Archive for native plants

North Portland Residential Landscape Design for Shade

North Portland Residential Landscape Design for Shade

Chris and Jennifer of North Portland contacted me for help with their large shady back yard.


They were overwhelmed with the high maintenance of lawn under huge trees. They wanted a back yard for entertaining a large family (with lots of adult kids and future grand kids).  They wanted to DIY and had a strict budget, so spending 20 grand on a concrete patio was not realistic. Views over the fence included other neglected yards and they had a large (evil) tree of heaven that had to go. Many plants had died or looked leggy and sun starved.

The back yard was longer than deep and made creating a design on their own more difficult.


My best contributions were getting the shapes of the new rooms to work with their long but shallow yard. Introducing them to the concept of using cedar chips as their primary surface for entertaining and paths was a perfect fit also. It looks great with their NW Natural style landscape, it’s affordable and it’s very easy to care for. If you get the right kind of chips you can even use a leaf blower on them and they don’t blow away.

We tucked different outdoor rooms into the perimeter of the landscape and kept the existing small concrete patio as a spacious entry to the house and the BBQ center. No more trying to fit a dining table on it as they had done before the design.

Selecting low water plants

The plant selection was also critical.  Shade plants had to survive on the water the big trees would let them have so our palette needed to be all low water plants. We used a lot of sword ferns and kept native plants wherever possible. On the south end we used one of my favorite little evergreen trees, Boxleaf Azara – Azara Microphylla. They planted them up on a berm which made them taller and helped do a faster job of screening out the neighbors garage wall.  Planting Azaras up on a berm prevents root rot since these plants do not tolerate poor drainage.

DIY installed

Their DIY install of the landscape turned out fantastic. They loved their back yard. When change came along, and they had to put their house on the market, the yard was another major asset and selling point. These photos, which they took, are from their marketing page.

I especially love the hammock room. The fire pit patio is clearly the largest entertaining area and is used for lounging with or without a fire. Their fire pit patio is a crushed rock surface, not cedar chips.

The chips continue around to the side yard gate and match the rest of the now low maintenance landscape.

“Carol understood us and got our style for a NW Natural landscape design for our North Portland yard.  We were very happy that she surpassed our expectations for low maintenance, no lawn, great textured plantings, backyard design.  She understood that we wanted to do some of the work ourselves and helped us make a beautiful-yard-on-a-budget a reality.”


Violet Blue Flowers in Your Summer Garden

Violet blue flowers in your summer garden

There is something magical about violet blue flowers in a summer garden. A mass of long flowering intense violet, purple or blue flowers to see from your summer chaise is a joy. Here is a plant that I use in my garden designs that is easy care and long flowering.

Blue False Indigo – Baptista Australis ‘Purple Smoke’ is a long lived perennial so it will live for decades in your landscape. I use it in my landscape designs because it is colorful, low maintenance, fully drought tolerant, and long blooming. It has attractive foliage and interesting seed pods for fall. Clients who want color and easy care would line up for this plant if they knew about it. It looks great with ornamental grasses and has a more naturalistic look since it is related to lupine, a classic native wildflower.

Planting combinations for Portland Landscape Designs

I’ve used it in a low water parking strip in NE Portland with true dwarf pine, succulents like Sedum spurium ‘Green Mantle’, heather and black mondo grass.  In a SW Portland Landscape design I placed it to tower over a low boulder with plant companion ‘Kim’s Knee Hi’ Echinacea to the side.

Over time the plant will increase to a nice thick stand of charcoal green stems (which add to the beauty) and violet blue flower stalks.  ‘Purple Smoke’ is grown locally, other varieties and flower colors are only available by mail order.  I only use the  variety of Baptista Australis called ‘Purple Smoke’.  Don’t use the parent plant of  ‘Purple Smoke’, it is called just plain old Baptista Australis and gets too tall for most city gardens.

