Before you plan your yard, you need to assess existing growing conditions. These conditions determine which native plants will do best there. Each section of your yard, called a microhabitat, has different combinations of light levels, moisture and soil types. A change in only one of these will mean that different plants will do better there. For example, a prickly pear cactus grows well in full sun and rocky crevices that capture a little moisture. But dogbane, which needs more soil, would not do as well. You may have as many as six or seven different microhabitats in your yard. Identify them and make a rough map of where they are in your yard. Next, label the dominant trees and plants that you plan to leave.
Now you want to look at your overall purpose for using native plants. Do you want to add soft, natural beauty to fill bare spaces, cover some ground to reduce mowing, create a hedge for privacy, add some shade trees or plant to attract wildlife? Write these down and keep them in mind.
What personal preferences do you have? They may include maintenance needs, year round color or attracting wildlife. Themes for different sections of your yard help to narrow the choice of over 300 native plants suitable for gardening.
It is important to look at the size of the space that you have available and the overall balance of plants when they are mature. What is the height and diameter of planting space available?
Availability of desired plants is key. Local nurseries are beginning to carry more variety of native plants, especially if you ask for them. Some will special order from wholesalers if you have a large order (coordinate with your neighbors). There are a few that specialize in natives. Plants can be obtained by trading at local plant clubs or even on the internet. Native plant sales are common in spring. Failing these, you can also propagate your own from seed or cuttings. This is much easier than the books imply, it just takes time. It is better to start with smaller specimens anyway since they adapt more quickly to your yard than larger plants grown elsewhere. Local sources are preferred so plants are adapted to growing conditions.
Native plants grow with others that need the same conditions. These groups are called plant associations. Below are common associations seen in Vancouver Island yards. Look for them in nature.
Once you have selected ones that fit your considerations above, then plot them on your map to complete your plan! Next topic in the series is Resources for Native Plant Gardening.
Full sun, well-drained, rocky outcrops (ideal natural rock garden)
Prickly pear cactus
Full sun dry in summer, wet in winter rocky soil (Garry Oak meadow)
Common Camas (blue lily)
Full sun, well-drained mineral soil (replace grass)
Sitka mountain ash
Western paper birch
Dappled sun, well-drained organic soil (create an open forest)
Flowering red current
Pacific crab apple
Pacific flowering dogwood
Donna Hill is a freelance writer and naturalist who offers native plant workshops and is a Naturescape BC facilitator. www.naturepark.com