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Turning the Page on Native Plants


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If you've been wanting to learn more about native plants, here are reviews of seven of my favorite books on the subject (all available in the Humboldt County Library).

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (2009): If you only read one of the books in this column, choose this one by Douglas Tallamy. Unlike the others, this one doesn't focus on descriptions of native plants, though it does contain some information about them. But it presents a powerful case for why using native plants is not just a nice idea but crucially important for the survival of wildlife. It explains how native plants and the insects that co-evolved with them are essential to birdlife in particular. This book opened my eyes to the urgency of this issue, and I highly recommend it to all gardeners and bird lovers.

California Native Plants for the Garden (2005): For brief overviews on the history of native plants in California horticulture, descriptions of native plant communities and a discussion of landscape design considerations, pick up this book by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O'Brien. There is a good chapter on soil preparation, sourcing plants and seeds, planting, watering, fertilizing, pruning and pest management. The bulk of the book is devoted to profiles of more than 500 native plants with a description of each plant, its habitat and range, light/soil/water requirements and related species.

California is a large state with an extremely wide range of habitats. Not every plant included would thrive in our area, but the majority would. Also included are extensive lists of plants for 30 specific situations, such as allergenic plants, plants with aromatic foliage, fast/slow-growing plants, poisonous plants and plants with ornamental fruits. The 450 color photographs include plant close-ups and many enticing pictures of landscaping with natives.

Encyclopedia of Northwest Native Plants for Gardens and Landscapes (2008): A comprehensive reference to 530 native plant species that occur in the Pacific Northwest written by Kathleen Robson, Alice Richter and Marianne Filbert. As with the book above, not all the plants described are native to our area, but the majority are. A detailed description of each plant is provided, along with useful information on cultivation, propagation, native habitat and range and related species. It also includes lists of recommended plants for specific situations such as drought-tolerance, shade, wildflower meadows, erosion control, and attracting birds and butterflies. Illustrated with 600 color photos and numerous botanical drawings.

California Native Gardening: A Month-by-Month Guide (2012): This book by Helen Popper provides detailed information on planting, propagating, dividing and maintaining plants on a month-by-month basis. For instance, April tasks are listed as: plant and sow; mulch; prune, just a little; take cuttings; manage weeds and celebrate Earth Day. One of the best sources I've encountered for pointing out the importance of maintenance for native plants and explaining how and when to do it. The final chapter discusses using natives in garden styles ranging from formal to cottage to Japanese to a children's garden. There are beautiful color photographs and vivid descriptions of native plants in bloom every month.

Real Gardens Grow Natives: Design, Plant & Enjoy a Healthy Northwest Garden (2014): This book by Eileen Stark presents a strong case for using native plants to support birds, bees, butterflies and other insects. It covers design considerations, site preparation and plant propagation. The heart of the book is a portfolio of 100 garden-worthy Pacific Northwest native plants — most of which grow locally — divided into plants for full sun, partial sun, and shade. Excellent color photographs and useful information on the growth habit and cultivation needs of each plant. I especially appreciate the notes on the wildlife value of each native. For instance, for vine maple the author comments: "Flowers attract bees and other insects. Host plant for western tiger swallowtail and mourning cloak butterfly larvae. Seeds are eaten by many birds, including grosbeaks, finches, and woodpeckers, as well as mammals such as chipmunks."

Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens (2007): This book is divided into 12 chapters, each focusing on a group of plants that occur together in the wild. Authors Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook provide examples of landscape designs for each plant community, including plant lists, descriptions and practical advice on maintenance. It's an inspiring book with good photographs of both gardens and individual plants. As an added bonus, it includes information on where you can see each plant community in the wild.

Native Plants in the Coastal Garden: A guide for Gardeners in the Pacific Northwest (2003): Though the book by April Pettinger and Brenda Costanzo defines its range as extending from southeastern Alaska to Eugene, Oregon, it is very much applicable to our region. It starts with a discussion of recent trends in naturalistic landscaping and offers sample site plans to show how native plants can be incorporated in landscapes. The authors discuss pros and cons of lawn as well as turf grass alternatives. They offer advice on gardening for wildlife, how to establish and maintain a meadow and how to use natives in a variety of settings, providing a list of plants for each setting. Roughly one-third of the book is devoted to descriptions of various native plant communities — shoreline, forest, wetland, grassland and mountain.

These books contain lists of native plant nurseries and other native plant resources. Another good source of information is, the website for the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society. This website has an expanded list of books on native plant gardening as well as recommended garden-worthy local natives.

Heads Up: Be sure to mark your calendar for the annual Wildflower Show and Native Plant Sale, May 5-7, at the Jefferson Community Center in Eureka. The website above has more information.

Donna Wildearth is the owner of Garden Visions Landscape Design in Eureka. Visit her website at


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