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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Gardening: Native plants help gardener work with home’s sandy soil

Pat Munts

When Martina Pachal tries to garden in her Indian Trail yard, it’s more like going to the beach and playing in the sand. Sand is a fact of life there, given that the region was covered with water and floods during the breakup of the last Ice Age.

“My yard is nothing but fine white sand,” Pachal said. “It’s really hard to get anything to grow or keep watered.” Because keeping a conventional garden and yard going is a challenge, she has embarked on an effort to incorporate drought-tolerant plants and grasses into her landscape.

Sandy soil does not hold water or nutrients for very long, which means you have to water and fertilize it more frequently, and it makes establishing plants a challenge. Sandy soil also erodes easily, making it difficult for plant roots to get established on steep slopes. The best way to remedy both conditions is to add straight compost to the soil over time and work it in as deep as you can. The compost acts like a sponge to hold water and nutrients in the soil for a longer period of time.

Pachal is now adding native plants and other plants that are adapted to our dry, hot summers and cold winters. The area around her house already has lots of snowberry, serviceberry, pines, arrowleaf balsam root and several varieties of wildflowers. “We tried to move some balsam root, but its roots were too deep and they died.” So she has started looking for natives and their allies at local nurseries like Blue Moon, Desert Jewels and Plants of the Wild in Tekoa, Washington. “We also purchase plants at the annual spring sale at the Spokane Conservation District,” she said.

Besides buying plants, she has been experimenting with planting wildflower seed with mixed results.

Planting native wildflowers and shrubs from seed can be tricky. Their germination rates can be lower than commercially grown seed and they often are picky about the type of weather and moisture conditions they will start growing in. Many seeds need a cycle of winter to condition the seeds to germinate.

Always buy your seed from reputable sources, as close to where you live as possible. Many native plants are adapted to very specific habitats. Be ready to pay a good price for it, because growing native seed is expensive.

It is best to plant most native seed in September in a prepared bed. In the spring, start by removing existing weeds and grasses you don’t want to keep and then weed the area through the summer. Just before planting, add an inch or two of compost over the area to create a seed bed and block light to weeds. Mix the fine seed with an equal part of sand or cornmeal and spread it with a hand-held whirlybird-type spreader. Very lightly rake the seed in and roll the area with a lawn roller. Water lightly to settle the soil. In the spring, learn what the desirable seedlings look like and then weed the area again.

Pat Munts is co-author, with Susan Mulvihill, of the “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook.” Munts can be reached at pat@inland nwgardening.com.

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