Energy Adviser: Native plants save wildlife, water, energy

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It might seem early to start planning your garden, especially after the blustery weather over the weekend, but spring is around the corner and some thoughtful attention to what type of plants you use this year can make a big difference in your water and energy bills.

Native plants can make a yard attractive, while conserving clean water and energy. The Washington Native Plant Society website says about 250 of the 3,000 plants native to Western Washington are suitable for residential use. So that's a starting place for researching native plants.

Adapted to the local environment over hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of years, native plants tend to attract more wildlife, resist pests and diseases, and use less water. This doesn't mean they can compete with invasive non-native plants, however.

English ivy, Himalayan blackberries, butterfly bushes and holly are all examples of plant invaders found in Clark County. All were introduced as ornamental plants. Given the right conditions, non-natives like these can take root and overwhelm the native flora by creating monocultures disrupting the food chain, altering the ecosystem and even changing the structure of the soil.

Because native wildlife, especially pollinating insects and birds, have adapted to native plants, planting them in your yard helps turn your yard into a mini-wildlife refuge. "Wildlife favor native landscapes," said John Elerton, a native plant sales specialist for Shorty's Nursery. "Oregon grape, elderberry and bunchberry dogwood are frequently chosen by our customers wanting to attract birds."

Start by improving just one area. Consider your goal for native plantings -- reducing grassy areas, attracting wildlife and birds, or increasing shade for a cooler home during the summer.

For example, downsizing your lawn means using less chemical fertilizer, less fuel and less water. The environmental impact of pushing a gas mower around your lawn is equal to driving 350 miles in your car. Chemical fertilizers are linked to the decline of songbirds. According to the EPA website, lawns soak up 30 to 60 percent of our urban fresh water.

Planting native trees and plants also cools homes. According to the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a carefully laid out landscape can reduce summer air conditioning costs for an unshaded home about 15 percent to 50 percent.

Knowing your soil is key to what you can grow and where. Evaluate its ratio of sand, loam, clay and water content. Observe its ability to absorb water and how quickly it drains.

Consider the areas of your yard and imagine where you'll place each plant and its exposure sunlight, shade, weather and wind.

"Native plants have evolved monocultures that need to be matched," Elerton said. "Placing a bog plant needing lots of water in direct sunlight will soon kill it."

Although there's still time to get plants in the ground before March when survival rates can drop, fall and winter are the times for planting.

All this isn't as complicated as it may sound, but you might consider talking to local nurseries about what you want to accomplish with native plants, or checking out these local resources:

Washington Native Plant Society is a nonprofit organization where you can research native plants.

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

Want to learn more? Clark Public Utilities' StreamTeam hosts volunteer events across the county to improve the local watersheds. The utility's environmental team is also a great resource for information about creating healthy backyard habitats and native plants that work well in Clark County. For information, visit StreamTeam or email StreamTeam@clarkpud.com. The utility also offers a brochure, "Gardening with Native Plants," and a list of 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.