Now’s the Time for Natives

Fall and winter may be the most important seasons for gardening in our area

According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it’s too late to reverse the damage already done to the Earth’s climate. In the Pacific Northwest that means ever hotter summers and erratic, inadequate precipitation are likely here to stay. 

This depressing news, while hardly a surprise, does underscore something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years now, which is that fall and winter may be the most important seasons for gardening in our area. 

Fall has always been a good time for special projects like breaking new ground, building raised beds, putting in paths and other hardscape items. Winter is great for getting ahead of the weeds. Put these tasks off until spring and you are liable to be taken by surprise when you find how much there is to do. 

But fall is also an ideal time for planting — and, I would argue, especially for planting natives. That’s something we should all be doing now. Loss of habitat is the leading cause of declining populations of birds and insects. We can help by making our towns and suburbs a little bit more like native habitat.

Native plants are adapted to our traditional cycle of dry summers and winter rains. Growth in the native forest, meadow or garden tends to begin with the fall rains. Planting natives in early fall takes full advantage of the natural rainfall pattern. By the time the dry months roll around again, your new perennials and shrubs have had their best chance of getting established before the rains stop. New plants will still need supplemental water their first summer but they won’t be as needy as the little plants you put out in April or May. 

I learned this the hard way — by killing plants. I have lost count of the native plants in little four-inch pots that I purchased and planted in spring which languished through June and ultimately died, mostly because I failed to give them enough water. 

Sure, I could have done a better job of that. But the point is, I soon accepted that those little four-inchers I love to buy in spring plant sales have a better chance of success if I transfer them to gallon pots for the summer, carry them through as I would any potted plant and set them out in early fall as the weather cools. By then they have decent root systems and can make the most of the coming cool and, we fervently hope, moist growing conditions. 

You don’t want the bother of nursing pots through a long, hot summer? An obvious alternative is to buy the plants in the fall, but there’s a catch. 

For casual gardeners who just want to pick up a few plants, the easiest time to find them is spring. That’s when garden centers are most likely to stock natives, and most nonprofit plant sales, often (pandemics aside) a rich source of native plants, are usually held in spring. You may have to work harder to find native starts in fall, but it’s perfectly possible. More about that later. 

If gardening with native plants is a new venture for you, I have a few suggestions. 

Number one is something I heard from several experienced native gardeners but flatly ignored: Concentrate on forbs and, if you have room for them, shrubs. Forbs are broad-leafed herbaceous flowering plants, as distinct from grasses. Let these get established while you learn about grasses. Native or not, grasses can be aggressive self-sowers. Most of us find it hard to tell one from another in early stages of growth — and it’s a safe bet that most grasses coming up in your garden will not be native. 

My next suggestion is to start small, perhaps with a selection of charismatic and well-behaved perennials that will give you and the pollinators a succession of flowers through spring and early summer. Oregon iris, fringe-cup and Western columbine are abundant and familiar in the Willamette Valley’s natural areas. They come into bloom in that order listed, with considerable overlap. Planted together, in sun or part shade, they make a nice show for a few weeks in spring. Some native perennials self-sow quite aggressively (yes, I am talking about you, geum! And you, gumweed!) but this obliging trio will multiply at a rate you’ll most likely enjoy.

Next, I suggest checkermallow, especially the relatively compact rosy checkermallow (Sidalcea malviflora ssp. virgata). To extend the season of bloom I’d also look for mule’s ears, cinquefoil and, for well-drained areas only, Oregon sunshine, whose brilliant gold flowers above a mat of silver leaves are a joy to behold. 

Then there’s yarrow. It’s not exactly exciting but has the virtue of a long period of bloom in late summer. After that, you might throw caution to the wind and plant the wonderful, long-blooming Douglas aster — a vigorous spreader by stolons as well as by seed — but valuable for skipper butterflies and other late-flying pollinators. 

What about annuals? I’d certainly look for seeds of colorful, early-blooming California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) and also our native clarkia, otherwise known as farewell-to spring, whose bright pink flowers on two-foot plants put on a fabulous display in June and are loved by bumblebees. 

To best attract pollinators, ecologists say you should plant good-sized patches of each individual species. On the other hand, different pollinators are attracted to different plants and flower types, so variety is desirable too. If you have plenty of space for native plants, plant bold groups of as many species as you can, aiming for a variety of flower type, color and bloom-time. If you have only a small patch, aim for variety and as long a season of bloom as you can. If you have room for a shrub or two, red-flowering currant is fast-growing, attractive and blooms early in the year, making it especially valuable to insects and hummingbirds.

Where should you look for plants? A quick internet search brings up several native plant nurseries in our area. Some are wholesale only, but a few wholesale nurseries will sometimes sell retail, so it’s worth asking. Willamette Wildlings in Creswell is one of those. Our best local source for retail sales, though, is Doak Creek Native Plant Nursery out on Marlow Road. 

Proprietor Cynthia Lafferty tells me the nursery is well-stocked and looking great. You can order online and she’ll deliver for a small fee, but it’s a lovely place to visit and well worth a drive in the country. The nursery is open Saturdays 10 am to 4 pm for drop-ins and on weekdays by appointment. Lafferty asks that you call ahead if you need directions: 541-521-9907. 

Clicking on ‘Resources’ at the Doak Creek website brings up valuable material on plants for pollinators, courtesy of local ecologist Bruce Newhouse. If you need further inspiration, there’s a new book by Douglas Tallamy: Nature’s Best Hope: A new approach to conservation that starts in your yard. Tallamy is the author of Bringing Nature Home, an excellent book, informative and erudite but highly readable. Both books are published by Timber Press.

Rachel Foster lives and gardens in Eugene. She can be reached at