Plant uses

The primary use is ornamental and wildlife friendly. It’s not edible although it is a legume but it is not toxic. It’s a true native American plant.  North American Indians had many uses for this plant.  The Cherokee made a blue dye for fabric from the flowers.  The Osage made some kind of eye wash.  Others used the roots as an antiseptic for wounds.  It is not considered edible and was once thought to be highly toxic.  Modern research has changed this perception.  Read more about the plants chemistry.

How to kill Baptista: Water it every day in the summer and fertilize it heavily. Plant it in a low spot where winter rain water will puddle or sit.

Best practice:  Water deeply once a week the first summer.  The second summer water deeply but infrequently or put a plug in the drip emitter because it won’t need any water by the third summer.  I always place it with low water plants so it is easy to provide it with low water to no water. Don’t divide it. It has a tap root so dividing will kill the plant. If the clump gets too wide, take off new plants at the edge of the clump.

After the foliage yellows in the fall cut it down to the ground.  Mulch twice a year with garden compost.

Check out my Summer Watering Tips. Learning how to water properly can be a great stress reducer for you and protect your landscape investment.


Native Plants for Small City Landscapes

Native Plants for Drought Tolerant City Landscaping

NW Native plant Sword fern is drought tolerant.

NW native plant Sword fern can be planted in less than ideal soil with good results.

People dream of a landscape that will need no watering.  Sometimes because they think it will be less work but more likely these days they recognize that water or the lack of it is a problem that will continue to grow.  Like the Brits in World War II they want to do their bit to help with a very real problem.

One way to have a no water landscape is to use NW native plants that are drought tolerant.  Here are some tips to help you have more success.

What size of plants to plant

They will establish better with a bigger root ball.  Expect 15 to 20 percent of your plants to fail.  Try not to take it personally.  Natives are a little more particular than other plants.  Use 2 gallon sized plants not 4 inch or 1 gallon for best results with native plants like Salal-Gaultheria shallon, Ocean Spray-Holodiscus discolor, Huckleberry-Vaccinium ovatum, Current-Ribes sanguineum or the favorite native of all, Vine Maple-Acer circinatum.

Sword fern can be smaller

If you are planting Sword fern Polystichum munitum, save your money and buy smaller plants, like a 1 gallon.  Sword fern can also be planted in less than ideal soil with good results.  It’s the only NW native plant that doesn’t need careful soil preparation.  I’ve transplanted it from my woods and had it play dead for over one full year.  It came up the second year and was back to a three foot wide fern by the third year.  Fascinating.  This plant can be killed but one would have to work at it.  It can tolerate summer water and will look more attractive watered when planted in a sunny area.  In shady areas it has looked quite attractive without a drop of summer water by the third year.

Pacific Madrone for drought tolerant landscaping.

Pacific Madrone – Arbutus menziesii
has recently been approved for City of Portland street trees.

Madrone must be smaller

Madrone-Arbutus menziesii is perfect for a no water landscape and is very picky about how and  where it is planted.  This is because unlike most trees it has a tap root so it does not thrive in a pot for long.  In the past I’ve only successfully planted a 6 inch tall plant. Recently friends of trees has found a way to grow them to about 5′ feet tall and plant them in parking strips.  They are a needed plant for hosting rare butterflies so if this succeeds it will be very exciting. Two important tips for success with your new Madrone; water sparingly the first summer, and do not ever fertilize.  After the first summer is over, never water your Madrone again.  Don’t plant anything else within ten feet that needs summer water and don’t prune your Madrone.  It’s a beauty that requires planned neglect for success.  At this time I do not have a retail source for the larger Madrone.  If you want one, buy the 6″ size at a native plant sale.  They grow surprisingly fast.

Native Oregon drought tolerant Vine Maple with Single Trunk.

Vine maple with single trunk fits small city landscapes. Multiple stemmed trees will get too wide.

