douglas fir and western hemlock, she said. The property also hosts several varieties of native ferns, including sword, deer, licorice, wood and lady. The Fowlers also have native shrubs such as rhododendrons, azalea, huckleberry, thimbleberry, salmonberry, salal, and honeysuckle, “all of which help sustain the wildlife around our property,” Fowler said.
A seasonal pond on the property has become a home to pacific tree frogs, and other wildlife such as raccoons, rabbits, transient coyotes, deer, bears and bobcats have also been known to roam Fernhaven.
Many native plant species provide nectar, pollen and seeds that help feed local butterflies, insects, birds, and other animals, according to the USDA. On the other hand, many common horticultural plants don’t actually provide “energetic rewards” for animals and aren’t as beneficial to the ecosystem.
This time of year is Fowler’s favorite on her property, she said.
“Our wild ginger flowers can be spotted under deep green leaves, the Indian plum flowers provide food for the early insects and a carpet of native bleeding heart brightens the ground beneath the firs along with the native trilliums peeking through the leaves that fell from the maples the previous fall,” Fowler said.
Besides their beauty and ecological functions, another benefit of growing plants that are native to Western Washington is that they’re adapted to this climate and require little maintenance once they’re established. This means less water, and the plants often help prevent erosion, according to Bruce Bennett, a Washington State University Master Gardener and Weekly guest columnist.
“The deep root systems of many native plants increase the soil’s capacity to store water,” Bennett said in an email. “Native plants can significantly reduce water runoff and, consequently flooding.”
The Fowlers have found many of the species in their selection at local nurseries such as Molbaks, Krukeberg Botanic Garden, Tadpole Haven, and Sky Nursery. She and her husband have also collected plants in the wild with permits from the Forest Service.
For a resource on plant selection and horticulture, Fowler recommends “Gardening with Native plants int eh Pacific Northwest” by Arthur Kruckeberg.
“Don’t be discouraged if something dies,” Fowler advises new native plant gardeners. “Perhaps it wasn’t plant in the right spot. Try it again in a different place – more or less light, dryer or wetter – just try to duplicate where the plant grows naturally.”