OUR GEM: Water conservation through Indigenous landscaping

The term “native landscaping” has been in the conversation for decades. I have been in the industry for 35 years and have seen a slow evolution to make the practice of using natives in your landscape a successful reality. When I say slow, I mean SLOW! I have worked with different nurseries, landscapers, extension offices etc. over the past 25 years to promote the use of native plants in landscaping and teach homeowners how to successfully use natives to replace their sprinkler-loving lawns (or at least some of them). It’s been a tough road, but over the past 5 years I’ve seen incredible progress.

The success of using native plants in the landscape depends on a few factors. The first is choosing the right plant for the right place. Just because a plant grows wild in Idaho doesn’t mean it will be low maintenance and low water usage in your landscape. Choosing a plant that grows naturally near a densely shaded stream to plant in a fully exposed backyard won’t save you water and the plant certainly won’t thrive. Conversely, using a plant that grows naturally in well-drained soil in full sun will not succeed on the north side of your home below your downspout. Choosing the right specimen for your microsite is of utmost importance.

The other main problem I have seen over the years is over watering. Homeowners plant native plants to save water, then leave their existing irrigation system set to water the lawn. It’s a great way to get plants to overrun your landscape with uncontrollable growth or quickly die back due to root rot from overwatering.

The other barrier that has slowed the popularity of native, low-water landscapes is the public perception of what a well-maintained landscape should look like. This perception has been the biggest obstacle to a low water use landscape movement. Native landscaping, or a more informal and natural look of the landscape, may be frowned upon by neighbors. This is due to the perception that a typical landscape should be a light green, lightly mown lawn surrounded by ornamental shrubs and formally trimmed annual flower beds. I am happy to say that this perception is changing and has changed exponentially in recent years.

In the past, most of the plants produced by our nursery have gone to the restoration of natural areas after a disturbance. Native plants used for landscaping were a small part of our business. The tides are changing and we are growing more native trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses for home and commercial landscapes. We still have a lot to learn, but the learning curve is flattening out and I’m excited to see the success.

I am often asked for a list of my favorite landscapers. Here is my short list. My favorite tree is the western larch. I love the Saskatoon serviceberry shrubs and my favorite wildflower is the blanket flower. These may not work for your situation, so do your research and find out which native plant will work on your site and save our precious water supply.

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