Vine Maple-Acer Circinatum

The most typical mistake I see in small city landscapes is multi stem Vine maples horribly disfigured with poor pruning because they got too big. Most small city landscapes are not big enough for a multi stem or clump version of Vine maple – Acer circinatum.  Instead I select a single trunk Vine maple from one of my wholesale growers.  A single trunk tree will not get too wide.

When to plant NW native plants

Plant in fall for best results with native plants.  Planting in late winter and early spring works almost as well.  Planting in mid spring or summer will require more summer watering and some natives have an adverse reaction to summer water but their roots are not established well enough to go without water for the first summer so it’s a dilemma.

Avoid this dilemma by planting in the fall or early spring.

Native Huckleberry used in drought tolerant landscaping.

Evergreen Huckleberry used as a screen in SW Portland.

Evergreen Huckleberry comes in two sizes (sort of)

Evergreen Huckleberry-Vaccinium ovatum is almost like two different plants.  Planted in a sunny area it grows slowly to 4’ tall and perhaps 3’ wide.  While it will continue to grow and get a little  bigger each year, it’s very slow growing.  Compare it with the same plant in part shade to heavily dappled shade and it grows faster and is often in  the 6 to 8 foot tall by as wide.  People use the berries in muffins, pancakes and jam.  The flavor is mild from plants in low elevations and more flavorful in higher elevations.  Birds will eat them but don’t tend to use them for baked goods.

Soil Preparation

Most NW Native plants need well prepared soil.  Some need fertile soil, some need a sandy soil but almost all of them need well drained soil.  I find most directions on how to prepare soil for NW natives quite complex.  It is doable.  If you are DIY, here is a web site that might be helpful.

NW Native Flowering Current for drought tolerant landscaping.

Flowering current – Ribes sanguineum is a spring pick me up for people and nectar for hummingbirds.

How to Kill your plants

Plant too deep – Dig the hole several inches deeper than the root ball of the new plant.  Plant them in the lowest area of your property.

Water them every day their first summer.  They might live a few months but will die in their first winter even if you only over watered them in the summer.

Best Practice

Dig the hole twice as wide but only as deep as the root ball of the new plant.  Plant 1” too high and bring soil to the plant.  Water carefully the first summer.  A slow soak rather than daily light sprinkles of water is best.   Mulch the plant in the fall and spring, don’t fertilize.

Drought tolerant native Sword Fern in Sun.

NW Native Sword fern – Polystichum munitum has upright fronds in sun and horizontal low fronds in shade.

Mix of NW Native Plants and Non Native Plants

As a Portland landscape designer, when I have clients who want no water landscapes, I tend to mix other plants with NW native plants.  My list for a full sun area might look like this:  Spanish lavender, dwarf Manzanita groundcovers,  Oat grass, heather, California lilac, true dwarf pines, smoke tree, madrone,  Grama grass, dwarf Fountain grasses, Rosemary, Hebe, stepables like Elfin Pink Thyme.

If you are looking for drought tolerant landscaping, contact Carol for more information on Oregon native plants.


Tree Stump Art

Tree Stump Art

When tragedy struck their beloved cedar tree, the clients created a beautiful sculpture from the stump.

I first met Rick Lee and Monique O’Rielly at the Portland Home & Garden Show.  They hired me to create a design for their difficult sloped back yard.  They had a beautiful large native cedar tree and we designed the landscape to fit around the tree.  It was the focal point of the naturalistic style of the design.  Before they could install the design, their cedar tree started dropping needles and turned a sickly color; the arborist recommended removal! 

Rick and Monique were devastated but then they came up with a great idea (I wish it had been my idea).  They contacted a local wood carver named Gavin (sorry folks he moved to Idaho and I don’t have a contact for him), and he created a beautiful, flowing, carved design into the trunk of the tree. 

This required thinking ahead so when the tree was cut down they left a sizable trunk.  This allowed plenty of space for the carved design and made a large art piece for the garden.