Plant and enjoy a healthy Northwest garden

“Real Gardens Grow Natives”

Eileen M. Stark

As much as I pity the folks shivering from Bozeman to Boston right now, I can’t help but gloat about our own opportunities to get out into the garden this month. For us in the Pacific Northwest, the first intimations of spring are just around the corner!

I’ve been an organic gardener for years, and I know I’m not the only one who has been paying more attention to the opportunity to reintroduce more native plants into the garden. The payoff has come in a vastly entertaining garden filled with bugs, worms, frogs, birds, squirrels and the occasional bunny right outside my door.

That’s why I was excited to see “Real Gardens Grow Natives” arrive in the mail the other day. Portland landscape designer and biodiversity advocate Eileen M. Stark has written this book to encourage folks to consider the many benefits of using native plants in their gardens.

Native species are already adapted to our climate and our soils, making them generally resistant to disease and drought tolerant, which translates into low maintenance for the gardener.

And as I alluded to above, a garden endowed with native plants provides a haven for wildlife – at least the smaller creatures – that have experienced so much habitat loss over the last several decades.

True to her name, Stark paints the picture in stark terms, giving a brusque overview of the consequences of burgeoning development to our ecosystem. I don’t disagree with her assessment, but I disliked the scolding tone of the early chapters. Stark should remember the old saying that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

The tone becomes less severe in later chapters as she shares valuable knowledge first about assessing the soil, microclimates, and existing plantings, and then about planning, propagating, watering and pruning.

Stark is an ardent champion for trees, and rightly so. She points out that too often magnificent trees have been sacrificed to the chainsaw merely because someone didn’t like having to rake up the leaves in the fall. But trees offer nest sites, food, and protection for myriad species, not to mention climate, flooding, and erosion control. If that tree has been around longer than you and you’re finding it hard to coexist, maybe it’s time for you to consider picking up and moving, rather than cutting down the tree.

There’s room for compromise in other areas: Stark gives good suggestions for incorporating natives into the non-native plantings you already have in place.

The last half of the book is a very helpful guide to 100 native plants of our region. There’s advice on size, bloom traits, benefits to wildlife, and more, and beautiful photographs accompany every entry.

It’s heartening to know that, in our own gardens, we can contribute to the health of our planet’s biodiversity by following this book’s lead.

One final reason to like “Real Gardens Grow Native”: proceeds from book sales benefit the Xerces Society, an organization dedicated to protecting invertebrates (such as butterflies) and their habitat.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com