While I think it’s clear that native plantings can fit in beautifully with a designed, artful garden, many people still have trouble finding room for them.
Even when people understand the specific wildlife benefits that only native plants can bring, and want to use them in the garden, it can be hard to change a design scheme overnight to welcome some of your region’s plants into the garden.
The solution? Start by planting natives in the side yard. The planting strip that connects your front garden to your back is often a slender area, shaded and usually forgotten when you have a few spare moments to maintain your garden. Native plants, used wisely, can be a perfect solution to this difficult zone.
Think about it: at least in the Pacific Northwest, many of our native groundcovers are robust enough to choke out weeds, our shrubs are easily trained and pruned into a small tree form that provides height and interest without crowding the pathway, and many of our natives are well-adapted to shade under trees, so can tolerate the shade cast by a fence and the house.
From a design perspective, the side garden can have its own theme, so long as it gracefully blends into your ornamental plantings in the back. So if you’ve been struggling to fit some of your region’s natives into your garden, the side yard can be a perfect place to create a simple, flowing planting that blends seamlessly into the rest of your outdoor spaces.
Here are some tips to create a native planting in the side yard:
Use broad swathes of the same plant. Long, skinny areas look best when planted with repeating themes, because you’re usually viewing the area when walking swiftly down the path. Highly mixed plantings encourage passers-by to slow down; continuously flowing plantings feel more soothing when you’re on the move.
Aim for a mix of low and tall plantings. Groundcovers and small tree forms work best in a side yard, because shrubs, with their round or boxy shapes, make the pathway feel crowded. Try for a flowing planting no taller than knee or thigh height; then accent with small trees, or shrubs pruned into a tree-like form that arches above your head. The benefit to using plants with a tree-like shape is that they can obstruct the view of a neighbor’s house and soften the fenceline, without crowding you when you use the side yard path.
Don’t be afraid to shape and train. Native plants can be used in the garden just like any other plant. You can prune or topiary shrubs and trees into interesting forms, espalier them against a fence, or hang stones from their branch tips to weight them and encourage a wider branching habit. For some reason, we think of native plants as needing to be left completely natural, but you can absolutely use your artistic side to shape native plants just as you would any plant in your garden. Be creative and have fun.
I’ll leave you with some photos of a lovely native garden in a side yard, here in Humboldt County, California.
We share many natives with the Pacific Northwest and a few with the rest of California, so this side garden has our native vine maple, Acer circinatum, Smith’s fairy bells, Disporum smithii, salal, Gaultheria shallon, redwood sorrel, Oxalis oregona, bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa, five finger fern, Adiantum aleuticum, inside-out flower, Vancouveria hexandra, beach strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis, as well as the western azalea, Rhododendron occidentale and bigleaf maple, Acer macrophyllum.
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