Enhance nature with native plants, rain gardens

May 17, 2018

While professing a commitment to nature, popular lawns and gardens can struggle with nature.

Non-native plants require special attention in order to thrive in an environment far from their natural homes. In addition, nature rarely provides the necessary precipitation needed to keep a luxurious carpet of grass emerald green in July and August.

Trees and shrubs won't prune themselves. Throw in aphids, grubs and moles and the joy of gardening envisioned during the winter months dissolves into an endless and expensive duty in the summer.

If only there was a better way.

What if we could enjoy our yard without the time and expense?

As it turns out, working with nature can end up being easier and far less costly than picking a fight with Mother Nature. In the long term, better gardening habits can help make a smarter and healthier planet.

Native growth plants make a lot of sense. If planted in the right area they should require little to no maintenance.

Goatsbeard is a native species of astilbe that can grow to five feet and offers light-yellow blossoms in the early summer. Broadleaf lupines have deep blue flowers in the early summer. They re-seed effectively and grow strong roots. Broadleaf lupines were visible along I-5 between Silver Lake and Everett last spring.

Camas and blue columbines also provide attractive blue flowers. A mature camas can grow up to 40 inches tall and will likely be an attractive focal point of any garden. Blue columbines bloom in the early spring and grow up to 18 inches.

Foxglove is native to Western Washington. It is a biennial, but re-seeds so well that once you have bought one, you may never need to buy another. The native varieties give tall stalks of purple flowers that can grow up to six feet.

Local nurseries typically sell hybrids that produce white and pink flowers. Hummingbirds also frequent these plants for food. Fireweed also sends tall spires of light purple flowers in the late summer. Yarrow has fern like leaves and flat white flowers that are favorites of butterflies and other pollinators.

For low maintenance and year-round greenery, it's hard to beat any of the local varieties of ferns. Sword ferns, deer ferns, maidenhair ferns, bracken ferns and lady ferns are some of the most common names to look for. Ferns will do best in shaded areas with moist soil.

The red-flowering current is a hearty fruit-bearing shrub common in the northwest. These plants have abundant pink-red blossoms in April and early May that provides nectar for hummingbirds. The small black berries produced in the fall are edible for people, but not popular. Instead they provide a needed food source for birds.

Various varieties of elderberries, gooseberries, salmon berries, huckleberries, snowberries and the Pacific blackberry are other flowering shrubs that produce berries that feed birds.

For those who wish to fill relatively large spaces in their gardens, the Pacific Rhododendron will last for years once established and be hard to miss in the spring with its large blossoms. Native species of azaleas take less space but offer deeper colors for their blossoms.

A native growth garden is one way to work in harmony with nature. Rain gardens take a native growth garden to the next level. With the right combination of native plants, a rain garden soil mix and the right design, a rain garden will help filter run off from hard surfaces like roofs, sidewalks and roads.

Rain gardens also filter run-off to reduce flooding and absorb pollutants. This helps keep oils and other toxic substances out of local streams, rivers and Puget Sound. Rain gardens require a little more expertise to create.

Fortunately, there are local resources available. The WSU Extension and Stewardship Partners, a non-profit organization, has developed the 12,000 Rain Gardens in Puget Sound program. Their web site, www.12000raingardens.org allows you to learn how to create a rain garden on your own property or how to help make one elsewhere in your community.

Since native plants and rain gardens help clean the environment they can help sustain useful creatures like pollinators and since they require less money to create and maintain.

Why do most homes have grass lawns filling a majority of their yards? Fertilizers and pesticides leech into water systems creating damage to habitats. Our use of these products threatens fish populations and populations of pollinators.

Is a grass lawn with no weeds worth damaging the viability of our salmon and the economic benefit a robust salmon fishery? Is it worth the eventual cost of its cleanup to restore habitats once they are damaged? Is it an intelligent trade-off to use popular pesticides that are known to harm pollinators knowing that they essential to many of our agricultural products?

Nature can do well without us, but we can't survive without nature. Native growth plants and rain gardens help us retreat from a war we cannot win.

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