Put Native Plants to Work in Your Garden

Stomping through the woods on a summer evening (sorry, Robert Frost) can send a South Sound gardener into a tizzy over a whole new world of plant possibilities for the home garden. Whether you call them natives, wild things, or indigenous plants, they are a tempting alternative to cookie-cutter landscape choices. 

Sure, native plant gardening is trendy right now, but it’s effective and makes a lot of sense. 

As with most garden trends, a little education goes a long way. To begin with, keep a good ID book with you. Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and McKinnon is pocket-sized and a complete native plant identification book, with 1,100 color photographs, habitat maps, and tidbits about how the native plants have been used. After identifying what you like, the real fun starts — trying to find what you like. Local mainstream nurseries usually have a few natives among the marigolds.

Salal and Kinnikinnick

In the forest they’re understory plants, but in a home garden, they’re tough, fresh-looking year-round evergreen groundcovers with leathery glossy leaves (unsluggable), flowers (for the bees), and berries (for the birds). They grow in sun, shade, wet, dry — you name it. These show up in local nurseries along with cultivated and mass-propagated groundcovers because both salal and kinnikinnick grow anywhere and require zero care once they’re established. Reclamation projects often have plenty of salvageable “you dig” salal and kinnikinnick, but local nurseries can easily get full flats of them for planting large areas. 

Mahonia and Vine Leaf Maple

Once again, mainstream nurseries carry these natives because they are reliable, easy to grow, and have year-round interest. Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon grape) attracts hummingbirds, bees, and other pollinators and, with enough sugar, the berries can be turned into jam. Acer circinatum (vine leaf maple) is the native maple that blasts out the bright red leaves in autumn, a foil to all of the native Doug firs and Western Red Cedars in nearby forests. 

“Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest” by Arthur R. Kruckeberg and Linda Chalker-Scott (3rd edition)

Go native!

Since its first edition in 1989, Gardening with Native Plants has been the go-to book for demystifying exactly how to use and take care of plants that grow and thrive naturally in and around the South Sound.     

In this new third edition (March 2019), the authors have managed to explain both the science behind and practical applications used to successfully grow native plants in our cultivated gardens. 

The first section deals with the all-important basics: Why grow native plants, and how do I choose and maintain native plants for a home garden environment? The rest of this 30-year bestseller is a complete list of native ornamental shrubs, conifers, deciduous trees, perennials, and a few annuals that are worth growing in the home garden. The authors are quick to point out that not all native plants are garden-worthy, and not all “wild” plants are considered native. Nettles, for instance, are not native. Gardening with Native Plants is a science-based reference book that deserves a special spot on your bookshelf. University of Washington Press; $39.95

Learn More

Connect with the local chapter of Washington Native Plant Society here.

Shop Native Plant Nurseries

Sound Native Plants, Olympia

Black Lake Organic Nursery, Olympia

Woodbrook Native Plant Nursery, Gig Harbor

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