Natural Wonder

Credit: Gillian Reece

There are many reasons to garden with native plants and even more ways to go about it. Some people dedicate a small patch in a city garden to indigenous species; others restore large tracts of land to the original habitat. In Victoria, Claudia and Darren Copley have spent the last 10 years transforming a horse pasture into a lush site with predominantly native plants. Their decision to garden with native plants and use no supplemental water was based on their concerns about habitat loss and water conservation. “These are such enormous issues. It was important to us that we weren’t part of the problem and contributing to further loss,” says Claudia.

Their property incorporates several water features, an organic vegetable garden and a chicken run. A bonus for the Copleys is that they don’t have to leave their yard to appreciate nature. “By using the right native plant in the right place, based on water and light requirements, our low-maintenance landscape allows us time to enjoy it!” she says.

By the Water’s Edge

The centre of activity is a large pond, excavated to capture natural seepage, and recirculated over exposed bedrock to create a waterfall. A seating area overlooks the pond and provides the Copleys with a view of birds coming in for a drink or a bath, dragonflies hunting and wood ducks nesting.

Surrounding the pond are shrubs that can withstand seasonal flooding. Scouler’s willow (Salix scouleriana), black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa), red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera, C. sericea) and black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) have filled in the edge of the pond. Smaller shrubs, such as hardhack (Spiraea douglasii), highbush cranberry (Viburnum edule) and sweet gale (Myrica gale), are underplanted with shade-tolerant herbaceous perennials. The fragrant, greenish-white or pinkish flowers of large fringecup (Tellima grandiflora) are held in long inflorescences, while the smaller burgundy flowers of piggyback plant (Tolmiea menziesii) rise above its lime-green leaves. Both these saxifrage family members remain evergreen over winter.

Sunny Rockery

A stacked boulder wall behind the pond creates a south-facing rockery. Here the Copleys have planted drought-tolerant and sun-loving species requiring both minimal soil depth and water. Small-leaved heuchera (Heuchera micrantha), another evergreen saxifrage, is nestled in crevices along with broad-leaved stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium). Claudia loves this grouping as the plants look great together and “they are so incredibly hardy I can’t help but admire them.” The wall is also home to satin flower (Sisyrinchium douglasii). In February, the delicate magenta flowers of this iris family member sway above its narrow, grass-like leaves.

Hairy manzanita (Arctostaphylos columbiana), also blooms in February. The small, white, urn-shaped flowers that hang in clusters above the greyish evergreen leaves are a food source for various insects. The burgundy bark is reminiscent of the burnt-orange bark of its relative, Arbutus menziesii. This shrub should be placed on a raised mound of fast-draining soil.

These early-flowering plants are followed by the later-blooming (May to July) woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum), whose daisy-like flowers can be sheared back to encourage a second bloom in late summer or early fall. In midsummer, nodding onion (Allium cernuum) blooms with light pink umbels above chive-like evergreen leaves. All these rockery plants require a well-drained soil mix, preferably one composed of equal parts of grit, compost and sharp gravel to ensure fast drainage.

Claudia has applied the sheet-mulch technique of laying down cardboard and layers of newsprint to eliminate an old lawn that was above the rockery. After piling on layers of mulch to smother the grass, she incorporated drought-tolerant shrubs along the perimeter. The deciduous shrubs ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor) and mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) intermingle with Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium). Its iridescent yellow flowers appear in March and are followed by purple fruit in late summer. The creamy plumes of ocean spray bloom in June and attract a variety of insects. Mock orange is a great shrub for both colour and fragrance: The pure-white flowers mixed with bold green leaves make it a gap-filler from early June to mid-July.

Garry oak Community

A mossy rock outcrop has been restored with some of the typical Garry oak species unique to southeastern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Such rocky outcrops dot Vancouver Island and are home to remnants of the highly endangered Garry oak ecosystems. Annual seablush (Plectritis congesta), which blooms in mid-May, is scattered over the rock face along with clumps of purple-flowered common camas (Camassia quamash) tucked into its crevices.

Dry Shade

Under the nearby Douglas fir trees are Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) and red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). These shrubs are adapted to coniferous forests and generally need no pruning except to occasionally shape them. Spring-blooming lilies briefly brighten up the dappled shade. Easter lilies (Erythronium oregonum), chocolate lilies (Fritillaria lanceolata) and tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) are interspersed with evergreen western sword fern (Polystichum munitum), western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) and starflower (Trientalis latifolia).

Native plants are climate-appropriate and insect-adapted, provide food for birds and are also butterfly-larvae food plants – and there’s so much more. For example, we all associate the red-flowering currant with the hummingbirds that visit the flowers to gather nectar, but Claudia has watched red-breasted nuthatches peel the loose bark strips from this shrub to use for nesting material, and, once the flowers are finished, hummingbirds return to glean such small insects as whiteflies. American robins, house finches, spotted towhees and cedar waxwings all come for the currants that ripen in late summer.

Claudia says, “Although you know these things intuitively, native plants have benefits even farther-reaching than those we were aware of when we planted them.” In other words, “that beautiful addition to your landscape is serving many valuable functions in addition to an aesthetic one.”

Full sun:

Allium cernuum (nodding onion) – zone 4
Arbutus menziesii (arbutus) – zone 6
Arctostaphylos columbiana (hairy manzanita) – zone 7
Camassia quamash (common camas) – zone 4
Eriophyllum lanatum (woolly sunflower) – zone 5
Heuchera micrantha (small-leaved heuchera) – zone 4
Holodiscus discolor (ocean spray) – zone 6
Mahonia aquifolium (tall Oregon grape) – zone 6
Philadelphus lewisii (mock orange) – zone 5
Plectritis congesta (seablush) – zone 4
Ribes sanguineum (red-flowering currant) – zone 6
Sedum spathulifolium (broad-leaved, or broadleaf, stonecrop) – zone 4
Sisyrinchium douglasii (satin flower) – zone 9

Dry Shade:

Dicentra formosa (western bleeding heart) – zone 4
Erythronium oregonum (Easter lily) – zone 3
Fritillaria lanceolata (chocolate lily) – zone 7
Lilium columbianum (tiger lily) – zone 5
Oemleria cerasiformis (Indian plum) – zone 6
Polystichum munitum (western sword fern) – zone 3
Trientalis latifolia (starflower) – zone 4

Damp Shade to Part Sun:

Cornus stolonifera (red osier dogwood) – zone 2
Crataegus douglasii (black hawthorn) – zone 5
Myrica gale (sweet gale) – zone 2
Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa (black cottonwood) – zone 4
Salix scouleriana (Scouler’s willow) – zone 6
Spiraea douglasii (hardhack) – zone 5
Tellima grandiflora (large fringecup) – zone 4
Tolmiea menziesii (piggyback plant) – zone 6
Viburnum edule (highbush cranberry) – zone 5

Brenda Costanzo has a M.Sc. in botany and is co-author with April Pettinger of Native Plants in the Coastal Garden by Whitecap Books. She has had a long connection with native plants and native-plant gardening on Vancouver Island.