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Garden Blog

Going Native

New England aster

by Dawn W Todd, Nursery Volunteer

On the first leg of my journey to Connecticut to see my  son graduate from his medical residency (I had to put  that in), the fellow sitting next to me was from Walla Walla. As so often happens to me, we got to talking about plants. He showed me pictures of his backyard, and I was impressed by his artistry. He takes old wood—torn down structures—and turns them into landscape elements. He created a patio retreat that blocked the neighbor’s view of him, and also blocked his view of their house; it made an oasis of beauty for his family. (I’m sure it didn’t hurt that his wife has studied interior design.)

I wish I knew how to do that. I comforted myself by remembering that I am getting to know plants, and plants can create retreats too. When the subject turned to Vaccinium I began by thinking, “Oh, I know about this!” and then I realized that, while I know about Vaccinium, I don’t know a darn thing about Walla Walla. Well…wine. And peas. And red twig dogwood next to the river. He asked my advice, and since I didn’t have a computer handy my advice to him was to get on one and look up his zone, and look up “native plants for Walla Walla,” or “native plants for central Washington.” Or he could go to a nursery and see if they have a native plants section. I told him to think about having his soil tested, because it’s easy and inexpensive and tells you what you need to add to it in order to grow what you want to grow; as well as letting you know when you’re knocking your head against a brick wall. My own soil is very acidic, which is common around the Seattle area, and if a plant needs an alkaline soil I’d have too much to do every year to keep that plant happy.

That’s why I always suggest starting with native plants. It’s because I am—I will admit this—a lazy gardener. I love to garden, I do. It’s my meditation, it’s my exercise, and it’s my favorite form of socializing. I love my dog, cats, fish and even my family, but plants are the best company. I can spend a happy and absorbed two hours weeding, but then I want to be done with that. Have you noticed that some of our most aggressive invasives are imported? They may have been perfectly well behaved at home, but they become annoying life-of-the-party-lampshade-on-the-head rowdies when they move here.

I can spend an hour watering if there’s a very dry spell, but then I want to quit. (And watering is expensive.) Think of all the lush green lawns in southern California. We needn’t sneer, it happens here, too.

If I had to choose one garden task that is my special joy, I’d say it’s pruning. Nonetheless I do not want to prune a plant every year (or more often). I don’t deny the joy of nurturing one special plant we simply cannot live without. No harm in that. But the majority of my yard needs to be at least “region-appropriate”, if not native. It needs to be pretty darn self-sufficient, once it’s established, with the sun, rain and soil type available. I want to “work” in the garden for a few hours and then I want to sit in the garden and enjoy it, for Pete’s sake!

On the second leg of my journey I sat next to a resident of Connecticut returning home. She has a beach property that she wants to see planted in an attractive, sustainable way. It was Walla Walla all over again for me—what the heck grows here? My first thought was kinnickinnick, and I told her so, but I told her what I told the other fellow—look up native plants, look up your zone, go on-line and plug in the soil/sun/water situation and see what is going to be happy where you live. You in the Shoreline/Seattle area are lucky—you have the staff at the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden to ask. By the way, that pretty New England aster in the picture? We have some of that, too!

After I arrived at my son’s home I looked up Connecticut native plants myself. My gosh, the first three listed were old friends from home! Kinnickinnick, of all things, wild ginger, and columbine. Okay, it’s Asarum canadensis instead of our Asarum caudatum for the ginger, and it’s Aquilegia canadensis here instead of our own Aquilegia formosa for the columbine, but as I looked at the names and the pictures I didn’t feel as far away from home. Just for fun, here’s the website I checked out. You may enjoy it, too. If you fall in love with anything, just be careful where you plant it. http://www.ct-botanical-society.org/garden/