Plant Natives in the Side Yard

While I think it’s clear that native plantings can fit in beautifully with a designed, artful garden, many people still have trouble finding room for them. Even when people understand the specific wildlife benefits that only native plants can bring, and want to use them in the garden, it can be hard to change a design scheme overnight to welcome some of your region’s plants into the garden.

The solution? Start by planting natives in the side yard. The planting strip that connects your front garden to your back is often a slender area, shaded and usually forgotten when you have a few spare moments to maintain your garden. Native plants, used wisely, can be a perfect solution to this difficult zone.

Think about it: at least in the Pacific Northwest, many of our native groundcovers are robust enough to choke out weeds, our shrubs are easily trained and pruned into a small tree form that provides height and interest without crowding the pathway, and many of our natives are well-adapted to shade under trees, so can tolerate the shade cast by a fence and the house.

From a design perspective, the side garden can have its own theme, so long as it gracefully blends into your ornamental plantings in the back. So if you’ve been struggling to fit some of your region’s natives into your garden, the side yard can be a perfect place to create a simple, flowing planting that blends seamlessly into the rest of your outdoor spaces.

Here are some tips to create a native planting in the side yard:

Use broad swathes of the same plant. Long, skinny areas look best when planted with repeating themes, because you’re usually viewing the area when walking swiftly down the path. Highly mixed plantings encourage passers-by to slow down; continuously flowing plantings feel more soothing when you’re on the move.

Aim for a mix of low and tall plantings. Groundcovers and small tree forms work best in a side yard, because shrubs, with their round or boxy shapes, make the pathway feel crowded. Try for a flowing planting no taller than knee or thigh height; then accent with small trees, or shrubs pruned into a tree-like form that arches above your head. The benefit to using plants with a tree-like shape is that they can obstruct the view of a neighbor’s house and soften the fenceline, without crowding you when you use the side yard path.

Don’t be afraid to shape and train. Native plants can be used in the garden just like any other plant. You can prune or topiary shrubs and trees into interesting forms, espalier them against a fence, or hang stones from their branch tips to weight them and encourage a wider branching habit. For some reason, we think of native plants as needing to be left completely natural, but you can absolutely use your artistic side to shape native plants just as you would any plant in your garden. Be creative and have fun.

I’ll leave you with some photos of a lovely native garden in a side yard, here in Humboldt County, California.

We share many natives with the Pacific Northwest and a few with the rest of California, so this side garden has our native vine maple, Acer circinatum, Smith’s fairy bells, Disporum smithii, salal, Gaultheria shallon, redwood sorrel, Oxalis oregona, bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa, five finger fern, Adiantum aleuticum, inside-out flower, Vancouveria hexandra, beach strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis, as well as the western azalea, Rhododendron occidentale and bigleaf maple, Acer macrophyllum.

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About Genevieve Schmidt

Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and garden writer in the redwoods of Northern California. She shares her professional tips for gardening in the Pacific Northwest at North Coast Gardening and on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Carole Sevilla Brown says:

    What a sweet garden, Genevieve! And you’re so right, native plants can reflect any style of garden at all. I know someone who has a Japanese style garden planted completely with native plants.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Birding in MaineMy ComLuv Profile

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    • Genevieve Schmidt says:

      Carole, Japanese gardening with native plants is a great topic for a post. A few years back, when I was getting into Japanese gardening, I read that a Japanese philosophy of gardening was to use stone, wood, and plants from the region. When doing a Japanese planting here in the US, we often copy traditional Japanese garden plants, which somewhat misses the point. I read that a Japanese style garden would look very different in any region it is done. It is the design, pruning style, placement of stones and materials that would give it the distinctive Japanese look; not the plants.
      Genevieve Schmidt recently posted..Understanding Garden Design book – Interview on Kirkus ReviewsMy ComLuv Profile

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      • Carole Sevilla Brown says:

        Carolyn Summers wrote a wonderful book about designing any style of garden at all: Japanese, knot, cottage, formal, etc with native plants. It’s called Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East, and even though it has an East Coast lean to it, the principles could be applied anywhere in the country.

        Reply
        • Genevieve Schmidt says:

          Carole, you enabler, you. Like I don’t have enough delicious reading material to keep me busy!! I’m going to check it out right now.
          Genevieve Schmidt recently posted..Understanding Garden Design book – Interview on Kirkus ReviewsMy ComLuv Profile

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          • Carole Sevilla Brown says:

            Me, an enabler? LOL I guess I am when it comes to books. But since I just HAD to have The New American Landscape based on YOUR recommendation, I guess we’re just two peas in a pod :)

          • Genevieve Schmidt says:

            Hah! Yep. :)
            Genevieve Schmidt recently posted..Understanding Garden Design book – Interview on Kirkus ReviewsMy ComLuv Profile

  2. Kelly Bennett says:

    This article is invaluable to me. I recently moved to Oregon from Texas and have been looking for a list of native PNW plants. I was a native plant enthusiast in TX, and am having to start all over again here with different climate, terrain and palette of plants!

    Reply
    • Genevieve Schmidt says:

      Kelly, There is a wonderful book, the Encyclopedia of Pacific Northwest Native Plants for Garden Landscapes by Robson, Richter and Filbert. It’s a beautiful book and will help you a lot in transitioning to such a different style of planting!
      Genevieve Schmidt recently posted..Understanding Garden Design book – Interview on Kirkus ReviewsMy ComLuv Profile

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  3. Loret says:

    That pathway looks so inviting. And with those beautiful plants lighting the way, how could someone not want to expand it into the front and back where it’s beauty will shine through!

    Great advice!
    Loret recently posted..Happy Mothers Day!My ComLuv Profile

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    • Genevieve Schmidt says:

      Loret, I couldn’t agree more!
      Genevieve Schmidt recently posted..Understanding Garden Design book – Interview on Kirkus ReviewsMy ComLuv Profile

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  4. UrsulaV says:

    A lovely side yard! Now if I could just get mine to look like that…
    UrsulaV recently posted..Flowers and ManuscriptsMy ComLuv Profile

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  5. Benjamin Vogt says:

    Yes, a Japanese style garden will look different depending on climate and culture–I wonder where I read that, too. I have a side garden, about 8 feet wide and thirty feet long, but I have only a very few flowering plants: two geraniums and two crabapples. I’m training shrubs and trees to arch over and provide a tunnel to the main back garden. However, I like to touch my plants and be brought in close so I notice more–therefore I have some ninebark (which I suppose IS blooming now), dogwood (oh, shoot, that blooms, too), a weeping bald cypress, a willow shrub, elderberry (argh, another bloomer)… things with different colors and textures that get big and play against each other, but also create a dark area of peace and seclusion–unlike the open sun garden. I’ve noticed birds especially like to seek refuge here. Just my different take / approach to what you propose.
    Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Oklahoma Trip – Part 1My ComLuv Profile

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    • Benjamin Vogt says:

      I meant to say that this is MY take on Japanese gardening….
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Oklahoma Trip – Part 1My ComLuv Profile

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