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Organic Gardening in Central Oregon

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Chapter Seven - Go Native

A sagebrush for an ornamental landscape shrub? You've got to be kidding. But why not? It is adapted to our climate, is low maintenance and takes little water. In England, sagebrush is considered an exotic ornamental. Why not in Oregon?

More and more people are looking to our own native habitat for their landscaping needs; not only for ease of maintenance, but for beauty. Junipers loaded with purple berries, dozens of colorful wild flowers, and bird-attracting red berries of the squaw currant are only some of the delights awaiting the native gardener.

The best way to familiarize yourself with native plants is to spend some time with them. Walk among them. Visit them in all seasons. The High Desert Museum and Sunriver Nature Center are excellent resources, not only for learning the plants, but for books and seeds. The botanical garden at Sunriver Nature Center that has many native plants on display.

We live in an ecotone area that gives us several different habitat choices. You may prefer the sagebrush steppe, the pine forest or a combination of the two. If you are looking for ease of care, water and work, go with the flow of your neighborhood.

Analyze your own landscape and needs to see what is appropriate to grow. Is your land rocky? What is the existing vegetation? Is water available, or must you depend on rainfall? Test your soil, particularly the pH, and compare it with the soil of the native environments you are interested in.

Ideally you will not have to improve the soil much if you are going to grow the kind of plants that are native. This will vary with individual circumstances, however, and with what your existing land is like. Some plants will do better and grow more lush with improved soil and some plants will not like this and decline. Rather than fertilize all of the ground you may want to just do pocket planting and only improve the soil in pockets around certain plants.

Plants in their natural environment live in communities. As you study the area around you, it will become clear what plants like to grow together. There are three levels in a plant community. Trees are the dominate species in a habitat, and they set the scene, so to speak. You can symbolize an entire community in a small space by planting even one or two trees of the dominate species. The next level is the understory, the shrubs and smaller trees. There is quite a variety of these to plant and they can serve multiple purposes, such as foundation plants, hedges and screens, wildlife food and flowering ornamentals. The lower level is composed of the grasses and the flowering plants. The bunch grasses are an important component of this native habitat and should be encouraged whenever possible.

Many of the basic landscaping principles can applied when designing your native garden. It is a good idea to lay your land out to scale on paper. This helps to coordinate the native areas with the domestic area. You may need to have some kind of fire break around your home if you are in the woods.

There are nonliving elements that can add to the essence of your garden. Rocks, logs and careful selection of artifacts can enhance the beauty of your design. There are aspects of Japanese gardening that can be applied to the type of native gardens and plants in Central Oregon. Japanese gardens use symbolism to represent the greater picture of the natural elements they are representing. They also try to take advantage of the views that are available and often make them a focal point.

When building fences and some of the other necessary components of your living areas, keep them as informal as possible. Aim for a natural look to fit in with the spirit of your garden.

Obtaining the Plants

There are a number of ways to obtain the plants. Check with the local nurseries, they are beginning to get some of the more common natives in stock. If you don't find what you want, tell them what you are looking for. This is how they figure out what the consumer wants, by the feedback they obtain. There are a number of mailorder sources of seeds and nursery stock listed in the resource section at the end of the book.

The least desirable way to obtain plants is to dig them in the wild. Many of the wild plants do not transplant well and will not live; or will die within a year or so. There are serious ecological concerns to consider before doing any digging. Many species have become extinct because of greed and this is happening at an accelerated speed. Be very thoughtful about what you are going to do and want to accomplish. Investigate the plant and the implications before you make a decision to dig the plants.

Some experts advise to only dig on land that is going to be bulldozed under for development anyway. If you see land under development it may behove you to contact the owner and see about salvaging plants that will otherwise be destroyed.

Digging plants on public land requires a permit. Permits are available from the Forest Service or from the Bureau of Land Management.

If you decide to dig and transplant plants from the wild, do it by plan, not on a spur of the moment decision. Have the planting sight prepared beforehand, your pH corrected and the hole dug. The quicker you can get the plant back into the ground, the better; so plant it immediately. Don't let it set around overnight or longer.

