Many of us spent an inordinate amount of time this summer watering to keep shrubs and trees alive. Now is a great time to examine our yards and identify areas we can renovate with drought-tolerant plant species to reduce water use and free up time for other pursuits in the garden.
As always, it is best to cluster plants with similar needs together, so don’t put your new drought-tolerant plants next to thirsty shrubs and expect both to do well.
One place to start renovations is along your yard’s outer edges. These are the most difficult for the watering hose to reach and the most likely to be next to larger areas of natural habitat.
Or, if this summer you found yourself spending more time and water in one area than you care to next summer, salvage the plants you enjoy from that area, cluster them with other water hogs and replant the vacant spot with species suggested here.
Native plants, like all additions to your garden, should be placed in sites with suitable soils and exposure and given some extra watering for the first few years. If you plant them this fall, you will be pleasantly surprised at how little extra watering they will require next summer.
Many of our native plants are adapted to the wet winters and dry summers of the Pacific Northwest. Once established, these plants will tolerate extremely dry conditions. Here are some suggestions of Pacific Northwest native species that not only tolerate our dry summers, but even thrive.
Let’s start with some trees to give your yard some structure:
n Puget Sound juniper, Juniperus maritima, is very similar to the Rocky Mountain juniper, with a pretty blue-gray foliage. If you are fortunate, Cedar Waxwings will come to eat the berries.
n A number of native deciduous trees are also quite drought-tolerant. Douglas maple, Acer glabrum, does well without supplemental watering and does not get nearly as tall and brittle as the big-leaf maple.
n Garry oak, Quercus garryana, is the namesake of Oak Harbor and the only oak native to Western Washington. It grows slowly into an interesting shape and, just as other oaks, retains its dry leaves a long time, adding interest to the winter garden.
n Native shrubs doing well this year, despite the drought, include tall Oregon grape, Berberis aquifolium. This species is a moderately tall, evergreen shrub that produces bright, yellow flowers in the spring and blue fruit in the summer. Every northwest garden should have one to feed the bees and birds and give the garden some interest in winter.
n Red-flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, is a popular native shrub, with dark pink blossoms in early spring and pretty round currant leaves through the summer. These shrubs prefer dry, well-drained soils, so they should not be planted where they will be in standing water in the winter.
n Mock orange, Philadelphus lewisii, is a tall shrub with a profusion of white blossoms in early summer. It thrives in dry eastern Washington and does quite well here on the west side with no additional water.
Drought tolerance doesn’t have to mean growing only trees and shrubs. There is a wide range of native perennial flowers that will tolerate low water conditions throughout the summer.
Common and great camas, Cammasia spp., are both early bloomers that die back to the ground in summer. They do best in spots that get no additional water in the summer. So, don’t mix camas in with water-hungry annual flowers.
Other flowers that thrive in dry heat include the stonecrops (Sedum spp.), which bloom midsummer, and native asters (Erigeron spp.), which bloom in late summer through the fall.
Several websites can help you find the native plant to suit your needs. King County has an extensive program to promote the use of native plants for their qualities of low maintenance, low water and fertilizer use, as well as hosting native pollinators. Use the search feature to narrow down the suggestions based on sun exposure and moisture regimes. Find King County’s Native Plant Guide for homeowners at green2.kingcounty.gov/gonative/index.aspx.
Washington Native Plant Society also has a guide for landscaping with native plants. You can find lists of plants on this website categorized by moisture preference, but also by flower color, growth habit and sun exposure preference. www.wnps.org
Once you have decided what species to plant, look in the local commercial nurseries. Many native plant species are available as homeowners are choosing them to create lower maintenance areas in their yards.
Keep an eye out this fall for Washington Native Plant Society chapter sales throughout western Washington, and in the spring there will be native plant sales at the conservation districts.
For more ideas and to see some of these plants in action, visit the Washington Native Plant Society’s display garden next to the Master Gardener Discovery Garden at the WSU Research and Extension Center on Memorial Highway in Mount Vernon.