Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

A Solution is Just Outside Your Backdoor

In February 2014, Church leadership asked members in California to fast for much-needed moisture.  Many members prayed for a change in weather patterns that would bring the moisture. Within days after the fast, most of California was doused with rain and snow.  The fast also presented an opportunity for us to consider that the west has a long history of periodic droughts and that we can also pray the strength and wisdom to overcome the challenges of periodic droughts and to live within our “means” (our water resources).

In every drought, the topic of water conservation comes to the forefront. Much has been written on the need for water conservation. We have consensus on the need for water conservation but we struggle with the actual implementation of the steps needed to live within our water resources. Here in California, an average rainfall year no longer meets the cumulative demands of agriculture, wildlife and industry. However, there is one way each of us can contribute towards living within our water means- by landscaping with indigenous (native) plants. Indigenous plants are those native to the locale.

Let’s start by reviewing the information available to develop the wisdom we need.  The average life expectancy of an introduced landscape shrub or perennial in the colder climates of the west is short.  In Colorado, for example, the average life of a landscape plant is five years. Many plants succumb to late frosts or breakage from ice and snow. This short plant life requires the homeowner to replace their entire landscape in less than a decade.

Most homeowners take pride in the appearance of their home. The design of a landscape and the plants selected often reflect the knowledge and budget of the owner. Some of us wish to create a landscape resembling an “English garden”.  Others try to replicate a design from a magazine.  A few of us simply plant what plants were on sale at the big-box store. What most landscapes have in common is that they do not reflect the flora of the local area or uniqueness of a geographic area.  Fortunately for us, it is the uniqueness of an area that makes life so much more interesting. However, we often admire the sheer beauty of the natural landscape in our region then turn around transplant the landscape of another part of the world into our yard.

Is this pattern sensible?  In “Stewardship and the Concept of Yield in Landscape Water Conservation” by Larry A. Rupp and Roger Kjelgren we read “The Lord did not say that all the earth should be an English garden or a tropical paradise, but that plants are pleasant additions to our lives and should be dressed and kept. Craig Johnson, a landscape architect, in commenting about Utah, said: ‘Most people think landscapes should equal those found in the East and Midwest. We really don’t have a concept of a native western landscape.’ The western United States is arguably one of the most beautiful spots in the world. As such, it would seem logical that our landscape aesthetic would reflect and harmonize with the environment and thus be different from that of other locations”.

I own a wholesale plant nursery. I have some knowledge on the attributes of plants appreciated by buyers. First and foremost, people want plants that are easy to care for.  Buyers are hesitant to regularly spray for pests and have little knowledge of plant pests and diseases.  They want to attract birds and other wildlife in their yards. Those who have a “brown thumb” want a plant that can survive just about anything, including lack of water. The commercial nursery industry accommodates us by introducing over two thousand new and tempting plant varieties a year.

However, almost every plant variety outside of indigenous is a transplant from another part of the world or made by man.  As a transplant, that plant is going to benefit from fertilizer, regular water and pruning. The plant may also need to be sprayed for insects, fungus, diseases and weeds.  The soil may need to be prepared (or replaced) if the owner hopes for any chance of success. Then, in twenty years, the homeowner often ends up calling a landscape maintenance company to come in and gain control of their “jungle” of overgrown and misplaced plants. Plants escape our yards into the native plant community and we battle with our neighbors over tree branches crashing on a roof. When the transplanted landscape is complete, it generally stands out like an artificial island in a native world.

Let’s compare native plants to the desirable attributes cited above by buyers. Native plants introduced into landscape plantings are hardy and less susceptible to pests and diseases. Native plants have developed their own defenses against many pests and diseases. Since most pesticides kill indiscriminately, beneficial insects become secondary targets in the fight against pests. Reducing or eliminating pesticide use lets natural pest control take over and keeps garden toxins out of our creeks and watersheds.

Natives are unlikely to escape, become overgrown or invasive. In the Sacramento area, the Chinese Tallow has escaped and crowded out the natives along the American River.  In fact, many popular commercial nursery plants are extremely invasive and should be completely avoided.  Most states have websites that list invasive species for that state.

Soil modification is rare with natives. In fact, natives spend their youth developing root systems rather than top growth thereby enhancing survivability. Normally 1/3 of the dense root systems of native grasses and sedges decompose every year, enriching the soil with organic matter and increasing its water-holding capacity. Water infiltration and holding capacity are increased which prevents runoff, erosion, and flooding. In addition, deep-rooted plants have the ability to sink carbon.

Fertilization is often unnecessary and may have no effect on the plant. Pine trees, for example, generally do not respond to fertilization and will grow faster by simply reducing competing vegetation.  Once established, native plants need minimal irrigation beyond normal rainfall. Pruning and winter mulching is minimal.

Native landscapes and gardens provide habitat for birds, butterflies, bees, grasshoppers, crickets, and other insects; frogs, toads, and salamanders. Local wildlife, birds and butterflies have a relationship with your native plants. They rely on them for food, shelter and nesting. Native plants and hummingbirds, butterflies, and other beneficial insects are “made for each other.” Research shows that native wildlife clearly prefers native plants. A healthy population of insect pollinators can improve fruit set in your garden, while a variety of native insects and birds will help keep your landscape free of mosquitoes and plant-eating bugs.

How do you get started?  Your state’s native plant society should have a web site full of information and resources. Both the California and Utah Native Plant Societies websites describes appropriate plants and where to buy native plants. Many local chapters of a state’s native plant society conduct periodic plant sales devoted exclusively to natives. Nurseries will often have unique labels to identify native plants. Local arboretums and botanical gardens have entire sections devoted to natives. Please keep in mind that collecting plants without a permit is illegal on public lands in most states, and wild transplants often have a poor survival rate.

From the California Native Plant Society: With a little curiosity and research, you can broaden your plant palette. Choose plants that flower through the seasons. Fill your garden with plants that display a riot of colors, have deliciously aromatic leaves, or attract specific wildlife. Plant a themed landscape such as a rock garden or wildflower meadow. Discover natives that are deer-or fire-resistant. In every garden, the right environment (sun, soil, water, etc.) must be found or created for plants to thrive. It is easier and advisable to select plants that suit the site rather than to modify the site to suit the plants.

I recommend starting small. Balance your plants with natural stone.  Use leaf color for variety to avoid monotony when flowers are not in bloom.  Lastly, remember there is nothing wrong with a yard that has a Japanese maple you absolutely adore or that plant you picked on your trip to Arizona.  By trying natives, you will feel a renewed excitement in helping do your part to help all of us live within our means.

Finally, I offer a compromise for those of you still not totally convinced of the merits of going native. You will easily save 50% on your landscape plant water bill by using drip irrigation.  Water is applied directly to the plant using a system of tubes and emitters.  Combining drip irrigation with mulching eliminates sprinkler induced weeds.  Combining drip irrigation with natives will make you the leader in your neighborhood in saving water.

  • TopHat8855 says:

    This is really important. Where I live (SF Bay Area) there are companies you can hire to landscape your yard using local drought-resistant vegetation and landscapers can receive a “Bay Friendly” status recognition. I wish the ward buildings and temples followed the rule to use native drought-resistant plants.

  • Jane Birch says:

    Thanks, Dave! I’m on the board of a condo association where we have 11 acres in Provo to care for. This comes at a good time. I hope we can use this information. Thanks for sharing!