The transplant seasons are spring and fall. It is extremely important that the ground be wet around the plants being dug. Dry, sandy soil falls right away from the roots and dooms your chances of success. The smaller the plant the better, a seedling has a better chance of survival than a large plant. Take as much soil with the plant as you can, the less roots you disturb the better. Water the plant well after you have it settled in it's new home. You will need to continue watering until the plant has a chance to establish itself, at least one season or more.

To dig a larger tree or shrub, plan to begin the spring before you transplant in the fall. In the spring, take a shovel and circle around the tree where you will dig the root ball. Sever the roots that lead away from the plant, and that way it will have to build up a good foundation of root system within the area you are going to dig. Dig a large root ball, as big as you can lift. Slip burlap or some covering around the dug root ball while still in the hole if you can. Tie the covering around the root ball. Fill the hole up that the plant comes out of when you are finished.

Some experts believe it is important to mark the magnetic direction the plant is growing. Tie a string on the north side of the tree before you take it out of the ground and when you replant, line up the string to the north. Anything you can do to reduce the plant's stress, the better your chances of success.

Propagation is the preferred method of obtaining your plants. Seed gathering can be done in late summer and fall, about a month or so after the plant blooms. Spot the plants when they are in bloom and put markers on them. Later, when the blossom is gone, it is difficult to find the plant again. Take no more seeds than you will need, and no more than about 10 or 20%. Keep in mind that the plants must propagate themselves in the wild and the seeds may be wildlife feed, so do not over gather. Put your seeds in a closed container or an envelope and label with name, date, location and any other pertinent information.

Berries are collected when they are their most brightly colored. Mash them through a sieve, place the pulp in water, and the viable seeds will sink. If there is danger of the seed head of the plant shattering and loosing the seeds before you gather them, tie a paper bag over the seed head. This will keep the seeds from being lost.

Wild seeds need stratification or scarification to get them to germinate. This is nature's way of protecting the little seeds from sprouting at an inappropriate time for survival. Stratification is the process of cold to break their dormancy. It can be duplicated in your freezer and refrigerator. Scarification can be the need of heat or fire to germinate, or the seed may need to have its shell gently sanded to weaken the outer shell. Some pine trees, in particular, need the heat of fire to trigger their seeds to germinate. You may need to do some experimentation to get the seeds to grow. The key to success is what it takes the seeds in their native environment to germinate. For example, a juniper seed needs to pass through a bird's digestive tract, and can often be found on top of fence posts that birds frequent.

The best and easiest procedure is to plant the seeds at once in flats and leave them outside for the winter keeping them moist. This way the natural freezing and thawing will stratify the seeds and with any luck they will come up naturally in the spring. When the plants are large enough, you can move them to their permanent location or to a nursery bed.

Direct seeding is another way to grow the plants. Success tends to be somewhat marginal, but does work under the right circumstances. The odds are higher for germination when you plant them in the protected environment of a seed flat.

Cuttings are another way to get plants. Softwood cuttings are taken in early summer. Take the cuttings from vigorous plants at a stage when the branch beaks with snap when bent. The cuttings should be two to four inches, cut just below a node (the place where a leaf grows from) and with two or three nodes to each cutting. Dust with a rooting hormone and place in damp sand. Keep them warm, in a low light and with the humidity high. They can be covered with plastic to assist this process.

Hardwood cuttings are taken in the fall and stored over winter in moist sand in a cold but not freezing place. A root cellar or refrigerator will serve this purpose. The cuttings should be 3.5 to eight inches long, taken from the past season's growth or older. Cut the top at a slant so you can tell the top from the bottom. In the spring propagate like the softwood cuttings.

Evergreen cuttings can be taken in October and through November. Three to five inch cuttings of well-ripened wood should be dusted with a rooting hormone and planted in moist sand. Junipers do best with a heel cutting. These should be kept cool and moist. They should be rooted enough to transplant by the next summer, but may take up to a year to root.

