Why Go Native?
By Suzy Crowe, Master Gardener
Gardening above 7,500 feet, we face the same issues as our fellow gardeners below us. We just face them to a greater extreme: more wind, more varied temperatures, more unexpected storms, more sandy soils, more critters and a shorter growing season, to name a few. We plan wind breaks, amend the soil, fertilize, water, buy live traps, put fences up and still loose sometimes to these elements. All is not lost. Ever consider landscaping and gardening with native plants? Many if not all of these issues can be mitigated by planting native to the Rocky Mountain West. Native plants have adapted to the area and can take the rugged abuse that 9000 feet in elevation offers.
Soil: Many mountain soils consist of decomposed granite with little water holding capacity and low nutrient supply. Having adapted to this soil type, most native plants do not require soil amendments. If you are planting in an existing naturalized area most natives can be planted directly in the ground without any amendment. If you are planting in a garden bed environment and want unusual growth and flowering, add 1/4 (on a volume basis) compost to existing soil for increased water holding capacity. However, be aware that this could push growth, and lead to floppy plants and shorter lives.
When planting native plants from nursery containers, be careful not to create a soil differential. A differential is a soil interface of two vastly different soil types that will inhibit water flowing or draining freely causing water to either not enter or not escape the root ball. If planting directly in the native soil, gently remove the nursery soil from the root ball, as it tends to be highly humus, or add one-quarter compost to the backfill, and make your planting hole up to twice the size of the container.
Fertilizers: Natives planted in native soils are generally quite happy with no fertilizers. Planted in more of a garden bed situation, they may benefit from light fertilizing. If you decide to fertilizer, use a fertilizer low in nitrogen. A high nitrogen fertilizer will produce excessive top growth increasing the susceptibility to disease, insect and animal damage and weeds. If you decide to fertilize, choose a balanced (10-10-10 or 5-10-10) slow release fertilizer.
Water: Many native plants are xeric and have adapted to the water availability of their regions. Be sure to plant like water needs with like. Plants with a higher moisture requirement should not be planted with plants that thrive in drier soils. All new plantings need to be watered in to help root establishment. After root establishment, you can curb your watering requirements to meet your desired schedule. Planting with the natural precipitation of the monsoon season can decrease water use while establishing plants in their early phases of growth. Think of this when you are walking through a beautiful aspen wildflower field: try to find the sprinkler system or lady with the watering bucket.
Weather, Critters and Weeds: Native plants are more likely than their nursery counterparts to withstand or recover from the damage of hail, frosts and high daytime temperatures followed by low nighttime temps. They also have a higher winter survival rate. When researching the growing requirements for your plants, don’t forget to research their winter needs. Mulch, snowcover, winterwatering needs vary greatly from plant to plant.
Native plants tend to be more critter resistant and recover from critter damage better than their nursery cultivars as they have learned to defend against these native animals. Wildlife is also highly attracted to natives bringing the damaging and the good pollinating critters. To reduce damage, plant animal resistant plants, fence off your garden both above and below ground (don’t forget about the borrower such as voles) or use one of the animal resistant sprays on the market. Protect young plants with fencing or plastic bottles with tops and bottoms cut off. Established plants are less vulnerable to irreparable damage than young plants.
One of the great benefits of planting native is to eventually have a no to low maintenance garden. Before planting be sure to eradicate all possible weeds to decrease the available weed seed bank. Natives never run the risk of becoming noxious weeds and choking out the vegetative diversity. Noxious plants by the legal definition cannot be native plants.
Availability: Native plants can be harder to procure than your standard nursery fare. A few are available in the nurseries. Many more are available in seed form. Fall planting is the best time for native seeds as they benefit from winter dormancy. Be sure to research the scientific name of the native species you are looking for. There are many cultivars that may not be hardy in your zone or have different watering and exposure requirements than the native plant. Be sure to ask at the nurseries you are shopping. If they don’t have it perhaps they can help you find it or at the least by asking you are letting them know the demand for native plants is as high as the benefits they offer. Wherever you find them please don’t find them in our forests. Our forests are the inspiration for our native gardens.
Some native plant recommendations for high elevations:
Nodding onion – Allium cernuum
Pearly everlasting -Anaphalis margaritacea
Windflower- Anemone multifida
Pussytoes- Antennaria sp.
Colorado columbine- Aquilegia caerulea
Golden columbine – Aquilegia chrysantha
Sages – Artemisia ludoviciana and A. frigida
Harebells- Campanula rotundifolia
Indian paintbrush –spp.
Showy daisy – Erigeron Castilleja speciosus
Rocky Mountain bee plant – Cleome serrulata
Showy daisy – Erigeron speciosus
Sulphur flower – Eriogonum umbellatum
Wallflower – Erysimum capitatum
Blanketflower – Gaillardia aristata
Wild Geraniums – Geranium viscosissimum and caespitosum
Prairie smoke – Geum/Erythrocoma triflorum
Scarlet gilia/Fairy trumpet – Ipomopsis aggregate
Blue flag – Iris missouriensis
Blue flax – Linum lewisii
Silver lupine – Lupinus argenteus
White tufted evening primrose – Oenothera caespitosa
Pasque flower – Pulsatilla patens
Penstemons – P. barbatus, P. virens, P. secundiflorus, P. strictus, and others
Prairie coneflower -Ratibida columnifera
Black eyed Susan – Rudbeckia hirta
Golden banner – Thermopsis divaricarpa