Planting Yesterday For Tomorrow
As I wander about on my daily walks, I often find myself dreaming into the past. Within living memory, often not long ago at all, our Maritime Northwestern back yards looked much like the magnificent forests that draw zillions of visitors to our region. Tall firs and bushy cedars rose above thickets of flower-and-fruit bearing shrubs; huckleberry and snowberry, salmon berry and thimbleberry, currants and wild cranberry, wild apple and wild cherry. Foamy ocean spray frothed above wild roses and hazelnuts, teaberry and salal, mock orange and honeysuckle. Rhododendrons and maples throve under the high canopy, interlaced with annuals and perennials, ferns and mosses. The woodlands supported huge numbers of birds and other wild creatures, including several hundred species of native bees and other pollinators. They also supported Tribal people who knew how to coexist with the natural environment that provided everything they needed.
Today, these same places often look pretty much like a yard in Anywhere, USA; some lawn (often mossy), a few classic (ie non-native) shrubs, maybe some perennials. Oh, and lots of bare earth (so tidy!). How did this rather bleak model become a standard of “proper” landscaping? There are many factors, including conformity, the urge to control and tame nature, and favoring a simple yardscape that doesn’t require much thought to maintain, all understandable. For people moving here from other regions, whether a century or a year ago, those wild woods may have seemed intimidating. If so, then and now, it might feel comforting to be surrounded by the same kind of yard they knew back wherever.
Inhospitable Or Welcoming
Unfortunately, such bare bones simple landscapes are not hospitable places for wildlife or people. As the world is changing, fewer places are hospitable and most are getting less so each year. Though we can’t control corporate destruction-for-profit or half hearted pollution solutions, everyone with a patch of land (or even a patio) can make a home for the living things we share space with. Many native pollinators have a very limited range and even a small patch of native plants can become a haven for them, and for birds and frogs and other critters as well. I’m often asked if we have to give up all our beloved garden plants and grow only natives. Not at all, as many non-invasive garden plants, from kale to crepe myrtles, provide food and shelter for wildlife. However, one practical way to make our landscapes more hospitable is to remove any plants on weed watch lists and replace them with natives. Like what? The Kitsap County noxious weed list includes butterfly bush (buddleia, aka lilac, though it is not related), ivy, purple loosetrife, and tansy ragwort. Since these plants are sadly common, many people don’t realize that they can outcompete natives and infiltrate wild areas.
Among the most invasive are English laurel, English holly, Scotch broom, Scotch thistle, European daphne, European hawthorne, European mountain ash, European viburnum, Norway maple. Do you detect a theme? Plants brought by early colonists came across country with them, seeding themselves freely along the way. When invasives are removed, we can replace them with a native version; vine maple, Western hawthorne, Western mountain ash, Western viburnum, and many more. This isn’t a site-specific solution: wherever you live, you can use this same strategy, exchanging local take-over weeds and unhappy exotics for displaced natives along with non-invasive, people and pollinator-pleasing plants.
Learning The Territory
That’s a fairly straight forward approach for those who are already familiar with native plants. If you aren’t, this is a wonderful moment on time to begin that study by observing the plants and critters you see when hiking in meadows or mountains or along inland lakes or coastal beaches. Take pictures and make notes of plants that catch your eye and seek them out in nurseries when you get back home. If you’ve started a pollinator patch in your yard, you may not recognize plants that appear there as youngsters. To learn whether seedlings are native or not, check out a wonderful guide, Plants Of The Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon. This illustrated handbook also includes lore about how native plants have been used by Native people for millennia, making for fascinating reading. As we ease into a more natural way of landscaping, we may be tickled to learn that native plants need less water, no pruning or shaping and no fertilizers or pesticides. Talk about easy care! Onward, right?