Energy Adviser: Native plants’ upkeep is easy and affordable

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With 2012 plant catalogs already waiting for your attention and area plant nurseries beginning to stock spring inventory, now is the time to select plants that will reward you with beautiful blooms and abundant foliage while keeping your summer water bill in check.

Early spring, with its cool rainy days, is the best time of year to set out young tree saplings and shrubs, as well as a variety of perennial flowers.

You would think with average rainfall of 40-plus inches a year that Clark County homeowners would have few worries when it comes to keeping their yards happy. But water demand soars during late summer months, when temperatures climb, the ground dries out and delicate plants begin to fry.

Water bills can add up during these peak usage times, say energy counselors at Clark Public Utilities, which provides water services to 30,000 customers. Using drought-resistant and native plants allows homeowners to have a low-maintenance but attractive yard while using far less water from the outdoor faucet.

Examples of native plants that do well in northwest gardens include Vine maple, Oregon grape, redosier dogwood, red-flowering currant and Nootka Rose. These have been long-time favorites of native plant gardeners for naturally pleasing, low-maintenance landscapes. For additional plant ideas including perennials take a look at the utilities’ “Gardening with Native Pants” brochure at http://www.clarkpublicutilities.com/index.cfm/our-environment/landscaping/.

Planning strategy

Plants native to the Northwest typically require less water once they are established and are more resistant to native pests and diseases, notes the Washington Native Plant Society. By requiring little, if any, fertilizer and no pesticides, native plants are also better for water quality than those that require more chemical help to grow.

Woodland’s Kathleen Robson, author of the “Encyclopedia of Northwest Native Plants,” warns that gardeners should be aware of a harsh dry period that typically hits Southwest Washington during August and early September.

“We don’t get those thunderstorms that other places have in summer,” Robson tells her readers. “The good news is there are a lot of native, drought-tolerant plants from which to choose.” And many are beautiful in gardens as well.

Robson offers these buying tips:

• Take time to visit nurseries and see growing plants first-hand. Read their labels for the locations where they work best. Do basic research at www.wnps.org, hosted by the Northwest Native Plant Society, or visit Robson’s website at http://www.nothingbutnwnatives.com/.

• Visit display gardens around the area, like those featured at the annual Clark Public Utilities Home & Garden Idea Fair at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds the last weekend of April. To see a live demonstration visit the Wildlife Botanical Gardens in Brush Prairie. Information is available at http://www.naturescaping.org.

• Ask these questions before making a purchase: How big will this plant get? When does it bloom? Does it like shade or sun?

There are 3,000 plants native to Western Washington. Of those only about 250 are of residential scale and merit, according to the Native Plant Society, which lists and describes about 200 species on its website, http://www.wnps.org.

More gardening tips from the society:

• Plant drought-tolerant plants away from lawn areas or gardens that will be regularly watered or plant them higher on slopes to minimize overwatering them. A common mistake, say the experts, is to put a drought-tolerant plant in a “rain garden” area only to see it die when its roots sit in water during winter months.

• Consider replacing part or all of your lawn with drought-tolerant native shrubs, groundcovers and/or stones and pebbles.

• Cover all exposed soil with dense plantings and mulch. The mulch will slow down evaporation from the soil and will keep the soil cool and moist.

• Control weeds regularly and especially in the summer -- they take water from your garden plants.

• Water at dawn or use “drip” irrigation. Water deeply and infrequently.

Still looking to learn more about landscaping with native plants? The Clark Public Utilities’ StreamTeam program offers a class in May. For more information or to register, call 360-992-8585 or email StreamTeam@clarkpud.com.Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to energyadviser@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.