Front Yard Makeover — Native Plant Edition: How to Choose Perennials that will Thrive in Your Space

Native plants for front yard project.

I accepted the challenge of using Oregon native plants, (Willamette Valley specific) for several reasons. First I wanted to generate some good PR for our Oregon natives and showcase their beauty, resilience, and their innate ability to thrive in our climate. I also like taking the opportunity to slip in a few ecosystem value points while talking with curious neighbors.

Since perennials come back year after year, it also means less cost and labor for Amy. Woohoo! Also, it seriously ups my square footage of area dedicated to natives for my Backyard Habitat Certification

Rules of Thumb for Choosing Plants

  • Understand your Space
  • Right Plant, Right Place
  • Size at Maturity
  • Easy or Persnickety?

Understand Your Space

The first task asks these questions:

  1. How much sun does it get each season? 
  2. What about slope?
  3. Is it pretty dry or is there standing water at times? 
  4. Any tall trees or buildings that create shade? 
  5. What is my soil like, e.g. rocky, clay, sandy, or lots of organic matter?
South facing, moderate slope, full sun, heat retaining hardscape, dry summers. Image from Google Maps.

Our front yard is south facing, behind our cul-de-sac. It has a moderate slope that promotes water runoff. With no shade, it gets baked in the summertime from sun-up to sun-down. The nearby pavement holds a lot of heat. The soil is clay that becomes very hard in the summer. 

All plant choices need to be more-or-less OK with full sun, and be heat and drought tolerant. It will probably be about 5 years before a new small tree can provide substantial shade.

Right Plant, Right Place

Some of our natives are adapted to forest understory, others to rocky outcrops, meadows, bogs, streamside, and some thrive just about anywhere. Due to this, they have different requirements for light, water, shade, and have different abilities to tolerate drought or excess water. If I know where a plant lives in nature, then it helps me to decide what part of my yard will provide a good home, and understand the size of its comfort zone.

To make my front yard more hospitable to a variety of plant types, I decided to manipulate the contours. This will slow and capture runoff water and create small micro-climates which I hope will become welcoming niches for a larger variety of our natives. I built a retaining wall to level an area where I planted a vine maple tree which will grow to be about 20′ tall and 15′ wide at maturity. In the (future) understory, I chose Cascade Oregon grapes, sword ferns, and two oxalis. During the dry season, our faux river will also get infusions of roof water from our gutter system.

When shopping for plants, I found that using online store search features was more helpful than flipping through my paper books hunting and pecking for plants that would work. (When I’d find one in my books, then I generally couldn’t find a place to buy it.) I searched for things like: “full sun flower”, and also made use of filter features, eg. Trees, then used filters for “small trees” and “full sun”. These tools will help you get closer to choosing plants that are appropriate for the different spaces in your yard. I found Sparrowhawk Native Plants and Native Foods Nursery websites to have excellent search and filter features. I ordered about 20 different species from Sparrowhawk, and 5 from Native Foods.

For conventional ornamentals and edibles, Al’s Garden Center website has good organization and a search features, but not the specific filters. Farmington Gardens is also a good website to visit, but the search and filter features are not quite there, requiring a bit more hunting and pecking for information.

Size at Maturity

I have made this mistake of overlooking this attribute too many times to count and put in something that rapidly outgrew its space and crowded out its neighbors. Then it was a battle of my pruning shears against its will to be itself. It never ended well. So be sure to look, even a delicate looking flower like a mallow can grow to be over 6 feet tall.

Easy or Persnickety?

Difficulty level is also helpful to check. I make sure the majority of my plants are easy or moderate. If there is something I’m excited about, I’ll give a difficult plant a try. For example, Maidenhair ferns will die even slightly out of their comfort zone. They need consistent moisture, as well as protection from sun, ambient heat, and drying winds. While hiking I see them growing on the north side of natural berms and rotting logs, especially where there is water dripping most of the year. A few years ago I tried planting one on the northside of our house, next to our birdbath that I sprayed out frequently. The poor things only lasted a week into June before they burnt away and died. Whereas our tall Oregon grape has been transplanted three times during our many yard renovations and it thrives wherever I stick it. BTW-Oregon grape produce edible berries, early nectar for mason bees and other native pollinators, and the inner bark and root contain a chemical called berberine which is similar to the medicinal chemicals in goldenseal. (Footnote 1.) Such an awesome plant.

That said, don’t be afraid to try! In this project I ordered two difficult to grow plants. I have fond childhood memories of eating sour grass (oxalis) as a kid, so I ordered two. I tucked them in the north side of the sword ferns for shade and moisture. If it works, it will be beautiful to see these little clovers growing into the sword fern fronds. I also ordered giant red paintbrush, which is a parasitic plant that needs to be planted along with a preferred host. I had a yarrow hanging around in a pot, so I planted them together trying to intertwine the roots as recommended. I do not have high hopes for these, but it was fun to try! I’ll keep you posted. 

Online Stores and Resources

  • Metro: Native Plants for Willamette Valley Yards booklet. (.pdf)
  • Portland Plant List – is the definitive guide for Willamette Valley Native Plants used by the Backyard Habitat people.
  • Sparrowhawk Nursery – Awesome search and filter abilities for finding plants that will thrive in your space. Excellent descriptions including tips, ecosystem tidbits, and difficulty level.
  • Native Foods Nursery – Dexter, Oregon. Excellent search features and specialize in native plants you can eat. Will ship and all packaging is compostable! All the thumbs up.  
  • 1. Book: Herbs for Common Ailments, by Rosemary Gladstar

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