Gardening 208: Native Landscape Plants

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Welcome back to Gardening 208! The “course” where we talk about all things Idaho landscaping. Today’s agenda: native plants.

There are many reasons to plant native. Ranging from water savings to decreased maintenance, healthy and adapted plants, and wildlife attraction, many people are motivated to keep their landscapes local.  

Simply defined, a native plant is one that resides in a local ecosystem, state, or region that naturally adapted to the climate and soil. Some might cringe when considering the Treasure Valley’s desert climate because looking at the foothills at the peak of July is not exactly landscape eye candy. You just might be surprised, however, by the palette available. Selecting proper native plants depends on how “narrow” your definition of native is. If your goal is to protect the ecological integrity of your space, you might select plants that specifically grew there before cultivation. If you want to choose from the widest variety of adapted plants, then you can include those that reside within the Intermountain West.

The biggest factor to consider when gardening or landscaping in Idaho is the limited summer moisture. While snow and rain are relatively abundant in the winter, only a few inches of rain come when temperatures rise. In fact, our environment is so dry some homeowners apply upwards of 30 inches of supplemental water in the summer to keep things green. Water saving is huge with native plants.

Along with the water saving capabilities of natives, there are three other common characteristics native plants within the Intermountain West share.

Characteristics of Idaho Native Plants:

  1. Low humidity. Plants adapted to Idaho’s dry summer climate must be able to reduce their tendency to lose moisture in the dry Idaho air.
  2. Short frost-free season. Native plants need to be able to survive and grow through spring and fall frosts in order to complete their life cycles.
  3. Withstand bright, intense sunlight. Unadapted plants often get scorched and damaged leaves. Native plants survive and even thrive under intense sunlight.

Understanding the environment and plant characteristics that inhibit Idaho’s region aids in the selection of native plants to create an attractive landscape. But what do native plants physically look like and what do they have in common?

Physical Characteristics of Native Plants:

  1. Deep roots
  2. Fine leaves (low leaf to woody plant material ratio)
  3. Light color (silver, dusty green, pale gold foliage)
  4. Fine, pubescent hairs
  5. Uprightly angled leaves
  6. Waxy coating (preserves water)

A native plant may have one of these features or all of them, but keep in mind while there are some similarities with native plants, each one brings its own interest to the landscape. Do not be fooled or under the impression that native gardens are unkempt, boring, or ugly. There is beauty in the diversity native plants offer. Designs can be informal and low maintenance or they can mimic traditional landscape designs. There may be limitations or challenges along the way, but when grown in appropriate conditions, native plants can substitute traditional landscape plants that fit your personal taste.

In order to have a successful native garden, get acquainted with your landscape. Consider the areas of high sun exposure versus the areas of shade. How is the drainage, what type of soil do you have, and are there any microclimates in your yard? Certain native plants may be better suited for a specific location than others.

Find native plant combinations that work together. Recognize that if a native garden is designed for low water use, then other design features may be needed other than just plants such as rocks or wood for structural interest, color, and texture. Also, keep in mind that not every aspect of your landscape has to be native. Some people still opt for lawn for recreational use and native grasses are not suited or ideal for heavy foot traffic. Zones between traditional and native components must be carefully considered to avoid sudden shifts in plant type and style.

There is some patience required when turning your landscape native. Typically, the first spring and summer do not present a dense show of foliage or color. It may take several years before some plants bloom and others may be slower growers. This could be a drawback for those that want immediate results, but keep in mind most landscapes–native or not–require time to mature and fill in. On the bright side, the first two years reduce the amount of pruning and maintenance required, especially with native plants. Plants unadapted to the Treasure Valley’s climate often have a hard time showcasing their full potential, and planting them requires higher maintenance.

Once established, the benefits of landscaping with natives become apparent in various forms such as healthy and hardy plants, native bird and pollinator attraction, reduced chemical use, and a lower water bill. The University of Idaho Extension has many resources on landscaping with native plants. The Bureau of Land Management created a guide to landscaping with native plants of the Intermountain West; be sure to check it out for an extensive native plant list best suited for our area. As always, stop into Franz Witte Garden Center and shop our selection of natives. Talk to our friendly staff and bring your questions; we do our best to point you in the right direction concerning all your plant needs!

By Riley Rehberg

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