The Wild Backyard

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*I’m excited to announce that this week’s post is part of the PNW Nature Blog Scavenger Hunt! To participate, head over to the Metropolitan Field Guide Website before midnight on Friday, March 20 and answer questions based on several different PNW blog posts. This is a fun way to discover some great PNW blogs and you can win prizes! We are lucky to have such a wonderful community of bloggers here in the PNW, I hope you discover a new one to add to your reading list. Thanks to Metro Field Guide for organizing!*

One of my favorite things about hiking in Western Washington is the rich, diverse and vibrant green plant life. After moving to Seattle I started photographing and identifying plants I saw on hikes and around the city parks. Over a few years I became more and more familiar with the plants along the trails. This ability to identify the native species of the Northwest created a connection to this new place and made it feel more like home. As hikers, I think we all have a special appreciation of our native plant species. Creating native gardens around our homes brings the joy we experience while frolicking through high alpine summer wildflowers into our backyards.

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One of the best wildflower shows I’ve ever seen on Rock Mountain in the Cascades.

While our backyard does not exactly look like this gorgeous high alpine meadow, we have been taking small steps over the years to incorporate our favorite native species. Next I will share a bit of our journey and goals for “wilding” our backyard in the following 5 steps.

 1. Remove Invasive Species:
When we moved into our first home back in 2009, the yard was a mess. The garden beds were neglected and overgrown, the grass tall and jungle-like. We spent the whole spring cleaning it up and getting rid of the weeds. Since it was our first house we didn’t really know which plants were weeds and which were planted on purpose. We both grew up on the East coast and didn’t recognize most of the plants. So I did some research and found a list of the invasive species in Seattle. We found many of these species in our new backyard and removed them. Removing invasives is a great first step in creating a healthy backyard and making room for the native species we love. Some common invasive species in Seattle:

I    n    v    a    s    i    v    e    s

English Ivy // Scotch Broom // Cotoneaster // Holly // Knotweed // Himalayan Blackberry

More info about invasive species:
King County Invasive Species List & Info
Noxious Weed List by State (USDA)

2. Plant Native Species:
There are so many good reasons to plant native species in your backyard. Here are just a few of them:

  • To create a simplified ecosystem that preserves the biodiversity of the area where you live. More housing and development around the country is leading to a serious lack of green spaces for our native plants and wildlife to thrive. Our backyards can be a sanctuary for wildlife with shrinking habitat.
  •  Native plants are perfectly built for the local climate and conditions and require little or no maintenance, fertilizers, herbicides and watering.
  • To create a sense of place and beauty that connects us to the land we call home.

You don’t have to spend a ton of time and money ripping out all your gardens and replanting with natives. We have been slowly incorporating more natives into our landscape over the years. As the older plants die we remove them and replace them with a similarly sized native species. This year we want to get rid of some of our moss-ridden grass, so we are expanding our garden beds out into the yard and will eventually fill them with more native plants. I’m especially excited to dig up a new bed this spring that will be completely dedicated to delicious native blueberries! Here are some of my favorite Northwest native species that make a great addition to the backyard.

T   r   e   e   s

Douglas Fir // Western Red Cedar // Western Hemlock // Pacific Dogwood // Madrone //
Vine Maple

S   h   r   u   b   s      &     F   e   r   n   s

Salal // Oregon Grape // Red-flowering Currant // Rhododendron // Nootka Rose //
Snowberry // Elderberry // Sword Fern // Maidenhair Fern // Lady Fern // Pacific Oak Fern

E   d    i    b    l   e    s

Blueberries // Strawberries // Sorrel // Watercress // Nettle // Salmonberry //
Miners Lettuce // Thimbleberry

F   l   o   w    e    r    s

Columbine // Camas // Bleeding Heart // Violets // Bunchberry // Harebell // Star Flower //
Trillium // Lupine // Oregon Iris // Tiger Lily // Monkeyflower // Fireweed // Goats Beard

More info about native plant species:
Guide to Northwest Native Plants from Seattle Audobon
Find Native Species in Your Region of the US

3. Welcome the Good Bugs:
Insects are a vital part of the wild backyard as they help to create balance. If you think about the plants along the trails you will notice that some may have a little insect damage, but rarely do you see entire plants taken over or destroyed by bugs. We should see the same in our backyards. The problem is that we (I include myself here) have become accustomed to immediately killing off any bugs we see in the garden leaving a sterile environment that endangers our plants. Without a healthy population of beneficial insects, our backyard plants are susceptible to invasive insects that destroy plants without any resistance, requiring us to go running for even more pesticides. So, this year I intend to pay more attention to the bugs and learn how to attract the beneficial ones.

