Gardening with native plants seems like a natural thing to do. We can be certain that plants that have been growing on their own for thousands...

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Gardening with native plants seems like a natural thing to do. We can be certain that plants that have been growing on their own for thousands of years will do well in our own backyards, can’t we?

With a little understanding of Mother Nature, the answer is yes.

What are the benefits of using native plants? If you choose them well, they will be suited to where they grow and require no additional summer water.

In addition, most of us are looking for a low-maintenance garden. With natives, your garden will have an informal look so will need little pruning to shape plants or keep them in bounds.

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Native plants will attract wildlife, providing food and shelter for birds, bees and butterflies. Variety is important. The wider the selection of plants, the more kinds of wildlife you will foster.

Nailing down native

When we talk about native plants, we have to ask ourselves, “Native to where?” The Pacific Northwest has many ecological zones, and not all plants from one zone, such as the alpine zone, will grow in our lowlands.

For successful planning, choose most of the plants for your native garden from the ecological zone that surrounds it.

Most of us garden in the Puget Sound lowlands, and even within that zone, we will not find uniformity. The plants will vary with the sun exposure, soil type, slope and amount of water.

The key to success is to get to know your site conditions and match your plants to those conditions when you place the plants.

When you walk through one of our lowland forests, you will get many planting ideas. Notice the layers.

On the forest floor are sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) forming great evergreen shuttlecocks of fronds. Interspersed with them are perennials that add texture and variety, from the delicate leaves of Western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) to the bolder wild ginger (Asarum caudatum).

The next layer may be red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) and salmon berry (Rubus spectabilis). Somewhat taller is vine maple (Acer circinatum); it lives up to its common name with sinuous branches that twist and sprawl in the shade. On the forest edge it is more upright, reaching 25 feet.

Towering over all are the forest giants, Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and western red cedar (Thuja plicata).

If you have a small garden or value the sun, you may not choose to grow the large conifers that once covered most of our area. You still can grow many natives without overhead shade.

Native mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) bears fragrant flowers in the late spring, while red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) attracts hummingbirds with its delicate pink blooms in late winter.

Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) grows in high elevations but will do well in the lowlands. Its slow growth means you can have a conifer in your garden that won’t grow over 20 feet or so.

Contrasting subtlety

Just as with exotic plants, think of the foliage of native plants as part of your design palette. It may be a little more subdued; you won’t find a lot of wildly colored foliage.

When designing the plantings, place contrasting leaf textures next to each other for maximum effect.

You may choose not to go all native, but mix in favorite exotic plants. Many natives will make a good evergreen background planting.

Salal (Gaultheria shallon) has an oval medium-green leaf that takes sun or shade. Tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) has a deep-green leaf that glistens in the sun.

You can see a good collection of garden-worthy native plants at the Erna Gunther Ethnobotanical Garden at the Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus.

Here you also will learn how Native Americans used native plants for food, clothing and shelter. Many Seattle and King County parks set aside natural areas.

Listing of natives

For a plant list for Northwest native plants, visit www.SavingWater.org, sponsored by the Saving Water Partnership, a group of local utilities that fund water conservation programs in Seattle and King County.

For a good book, check out “Gardening with Native Plants in the Pacific Northwest” by Arthur R. Kruckeberg, University of Washington Press, 1996.

Phil Wood has a degree in landscape architecture and designs and builds gardens. Call 206-464-8533 or e-mail thegardendesigner@seattletimes.com with your questions. Sorry, no personal replies.