Going Native

Though it is still winter, this past week brought some activity to the garden.  My aspirations as a wildlife gardener took another step.  The perennial garden next to the driveway has been replaced by a new bed of native plants.  The old rockery which had been built from on-site stones was removed and replaced with a new stone wall.  The perennials which grew here have been moved to the beds in the front yard.  I believe this new native plant garden will be a more appropriate asset for attracting wildlife.

I was never happy with the old perennial bed.  In late spring, it looked pretty good (above).  By the midsummer drought, however, it became a bit overgrown and weedy looking, at least, to my taste.  Moles would burrow behind the rockery pushing dirt and rocks onto the driveway.  Despite my efforts to improve it, my glacial soil was never quite right for perennials.  The spectacular blooming display I had envisioned did not materialize.  The anticipated butterflies never came, yet garden slugs enjoyed a perennial smörgåsbord.

The inspiration for the new garden comes from what I see trailside at Deception Pass State Park, Washington Park in Anacortes, the Anacortes Community Forests and on Kiket Island.  Many of these plants are also indigenous to the property and well adapted to local climate, soil, pests and weather conditions.  They also provide the specialized food and shelter required by local wildlife.

The old rockery is now a pile of stones secluded behind rhododendrons at the edge of the yard.  Amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates and small mammals are known to use such features for shelter and for raising young.  They provide escape from both the heat of summer and the cold of winter.  During the day, they will absorb heat that will provide comfort during chilly nights.  The new stone wall will also serve this purpose.  At least one Northern Alligator Lizard has found a home in a similar structure in my front yard.

The plantings include Salal (Gaultheria shalon), Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), all members of the Heath family (Ericaceae).  Along with Madronas and Rhododendrons, these native plants have learned to exploit fungi in our nutrient-poor soils for their nutrition.  The fungi also help provide drought and disease resistance, and eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers.

Creeping Mahonia (Mahonia repens) is one of three native mahonias, including Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and Longleaf Mahonia (Mahonia nervosa).  Both grow all over this end of the island, and I will be adding the latter one to the shady end of the bed as well.

The Western Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum) is one of my favorite plants.  Not only is it beautiful, this primitive plant is drought tolerant and requires little in the way of resources.  Ferns have an architectural quality that adds variety to the structure of the garden.  Western Sword Ferns and Lady Ferns (Athyrium felix-femina) are indigenous to the yard.

Ferns have an interesting reproductive cycle with an intermediate stage.  The spores visible on the underside of the fronds, do not produce adult ferns.  They grow into a plantlet called a gametophyte which has only half the genetic material of the adult.  The gametophyte produces egg and sperm cells, which combine in the presence of moisture to grow into an adult plant.

The small Madrona (Arbutus menziesii) which came up in the perennial bed will now feel more at home with its native companions.  I have also planted Red-flowering Currants (Ribes sanguineum), another indigenous shrub.  I look forward to moss growing in the crevices of the wall.  The Cordyline australis will be moved to the front yard.  As they become available, I will explore adding some native wildflowers to the bed.  These include Starflower, Shooting Star, Trillium, Heuchera and Blue-eyed Grass.  I will try growing Broad-leaved Stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium) in the crevices of the wall.

For the impatient gardener, (and most of us are, I think) the disadvantage of using these native plants is a very slow growth rate.  Typically, they might sit idle for a year or two after being planted.  This characteristic helps them survive under sparse growing conditions.  But once they settle in, the results will be very special and appreciated by people and wildlife alike.  Already this morning, I spotted deer tracks crossing the new bed.  ;-)