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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gardening: To use native plants, first educcate yourself

Native plants are a good substitute for water-hungry lawns and gardens. This demonstration garden at the WSU Spokane County Extension Office was planted last year to show native plants are a good option for landscapes.  (Pat Munts/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Pat Munts For The Spokesman-Review

After my recent article on replacing lawns with alternate planting, A reader contacted me to ask about using native plants to replace a lawn. This is entirely possible to do but it takes a bit more planning and education. This is the first of two articles. This week I’ll focus on some considerations about growing native plants. Next week I’ll talk about the steps for planting a native plant garden.

First, just what is considered a native plant? Native plants are plants that have evolved over thousands of years together with animals, insects and soils in a particular interdependent ecosystem. Human-made development has and continues to fragment this closely knit environment. By planting native plants, we do a small piece to restore this balance.

Because native plants have evolved to specific conditions, they are a bit more challenging to grow. Unlike the plants we buy at the nurseries that have been bred to live in a wide range of conditions, native plants are more sensitive to their preferred habitat, soil conditions and water requirements. Some do better in sandy soil with very little irrigation. Others prefer denser soils or are native to wet marshy areas. This means some education and studying will be required to make your final selection of plants.

Native plants are not readily available at box stores, you will have to find specialty nurseries. Most of our regional native plant nurseries are small and operate seasonally with early spring being the best time to order plants My favorite regional nurseries are Desert Jewels in Spokane Valley, Plants of the Wild in Tekoa and their local retail partner Blue Moon Nursery in Latah Valley. Larger, national-scale online nurseries won’t have regionally specific inventory but will offer plants that grow in a broader span of environments. Nationally my favorites are High Country Gardens and American Meadows See the side bar for contact information and a full list of Northwest native plant and seed suppliers.

Are you going to use seed or plant seedlings to start your garden?

Planting with seed can be cheaper than buying plants but it comes with challenges. That said, quality native wildflower seed can cost $25 for a quarter of a pound of seed. Native seeds are often slow to germinate and can easily be overwhelmed by faster growing weeds which means you will have to do weed control before planting. Wildflower sprouts are hard to differentiate from weed seed sprouts unless you know what you are looking for. Native seed can also have a lower germination rate which might result in spotty emergence.

Planting native plant seedlings or plugs is often more reliable than seed. The small plugs establish more quickly than larger plants and they are easier to distinguish from weed seedlings. Seeds and plants will need to be watered for the first couple of years to properly establish them. Seeds can be planted in the fall or spring. Plants are usually planted in the spring when the nurseries have their best supplies.