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More info about beneficial bugs:
Attracting Beneficial Insects to Your NW Garden
Identification Guide to Beneficial Insects in Your Garden from Washington State University

4. Attract Wildlife:
The ideal hike in the mountains definitely includes a wildlife encounter. Whether it’s hearing the staccato beating of a woodpecker call, seeing a chipmunk scurrying up a tree or catching a glimpse of an elk or bear, these experiences fill us with excitement. Why not try to have these experiences in our backyard? Ok, we probably don’t want to attract a bear to our yard, but I was super excited to find that we had some neighborhood flickers and Anna’s hummingbirds that occasionally grace our space. Here are some tips for attracting wildlife:

  • Put up a bird feeder or bird house. Pay attention to where you place the feeder to avoid attracting unwanted visitors like squirrels or rats. Don’t put them next to high bushes or anything they could climb or jump from. If you want to attract squirrels, put out corncobs or dedicated feeders with nuts in a separate area for them. Native trees are the best habitats for birds and squirrels, or you can add a bird house to accommodate more birds. If you are taking steps to attract birds and you have an outdoor cat, you may want to consider keeping the cat indoors. Domestic cats account for a staggering amount of bird deaths every year.
  • To attract hummingbirds, put up a red feeder with a sugar solution. Anna’s hummingbirds overwinter in Western Washington, so keep the feeder full all year to create a reliable source of food. Plant nectar rich native species (see list below) and avoid buying pre-made feeding solutions that may have additives or coloring. You can make your own by dissolving 1 part sugar in 4 parts boiling water (our feeder takes 1 cup water with 1/4 cup sugar).
  • Using leaf litter as compost in the garden creates habitat for insects and provides food for birds and small critters. If you live in a more rural environment you can place old tree trunks and litter around to provide shelter for wildlife (this is not advised in the city as it will attract rats).
  • Add a water feature. It’s not just the birds that enjoy a fresh bird bath: insects, squirrels and hummingbirds will all appreciate the thirst quenching station, especially in the city where there are not many fresh water sources. Be sure to refresh the water regularly and give it a good scrub once and a while.
  • A butterfly bush is great in theory, but in reality they do not provide everything a butterfly needs to survive (in fact, the butterfly bush has been added to the King County noxious plant list). Butterflies require two types of plants: a host plant for their eggs and larvae, and a food plant with rich nectar. The butterfly bush is a great food plant but it is not a host plant. Be sure to plant at least one of each in your yard or seek out native plants that both host larvae and provide food (see list below).

B    i    r    d    s

More info on birds:
Attracting Birds to Your Garden
Instructions we used to build our bird feeder
Instructions for building a bird house

H   u   m   m   i   n   g   b   i   r   d   s

NW Native Species that Attract Hummingbirds:

Madrone // Western Crabapple // Manzanita // Ocean Spray // Twinberry Shrub // Rhododendron // Trumpet Honeysuckle // Red-flowering Currant // Salmonberry // Elderberry // Snowberry // Red Columbine // Bleeding Heart // Fireweed // Lupine // Penstemon // Nettle

More info on hummingbirds:
How to Attract Hummingbirds from the WA Dept. of Fish & Wildlife

B   u   t   t   e   r   f   l   i   e   s

NW Native Species that are both Host and Food Plants:

Bitter Cherry // Sitka Willow // Manzanita // Red Elderberry // Kinnickinnick // Aster //
Stone Crop // Goldenrod

More info on butterflies:
Butterflies of the Puget Sound Region and their Host / Food Plants from the WA Butterfly Association
Guide to Creating a Butterfly Garden (Nationally)

What if I don’t have a backyard?

You can still enjoy the wonder of our native species even if you don’t have a backyard. If you live in an apartment you can put a bird feeder or hummingbird feeder on your balcony, or plant some native species in planters. Ferns and succulents make great indoor plants or you can make a stylish terrarium and include some rocks, moss and sticks you find at a nearby park.

Instructions for a DIY terrarium

5. Do your research with some bonus camp reads!

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Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy

In Bringing Nature Home, Tallamy makes the case that we all can do our part in preserving biodiversity by embracing native species. Much of the country’s rich habitat is disappearing at a staggering rate, leaving wildlife with no place to go. By creating native gardens we are providing important habitat for these animals. Tallamy goes on to explain how to create a balanced ecosystem and highlights important native species of North America.

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Encyclopedia of Northwest Native Plants for Gardens and Landscapes
by Kathleen A. Robson, Alice Richter & Marianne Filbert

This ultimate comprehensive guide to the native plants of the Northwest is for the serious NW gardener. Full of beautiful color photos, this reference covers the native plants from the Oregon – California border north to Southeast Alaska and east to Idaho.

Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack?  None

These reference guides are best left at home to browse while planning out your native garden.

Hikes Featured in this Post:

Rock Mountain, Stevens Pass, Washington

2 Replies to “The Wild Backyard”

  1. Great photographs and thoughts on how to make more wildlife friendly habitat. It’s always amazing what you can attract to your yard if you try. Cheers, David

  2. Nice post. Getting me thinking about spring gardening. I’d really like to plant to attract bees. That will be my research soon for my region. Cheers.

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