Sue Butkus's hilltop house takes in a jaw-dropping 180-degree, unobstructed view of the Puget Sound, from Mount Rainier to Commencement Bay to Vashon Island.
Yet smaller wonders lie underfoot at her Tacoma North End home.
Sword ferns unfurl their fronds over wood chip-covered beds in the landscaped yard. Startling white snowberries cling to otherwise barren branches. A swath of Western trillium blooms in her front yard in the spring.
The plants are all native to Western Washington, but they didn’t start life in Butkus’s garden.
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Most were destined for destruction until Butkus volunteered alongside other community volunteers to rescue the greenery from a bulldozer.
Homeowners wishing to follow their example and go native, take note: Winter is prime time for salvaging and transplanting native plants. Woody plants, trees and shrubs are dormant, making this a less traumatic time to be uprooted and moved to a new home.
Once they get a foothold in the yard, native plants often require less maintenance than their nonnative counterparts and blend in aesthetically with the natural environs of the Northwest.
“Native plants are important because our climate is wet in the winter. When you get to July, August, September, the soil gets incredibly dry. Native plants can tolerate that with little water,” said Butkus, a retired Washington State University nutrition specialist who started volunteering to rescue native plants about eight years ago.
Plus, there’s the greater-good factor. Stormwater from people’s homes runs into the Puget Sound untreated and, if spiked with pollutants, kills fish, she noted.
“You need a lot of organic matter in the soil, but native plants don’t require as much fertilizer and pesticides. Your runoff doesn’t contain that. It’s good for the Puget Sound’s health.”
For beginners who want to salvage native plants, the easiest introduction is to tag along with a nonprofit group dedicated to that purpose, said Mike Leigh, an environmental science teacher at South Puget Sound Community College. He and his partner, Ernie Paul, have restored and landscaped about five of their 23 acres in Olympia by using mostly native greenery collected on salvage operations or purchased from local nurseries.
Most of the property is wetland forest, but includes five acres of former dairyland.
“Everything had been munched out by cows or removed,” said Leigh, who acquired the property seven years ago. “Our goal was to restore it to what it was like before it was a dairy. We wanted native plants.”
Beyond the prospect of easier maintenance, Leigh and Paul liked the idea of creating habitat for native wildlife, which prefer, and sometimes require, native plants to survive.
The problem, Leigh said: “We didn’t know what kinds of plants salvage well.”
That’s where the Native Plant Salvage Alliance in Pierce County and the Washington State University Extension Native Plant Salvage Project in Thurston County step in. They organize volunteer work parties to remove native plants from land that’s slated to be cleared of vegetation and developed into homes or businesses. The groups secure owners’ permission to collect plants, and arrange for liability insurance and waivers.
Though the groups typically collect plants for nonprofit garden or restoration projects, they also set aside time at each salvage for volunteers to dig plants to take home.
“We can never recover as many plants as there are on a site,” said Erica Guttman, program coordinator for the WSU Native Plant Salvage Project.
“We want as many plants as possible to be saved and to have a second life in someone’s home landscape or habitat project.”
Volunteers can bring home the likes of Nootka rose, maidenhair fern, red-osier dogwood, or fawn lilies. It all depends on the site and time of year.
Beginners are paired with more experienced salvagers so they can learn how to identify and collect the plants. Leigh and Paul have volunteered with the Thurston County group over the years.
“For me the great thing is to find out which things you’ll waste your time on, that they’ll just die on you,” Leigh said. “I love salal, but you’re better off buying it from a nursery where they’ve grown it from seed.”
Gardeners can try to salvage plants on their own, but must do their homework.
Collecting plants at public forest lands and parks is generally prohibited, unless you have a special permit to, say, collect mushrooms or Christmas trees.
But it’s possible to collect plants at privately owned sites, with permission from landowners.
Leigh, for instance, got some trees and shrubs from homeowners offering to give them away on the Plant Amnesty adoption site (www.plantamnesty.org) in Seattle.
Gardeners also can go to local planning offices or the agency’s website to see permit applications for new housing and business developments. Or, they can watch for the big yellow signs that property owners are often required to post on the site as part of the permit process. Once they have the owners’ contact information, they should seek permission.
The discussion should include identification of property lines and “buffer zones” that must be left undeveloped, Guttman said. “The developer wouldn’t be allowed to work there, so you shouldn’t be digging there either,” Guttman said.
If you’re not up for salvaging, but want native plants, they’re available at many gardening stores.
However, plants labeled as natives at big-box home improvement stores are often shipped from California and are genetically different from Puget Sound natives, cautioned Anna Thurston, program director for the Native Plant Salvage Alliance.
“We’d rather see people grow locally genetic material,” Thurston said. “Those plants are likely to be better suited to the weather extremes, the soils and local bugs we experience locally. If pollen from a nonnative native plant fertilizes a true native, then the progreny will be less adapted to the local environment.”
Butkus has incorporated her salvaged natives into a landscape of existing natives, natives she purchased from local nurseries, and nonnative perennials and shrubs. Showy hybrid rhododendrons, a paper bark maple and a magnolia tree, all nonnatives, line one side of her home, while a 20-foot-tall native madrone tree towers over low Oregon grape, thimbleberry and other native ground covers.
“I’m very fortunate I got a mature garden that has allowed me to add native plants,” she said.
She’s particularly interested in using native plants that deer find unappetizing. Deer from Point Defiance Park and the Salmon Beach area regularly traipse through her backyard to graze, as evidenced by mounds of deer pellets next to nearly-leafless branches of native kinickinick.
“I’ll look for sword ferns, and some other plants that deer don’t eat. They don’t eat the rhododendrons in my yard.”
She’s proudest of her stands of evergreen huckleberry, a plant that most native plant books describe as tough to transplant.
She got the plants two years ago just after an excavator had dug well below their roots. The huckleberries, along with salal and vine maple, are part of the ground cover that she hopes will help stabilize a steep bank that she cleared of nonnative, invasive ivy.
So far, the huckleberries have survived the move from Harstine Island, and the constant nibbling of deer.
“The roots on them were like a stump, like a really hard, elongated potato, maybe a foot and a half long. I planted them, and watered them. The tops stayed green. I babied them a lot,” she said. “What I learned is you have to have all the root and it’s huge.”
In the summer, the bushes returned the favor, bearing tangy-sweet huckleberries just an eighth of an inch wide, bead-sized native gems in a backyard with a big view.
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694 firstname.lastname@example.org