Energy Adviser: Native plants save water, beautify lawn

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Want to know how to decrease your carbon footprint, make a difference in the world and beautify it all at the same time? Start planting native plants. They not only benefit Southwest Washington's land, water resources and wildlife, they can help your yard and garden look lovely, while reducing your watering and energy costs.

There are 3,000 plants native to Western Washington, but only 250 or so are suitable for residential use, says the Washington Native Plant Society. Its website describes many species and is a good place to start researching native plants.

More than likely, these same species were growing here when David Douglas traveled the area in 1824 exploring the Pacific Northwest for the London Horticultural Society.

Native benefits

"Native plants have evolved to attract native wildlife, and wildlife has adapted to native plants," said Jeff Wittler, environmental resources manager at Clark Public Utilities. "That's especially true of pollinating insects."

Plants native to the area have adapted to our wet winters and dry summers and repel harmful insects, organisms and diseases better than non-natives.

According to the EPA, homeowners apply 20 times more chemicals per acre than farmers. Once established, native plants require less water, fertilizer and pesticide than non-natives. This reduces the chemicals flowing into groundwater and makes yards safer for kids and pets.

There's also the energy savings. Planting native trees and plants strategically can cut a home's energy use. A well-planned landscape can reduce the summer air-conditioning costs between 15 percent and 50 percent for an unshaded home, according to the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Plan now

It's not too soon to plan. Fall or winter is the besttime of year to plant. The survival rate of plants placed in the ground decreases after March when the weather grows warmer and drier.

First consider the goal for your native planting -- create a butterfly garden, downsize the lawn, increase the home shading or attract more birds and wildlife.

Then pick an area for that improvement. For example, lawns have less than 10 percent the water absorption of natural areas. They contribute to suburban flooding and runoff. Reducing your lawn size just 20 percent by turning its edges into borders sprouting native plants can aid water quality.

Knowing your soil is key to what you can grow and where. Evaluate its ratio of sand, loam, clay and its ability to absorb, and water content and drainage rate.

Lastly, it's important to consider the plant and its exposure sunlight, shade, weather and winds when placing it.

"The key to successful planting is finding an environment where the plant will thrive," Wittler said. For example, "placing a plant requiring shade in direct sunlight can stress it and stressed plants typically are more susceptible to disease and destructive insects."

If all this sounds complicated, you might want to talk to local nurseries about what you want to accomplish with native plants.

To learn more about native-plant landscaping, check out these local resources.

• Clark Public Utilities' StreamTeam program offers a class in May. For information or registration, call 360-992-8585 or email StreamTeam@clarkpud.com. The utility also offers a brochure, "Gardening with Native Plants," and a list of native plants at Clark Public Utilities.

NatureScaping offers classes on using native plants and attracting birds and other wildlife at the Wildlife Botanical Gardens in Brush Prairie.

Nothing but Northwest Natives offers consulting and sells plants native to the region.

Washington Native Plant Society is a nonprofit group that offers information on native plants.Energy adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.