At the end of our long hot summer, my neighbor asked me why my front garden looked so green while his had wilted and died more than a month ago.
My answer? "I have a native plant garden!”
As he discovered, there are many benefits to using native plants in your garden.
Adapted to Moisture Conditions
Probably the most obvious benefit is that natives are adapted to our Mediterranean climate (wet winters and long dry summers). The bonus is that once established, there is no need to water them (except during an extremely long dry spell). Water deeply and infrequently their first year, then let them be.
Adapted to Local Soil
There is no need to add soil amendments or fertilizer. Select plants that are suited to the existing soil conditions, then place a shovelful of compost in the hole. The plants do very well without additional fertilizer-for life!
No Pruning Needed
Put away those pruners too! Choose native plants that will grow to fit the space you put them in and they will grow lushly without pruning. Some, such as red cedar and Arbutus even self prune!
Naturally pest-resistant, the costs and dangers of applying pesticides are eliminated with indigenous species. Many plants contain chemicals that repel invaders. Rub the new leaves of red elderberry to smell the peanut butter-like chemical that repels insects. Other plants wait until they are attacked to send out chemical warfare. It is only when plants are stressed (or growing in the wrong conditions) that their natural immunity breaks down and they may succumb.
Clumping smaller plants together means spending less time weeding open spaces. Planted closely, they create a shade screen that prevent germination of sun-loving weeds such as dandelion or blackberry.
If you like the look of native plants, convert a section (or all!) of your lawn to reduce the time spent mowing. Our front yard now takes just 10 minutes to mow, compared to a tiring 30 minute job.
Room for Error
Don’t worry about being exact! Native plants are more forgiving than most exotic plants when it comes to being placed in incorrect growing conditions. Snowberry, for example produces leaves with scalloped edges to gather more sunlight in shady environments. In the sun, the leaves are smaller with smooth edges.
Winter is the right time to start planning what you want to do with your property! Start with a small corner, 3m x 3m. Assess what the growing conditions are like in that space: sunlight levels, soil type and amount of moisture. Use a local field guide such as Plants of Coastal BC by Pojar & MacKinnon to help you choose native plants that thrive under these growing conditions. Check out the Paine Horticultural Center’s Native Plant Garden at Malaspina University-College for ideas. Experiment with a few such as Saskatoon berry or bearberry who do well in full sun, well-drained mineral or organic soils.
This article is one of a series on gardening with native plants. Next topic is Selecting Plants.
Donna Hill is a freelance writer and naturalist who offers native plant workshops and is a Naturescape BC facilitator. www.naturepark.com