14 Tips for Native Landscaping

Got a water-waster on your street who overwaters his lawn (and driveway) so frequently that neighbors have dubbed him Old Faithful? Thinking about busting up your concrete driveway for something a little more eco-friendly? Oregon Home asked landscape architects and native garden designers about turning a manicured lawn into a more natural place. 

[1. don’t waste water.]
Conventional gardens often require a steady supply of water because many of the plants aren’t native to the climate. It’s better to landscape with native plants, which in Oregon are often drought-tolerant and able to survive the summer with little or no watering. “Part of the reason to grow native plants is that they’re already adapted to the climate conditions, and if you’re using natives, you’ll use less water,” says Michele Eccleston (, a wetlands scientist, a garden designer and the owner of The Purple Garden in Portland. “Many plants I use like the moist climate, but they’re also drought-tolerant in the summer. To establish them, like with any plants, you’ll have to water them for the first couple seasons. Once they’re established, you can turn off the water or water infrequently, and that helps with water conservation.”

[2. DON’T underestimate the importance of trees in a native landscape.]
Trees have many benefits other than providing shade. “The monetary value of having trees is tremendous because they provide so many services,” says Jurgen Hess ([email protected]), a landscape architect based in Hood River, Ore., who has worked on residential and restoration projects throughout Oregon. “If you have deciduous trees, in the summer they’ll shade your house and in the winter the branches allow sunlight to come through. They can be a windbreak or provide privacy between you and your neighbor, and they clean the air.”

[3. think about how you want to use an outdoor space before you use your shovel.]
An important aspect of garden design is thinking about how you want to use your yard, and using native plants is no different. “What I help you do is think about what you want to do,” says Eccleston. “You need to think about your intention for the yard. Do you want to eat from it? To have native birds for wildlife? How you’ll use the space helps determine which native plants will work best.”


[4. If you live in a fire zone, use plants and design techniques that will help protect your property.]
The hot, dry summer climate of Central and Eastern Oregon means homeowners need to take fire safety seriously. While a lot can be done with building materials, you can also design your landscape with native plants that will not go up as quickly.
“My first career was in the Forest Service, where I was a planner and a landscape architect,” says Hess. “If you live in a fire-prone area, you really have to do the right things. You have to create a defensible space of at least 100 to 200 feet, where you limb up the trees to keep the fire on the ground. Also, don’t have a tree that has overhanging branches next to your house: Use plants that have lower flammability such as Oregon grape. By thinning out trees, you will hasten their growth rate and end up with trees that are more fire tolerant because they’ll have thicker bark.”

[5. If you’re new to using native plants, think small and in layers.]
If you have an established garden, the thought of tearing out large portions of it and replanting can overwhelm you. One way to start with natives is to work in small areas of your yard. “Start by enhancing areas you already have,” says Horning. “The whole process should start with walks in places like Portland’s Forest Park, the Berry Botanic Garden or the Columbia Gorge. You’ll notice layers of plants from the perennials to the ferns to the shrubs and then the big trees. You can translate that to your yard. Start under existing trees and rhododendrons. Good plants for those places are deer fern, trillium ovatum, tiger lily and Hooker’s fairy bell.”

[6. Add sustainability to your yard with a vegetable garden.]
While most vegetable gardens are planted off to the side or in a separate area, it’s better to integrate a vegetable plot into the design of your yard, especially if you’re using native plants. “If you’ve got a naturalistic garden, you could have a vegetable garden as part of that and even make it more formal and ornamental with native plants at the edges,” says Portland landscape architect Deborah Abele (503-281-3452). “Lone Pine Press publishes this great book—Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast—which is so much fun to read. It’s full of information about native and naturalized plants. The bottom of each plant listing tells what a plant was used for, how it fits into the ecosystem and where it grows naturally.”

[7. Depave your driveway.]
While you probably need a place to park your car, you don’t necessarily need an entire driveway covered in concrete. Removing it or just leaving a paved area for car tires can also change the feel of your yard. “You can redo a driveway and give it a lighter touch or have a path with stepping stones,” says Abele.
If you must have a hardscape, choose materials that allow for water drainage. Construct a driveway out of permeable paving, which has a surface that allows water to infiltrate it or use pavers that have a hole in the middle for drainage.

[8. Study your site before you put in native plants.]
Oregon has a range of climates and to garden successfully with native plants, you need to choose plants that can thrive in your climate and in the microclimate of your yard. “You have to select the right plant for the right place,” says Hess. “Know where, by season, the sun sets and rises. During the day, figure out where it’s shady and where it’s sunny. Know the direction the wind comes from and what the soil is like.” Once you know how your site functions, choose plants that will grow well there.

[9. Research how big plants will be when full-grown.]
Never purchase a native plant without knowing its mature height and width. “Some plants look good in a five-gallon pot, but they can turn into a multi-stemmed plant that’s 30 feet tall,” says Kevin Horning, a landscape designer and a horticulturalist, and the owner of Living Soil Eco-landscape Management in Portland. “Pacific ninebark is a good example of that. It’s pretty when it’s small, but­ it can get 13 feet tall, so it might not be sustainable in your yard.”

[10. design a garden with the needs of animals and birds in mind.]
Tired of searching the sky for a hummingbird in search of your feeder? Plant a red-flowering currant and watch your feeder become a hummingbird magnet! “It has gorgeous flowers, and hummingbirds love it,” says Eccleston. “I sit in my yard and watch the hummingbirds come and go. It’s an example of how you can design a garden to mimic what happens in nature.”

[11. Step away from the roses planted in straight rows every two feet.]
Design naturescapes that rival what you come across in nature. If you like the look of native plants, but don’t want your yard looking overgrown, you can design your garden to look native yet orderly. “I’d choose plants that are more shrubby,” says Abele. “Grasses and things like that that reseed or are spread by rootsuckers will not work for an area you have to keep tidy. Also, plant things that are already about the size you want them to be. You know it will be happy in its place, and something that is more compact is easier to keep tidy, which is usually what people want near the entrance to their house.”

[12. Don’t maintain a golf course-perfect lawn when you could enjoy a landscape that yields food or flowers.]
“I’m not a big fan of lawns, but not everybody can take out their lawn and turn it into a garden,” says Eccleston. “If you have kids or a dog, you need some lawn, but  what you should do is minimize it as much as possible because a lawn requires a lot of water and chemicals to maintain.”
If you need to have a lawn or open space,  use plants that will function as a lawn, but don’t require the same care. “We took all the lawn out around our house put in native grasses and strawberries and kinnickinnick and wildflowers,” says Hess. “It’s gorgeous because it’s always changing, and we don’t have to spend our Saturday mornings with the lawnmower.”

[13. reuse the rainwater that falls on your property.]
When you’re planning your garden design, you should examine how water flows through the property and figure out ways to capture it for your own use. “Using bioswales is a wonderful thing,” says Hess. “Runoff water from houses goes into storm drains, gets polluted and then runs into our rivers and streams. But you can take that same water from our gardens and downspouts and get the water back into the earth.”

[14. don’t fall in love with a plant you can’t use!]
If you’re going to commit to using native plants in your landscape, you might need to let go of some of your favorites. “It’s easy to fall in love with a plant before you get in love with the land,” says Hess. “You have your heartthrobs, but they won’t always work in your landscape. For example, sometimes when I work in The Dalles, clients will say they want to put in rhododendrons. Or someone in Portland will say they want a rock garden. If you proceed with such plans, you’ll just create a lot of misery for those plants.” n