The next step is to move your plants from the rooting medium to pots. When they are large enough to survive on their own they may be moved to their permanent spot in the garden.

Habitat Choices

The determining factor of what to grow (besides what you like) is the amount of water available to irrigate with. If you have little or none, you will need to stick with what grows in the immediate vicinity. This can be the sagebrush steppe or the pine forest with sagebrush intermixed.

The sagebrush steppe consists of juniper as the dominate plant, with sagebrush, rabbit brush, bitterbrush and squaw currant as the main understory shrubs. Bunch grasses are important and also many wild flowers are available to you.

The pine forest mixes lodgepole and ponderosa along with some juniper. Understory shrubs consist primarily of sagebrush, bitterbrush, rabbit brush, squaw currant, manzanita and ceonothis. Bunch grasses are also important in this habitat. Many wild flowers are available.

Having water available and being willing to irrigate will increase your choice of varieties. Shrubs and small trees that need water but will grow in Central Oregon include choke cherry, quacking aspen, hawthorn, willow, mock orange, service berry, wild roses, golden currant and snowberry. Water will also expand the number of wild flowers available to grow.

Native Plants for Dry Areas

  • Trees
    Juniper, Juniperus occidentalis
    Heel cuttings, seeds
    Ponderosa Pine, Pinus ponderosa
    Seeds, small seedlings
    Lodgepole Pine, Pinus contorta
    Seeds, small seedlings
  • Shrubs
    Sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata
    Half-ripened wood, cuttings, seeds, small plants
    Bitterbrush, Purshia tridentata
    Seeds, try cuttings, seedlings
    Grey rabbitbrush, Chrysothamnum nausiosus
    Seeds, seedlings
    Green rabbitbrush, Chrysothamnum viscidiflorus
    Squaw Currant, Ribes cerium
    Seeds, cuttings, layering
    Manzanita, Arctostaphylos patula
    Cuttings, try seeds
    Wild Lilac, Ceanothus sp.
    Seeds, small plants
  • Grasses
    Idaho fescue, Festica idahoensis
    Seeds or seedlings
    Steppe bluegrass, Poa sanbergi
    Seeds or seedlings
    Indian ricegrass, Oryzopsis hymenoides
    Spiked wheatgrass, Agropyrons spicatum
    Needlegrass, Stipa comata
  • Flowers
    Buckwheat family, Eriogonum sp.
    Seeds are recommended for flowers
    Oregon sunshine, Eriophyllum lanatum
    Desert daisy, Eigeron sp.
    Locoweed varieties, Astragalus sp.
    Death camas, Zygadenus venenosus
    Mariposa lily, Calochortus macrocarpus
    Bitterroot, Lewisisa rediviva
    Phlox, Phlox sp.
    Indian paintbrush, Castilleja sp.
    Paintbrush is partially parasitic and must have other roots to grow with
    Granite gilia, Leptodactylon pungens
    Larkspur, Delphinium sp.
    Lupin, Lupinus sp.
    Yarrow, Achillea millefolium
    Flax, Linum perenne
    Western wallflower, Erysimum asperimum
    Prickly pear cactus, Opuntia sp.
    A small pad will root

Native Plants for Areas with Water

  • Trees and Shrubs
    Quaking aspen, Populus temuloides
    Seeds, cuttings
    Service Berry, Amelanchier sp.
    Pussy willow, Salix sp.
    Commercial sources
    Golden currant, Ribes aureum
    Mock orange, Piladelphus lewisii
    Roses, Rosa sp.
    Hawthorn, Crataegus, douglasii
  • Flowers
    Shooting star, Dodecatheon sp.
    Seeds are recommended for flowers
    Scarlet gilia, Gilia aggragata
    Fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium
    Evening primrose, Oenothera sp.
    Crane's bill, Geranium sp.
    Balsam root, Basamorhiza sp.
    Alum root, Heuchera sp.
    Wild strawberry, Fragaria sp.
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