Creating a Native Plant Garden

Adding native plants to your garden will make it a more attractive habitat for birds and bees.

Credit: Stuart McCall

Adding native plants to your garden creates an attractive habitat for birds and bees


Every spring equinox, around March 24, the flowering currant in my garden opens its bright crimson flowers. It’s a welcome sight, not just for its brazen show, but because it also signals the return of Rufous hummingbirds from their wintering grounds in Mexico to feed on the nectar it provides.

It is this image that comes to mind when Blair Petrie says, “I wanted to provide a habitat for birds, to recreate what used to be here.” Many other gardeners who want a welcoming environment for birds and bees are turning to native plants for the same reason.

Designing a natural, wild garden space

Blair’s pocket-sized garden behind his heritage house in Vancouver’s West End, although little more than a year old, shows how effective this particular focus can be. “I like a wild, dense space,” he says, looking across the knee-high rock wall that encloses his pond, towards the high berm beyond, thick with hardhack (Spirea douglasii), sword ferns, huckleberries, saskatoons and snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus). A stream wends its way along the top of the berm, falling over rocks into the pond. Cedar, Douglas fir and hemlock shade the garden on its west side, along with a massive English holly, defiantly at home among its local companions.

Another benefit for Blair is the low maintenance factor. “I went away for a month recently,” he recounts, “and there were very few weeds to pull when I came back.”

Frank and Erin Skelton would concur. In their west-side Vancouver garden there is no grass to cut, and provided their growing conditions are met, the plants demand little care. In fact, confining vigorous plants to maintain an attractive balance takes more time than pulling weeds.

Both active members of the Native Plant Society of B.C. (Frank is the current president), the Skeltons have spent the last two decades transforming their front yard into a microcosm of a west coast landscape, complete with cedar, vine maple and Douglas maple (“such a civilized small tree”), huckleberry and Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum), not to mention 16 species of native ferns.

Native ginger (Asarum caudatum), which is “evergreen, slow-growing and fragrant,” thrives under the cedar, as does southern maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillis-veneris). Adding some topsoil and getting the plants established before the cedar roots had time to grow into the new medium was the secret to their success.

The Skeltons, too, have included a pond in their design: a shallow basin, lined with bentonite, a product that allows natural seepage and a gradual margin where plants such as sphagnum moss, tiny ferns and other lovers of damp soil can thrive.

“Designing a native plant garden is all about ecology,” Frank maintains, “but you can use native plants in appropriate places in any garden.” For those who hesitate to completely transform their landscape, there are many native plants that make attractive additions to the combination of European and Asian natives that most of us already have in place.

Plant hunters of earlier times were quick to recognize the decorative value of these west coast dwellers. In fact, seed from Ribes sanguineum, the flowering currant I admire, proved so valuable when David Douglas took it back to England in 1827 that it paid for the entire cost of his two-year expedition.

Combining local natives with other plants

Another enthusiast, berry-crop breeder and consultant Hugh Daubeny, points out that plants from much of Asia exist in the wild in conditions similar to those in B.C. and combine happily with our local flora. He suggests underplanting woodland shrubs, such as the ever-popular rhododendrons and azaleas, with groundcovers like native mosses and bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), which share a preference for the same conditions.

Shade-loving bulbs like white and pink fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum and E. revolutum) and western trillium (Trillium ovatum) can be used for springtime colour and will spread naturally over time. In moist open ground the clear blue flowers of camas (Camassia cusickii or paler C. leichtlinii) make a lovely spread, as frequenters of Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park are well aware.

Ferns, which are currently enjoying a rise in popularity throughout the world, also make welcome additions to most gardens. Many of our local species relish moist and shady positions under larger plants, while the pretty parsley fern (Cryptogramma crispa) will flourish in the sun.

By contrast, tall ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor) makes an effective back-of-the-border plant with showy cascades of cream flowers that dry to a pleasant tan in fall. It thrives in a wide variety of conditions from dry coastal bluffs to moist woodland edges.

Shrubby penstemons are excellent, drought-resistant options for dry, rocky soils and are cold hardy, too. Their tubular purple flowers are among the brightest of our native dwellers. ‘Purple Haze’ is a particularly showy form of Penstemon fruticosus introduced by UBC. For mossy rock crevices or gravel banks, our native coralbells, Heuchera micrantha, makes attractive rosettes of crinkled green leaves topped with long red stems and a sprinkle of tiny white flowers in summer.

In midwinter, the leafless twigs of red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) shining bright crimson in pale shafts of sunshine give the spirits a boost, especially if the dogwood is reflected in clear water. This is a natural partnership as this shrub thrives on the soggy soil of lake margins. It also benefits from regular pruning out of old stems, as it is the young growth that has the most brilliant colour. Its larger relative, Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) is undoubtedly our best-known native, bearing the four-petalled cream flowers that have become our provincial emblem.

Even for apartment dwellers, a collection of native plants can be a rewarding option. Plants such as potentilla and mountain hemlock adapt well to containers. “You can grow a bog garden in a dishpan on a balcony,” Frank Skelton suggests. This might be the very place to grow a sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), the little oddball flytrap that eats mosquitoes and gnats. If nothing else, it will entertain the children and inspire conversation among your guests.

Christine Allen is a master gardener and an instructor in the VanDusen Botanical Garden education program.