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How to Decide Which Native Plants

So you want to plant natives around your place, and you want to know which natives to plant? This is a very good question that we all encounter just as soon as we decide to landscape with water efficient intermountain native plants.

Rugged Country Plants Territory

Rugged Country Plants Territory

Our Territory

First of all, we define the Intermountain Region we serve as the area between the Cascade Mountain Range and the Rocky Mountains and from the Canadian Border to Southern Utah. Many of the native plant species we grow are found naturally all around the Intermountain West. But, as you probably know some native species are only found in certain spots. So why are native plants found where they are found?

The answer can be complicated and there would be many differing opinions, but a simple working understanding is based on how much precipitation and/or ground water is available at each site and what type of soil. Temperature differences play some role as to where native plants are found, but we believe temperature differences are not as important as moisture availability and soil type. As long as a native species is hardy to zone 4, then it usually does fine in zones 5, 6 and 7. Most of the native plants we grow are hardy to zone 4.

Soil Types

Soil type has an influence on success of native plants. Soil texture varies in the intermountain west from sandy to clay, with most soils being in the middle as silt loam. Soil pH ranges from acid to alkaline with the majority of soils in the neutral to alkaline pH range. High rainfall mountain soils are usually acidic and lower rainfall soils are usually alkaline. Extreme soil textures like sand or heavy clay and extreme alkaline soil pH such as pH 9+ present challenges so that you have to be more careful which native species you plant, but many of the native species we grow are adapted to the average soils found around the intermountain west. See Soil Preference under each species listing. See How to Plan Your Naturescape.

Precipitation and groundwater availability is, we think, the most important consideration before you plant.

Utah area native plant pioneers Susan E. Meyer, Roger K. Kjelgren, Darrel G. Morrison and William A. Varga have a new book out Landscaping on the New Frontier: Waterwise Design for the Intermountain West that goes into detail about all these things. The authors have given much thought to the process of how to choose native plants for use in landscaping and they have proposed understanding native plant water needs by grouping them into "Communities" which is primarily a means of classifying the plants by precipitation zones. We are using their Communities classification system. See our page How-to Links & Resources for the book's full reference.

Native Plants by Community, Meyers, et.al.

Community Annual Precipitation Plant Water Efficiency
DesertLess than 10 inchesVery low water use
Semi-Desert10-15 inchesLow water use
Foothill15-20 inchesMedium water use
Mountain20-30 inchesHigh water use
Riparian & Wetland30 inches and moreVery high water use

 

The water needs concept and grouping the plants into Communities helps us choose which native plants to use in which part of our landscapes in the Intermountain Region. Think about managing your landscape with different irriagation needs for the different communities you establish around your property.

 

Desert Community

Less than 10” annual precipitation: Sagebrush, Rabbitbrush, Bitterbrush, Snow Buckwheat, Indian Ricegrass, Hairy False Goldenaster.
The same principle applies if you want to grow Foothills plants in a Desert, just do the math…If you get 9 inches of precipitation, you will need to irrigate about an additional 6-10 inches of water. If you have sandy soils you could water 1inch every two weeks, or if you have silt loam soils water 2 inches once per month from May through August.

Semi-Desert Community

10-15” annual precipitation: Sagebrush, Rabbitbrush, Sandberg’s bluegrass, Sulfur Buckwheat, Firecracker Penstemon. NOTE: Most of the Desert species are also found in Semi-Desert areas and grow just as well or better with the extra moisture than when found in the drier Desert areas.
So the question arises: “I like several of the Mountain Community native plants, but I live in a Semi-Desert, can I grow Mountain plants in a Semi-Desert?” Yes, you can! But you will need to irrigate those mountain plants. If you get 12 inches of annual precipitation and you want to grow Mountain plants, you will need to irrigate about an additional 10 to 12 inches of water per year so that the plants will get about 24 inches total water for the year. Rule of Thumb: you will need to irrigate about 2 inches of water about once per month from about May through September (or 1 inch every other week). 

Foothill Community

15-20” annual precipitation: Black Hawthorn, Mallow Ninebark, Oceanspray, Chokecherry, Woods Rose, Bluebunch wheatgrass, Indian Blanket Flower.
Drought tolerant and water efficient native plants make use of all moisture that is available to them, when they need it! They have survival mechanisms such as deep roots, they may go dormant during dry conditions, they may avoid growing until temperature and soil moisture are just what they need, or they just don’t need much water to live.

Mountain Community

20-30" annual precipitation: Fir, Ponderosa Pine, Serviceberry, Spirea, Blue wildrye, Rocky Mountain Penstemon.
Something to keep in mind: just because a native plant is found in a Mountain precipitation zone, does not mean that plant uses all the precipitation that falls in the Mountain Zone. A Mountain Zone might receive 30 or 50 inches of precipitation. We have no data yet, but we think some plant species found in Mountain Communities may only use 15-20 inches of water per year.

Riparian Community

More than 30” of water annually available: White Alder, Water Birch, Willow.
Since Riparian plants require irrigation if you want to grow them in a Foothill or Desert zone, you will want to plant all your Riparian plants in one irrigation zone in your yard so they all get the extra water and so you are not irrigating Desert or Foothills plants too much. In fact, if you want to use the whole range of intermountain native plants in your landscaping, you will want to design the irrigation system and plant layout according to these water use zones and plant communities.
“What happens if I irrigate my Desert Plants with Riparian irrigation amounts?”   Answer: The Desert plants will most probably get diseased and die.

Wetland Community

More than 30” of water annually available: Bog Birch, Willows, Twinberry honeysuckle, Rushes, Sedges, Tufted Hairgrass.
Wetland plants do not necessarily use all the water available to them, but they are basically not drought tolerant. They cannot tolerate dry conditions.

If you know of species that we ought to be producing for your landscaping, please email us your suggestions to info@ruggedcountryplants.com

You can search our website for the plants we currently produce by "Community" or "Annual Water Needs":

 

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