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Salal Chapter - Native Plant Garden

by Kathleen Winters, WNPS Olympic Peninsula Chapter

Skagit Valley Garden
Entry to the Skagit Valley Native Plant Garden photographed by Kathleen Winters. Copyright 2007. All rights reserved.

Tucked away in the lowland fields of the Skagit Valley is a labor of love and concern for native plants that manifests as an extensive and charming display garden. Created eight years ago as a collaboration between the Salal Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society and the Washington State University Agriculture Extension Agency at Mount Vernon (WSU), the Native Plant Garden is now a half-acre oasis that holds the seeds for the future of native plants in the lower Skagit Valley.

On the day that I visited with my son Dorian, we found the garden in the fullness of high spring looking very lush with a great diversity of plantings. The garden is run by WNPS volunteers from the Salal Chapter, and we met some very talented and diligent people who have created a fabulous garden that stands in dramatic contrast to the surrounding croplands.

The Garden's Development

Art and Helen Kermoade
Art and Helen Kermoade photographed by Kathleen Winters. Copyright 2007. All rights reserved.

In the beginning, the garden was simply a field surrounding WSU as flat as a field can be, baking under the summer sun with nothing to break the often fierce winds that blow across the flat. It was the idea of WNPS member Art Kermoade to use that space to create a garden that would demonstrate the possible uses of various native species and habitat associations for domestic settings. Art and his wife, Helen, did lots of propagating of plants, which they then donated to the community in keeping with the WSU mission of education. The results of their propagating work are very apparent as one strolls the garden and views the diverse plantings that have developed over the past eight years. Now, there is a multi-layered garden, with a pond, soaring canopies of trees and shrubs, and winding paths and extensive mounds that support many native plants of varied textures and colors.

One of the first projects at the garden was to build a pond, including a filtration bog that functions well, even now, eight years later. Early on there were some troubles with algae growth, but over time the pond is more in balance, especially since the water goes through the bog first. The water pump is powered by one solar panel. The life of the pond is native, except for the non-native bullfrogs that turn up and then are caught by one of the members. Bullfrogs have been escaping into the local surroundings for some time now and the WSU site is no exception, but they do try to catch them!

Water shields were added last fall, which float on the pond surface to aid in keeping the water cool. Mexican water fern also covers the surfaces. The pond also contains mare’s tails, bogbean, horsetails, and Sium suave. Surrounding the bog are lovely spots of monkeyflowers amongst the grasses. The seasonal overflow from the pond provides the runoff to support plantings of Nothochelone, skunk cabbage and Amelanchier. Louise of the Salal Chapter cares for the wetland planting area.

The second phase of the garden’s development took in the need to get trees planted. There are several areas now where trees are growing strongly, including a windbreak along the south side to protect the garden from the harshness of the flatland weather. It is composed of a double row of Pinus contorta, Thuja plicata and Tsuga heterophylla. For any of you familiar with the Skagit flats, you know the wind is often fierce, the sun bakes down and there is nothing to relieve the monotony of the very flat terrain. Originally spaced at ten feet apart, the trees now shelter and shade the enclosed garden. Since the soil is very fertile and has available groundwater, the trees have grown quickly and will most likely be thinned. The open woods of the hedgerow will eventually be planted with understory plants such as salal. Nancy Chapman of the Salal Chapter has been caring for this area and is looking for a good person to turn it over to. Her shade garden area was begun five years ago and has trees already 20 feet tall. Other trees on the site include several very handsome Garry oaks and the nicest looking Cascara, as well as yellow cedars, hemlocks, shore pines, yews, aspens and mountain hemlocks.

Wandering the Garden
The official entry to the garden is flanked by lavish plantings of mock orange, Rosa pisocarpa, red twig dogwood, kinnikinnik and Potentilla fruticosa, capped by a charming rustic sign that states simply “Native Plant Garden.” Upon entering, the paths wind around in a pretzel sort of fashion, with secondary trails that make the half-acre site seem much larger.

Volunteers in the garden
Salal Chapter volunteers (left to right), Pam Pritzl, Marianne Kooiman, and Anne Passarelli photographed by Kathleen Winters. Copyright 2007. All rights reserved.

The paths are generally mulched with bark or sawdust, and are underlain with weed barrier cloth, which helps to stem the onslaught of horsetails in the paths. Horsetails, though native, have proven to be the most difficult weed to contain on the site. Even though weeds are an ongoing problem, the Salal Chapter gardeners very rarely resort to any controls beyond the mechanics of hand-pulling and mulching. Instead, they prefer to keep the garden as wholesome as possible.

Along the winding paths are gentle swells of themed plantings. There is a new great aspen meadow to be under planted. There is a small grouping of paper birches happily coexisting with Corylus cornuta and goat’s beard. There is a new seaside garden area that is being created by women from Guemes Island. Amongst the beds between the paths and mounds, there are many little quiet spots with charming rustic benches that were built by Bob Knowles of the Salal Chapter. The raised mounds are interspersed with rocks that go a long way towards relieving the monotony of the surrounding flat topography. The garden in general radiates a serenity that belies the hard work done by the volunteers.

Salal Chapter volunteer Roar Irgens maintains an extensive area of mountain plants from the sub-alpine zone. Included are Artemisia ludovica, Gaultheria humifusa, Polemonium pulcherimum, Juniperus communis, mountain hemlock, and a generous patch of bunchberry. For success with this, Roar loaded the soil with decomposed tree stumps and forest duff. Most of the area is top-dressed with #3 turkey grit, a nice looking decomposed granite. Also included is the sub-alpine fir and Penstemon serrulatus, red huckleberry and Penstemon davidsonii, Valerian sitchensis, Leutkia pectinata, Campanula rotundifolia, Anemone arctica and Geum trientalis, Phyllodoce empiriformis, and Dryas octopetala—all nice low-growing bloomers that make very charming mats of groundcovers that are excellent for rockeries or well-drained borders. Other favorites that are well grown in this area and are suitable for the domestic garden include Smilacina racemosa, silver fir, lewisias and Polemonium elegans.

There is also a grouping of Shepherdia with deer fern and Alnus sinuata. Nearby is Spiraea densiflora, a much underused shrub that deserves major horticultural attention. Also seen is the true native mountain ash, Acer douglasii, and a variety of Achillea millefolium that stays where it is put. In the adjoining mound area, I found Stella Rolph of the Salal Chapter caring for the transition outcropping site of mixed groundcovers, including kinnikinnik with the lovely Linnaea borealis intertwined freely and abundantly. This area is envisioned as a sunny glade that functions well as an example of suitable plantings for any open, sunny, welldrained site. There are many varied Sedums including S. oreganum and S. divergens. The handsome Phlox diffusa came from cuttings via Mary Rose of the Salal Chapter, which began life on the Olympic Peninsula. This area is especially rich in handsome groundcovers of Fragaria, Arctostaphylos and Sedums—especially Sedum oreganum. This area also has the tallest Erythronium oreganum and Allium cernuum that I have ever seen, which I suspect is due to the super-saturated fertility of the surrounding fields. Also, interspersed amongst the groundcovers is the ever-lovely Clarkia amoena, taller shrubs of Potentilla fruticosa and very healthy clumps of bear grass that stoutly deny that bear grass is only suited to the higher elevations on excessively drained soils. The next bend brought us around to "The Meadow," which began life as a formulaic mix of 60% grasses including Carex inops, Festuca rubra and Festuca idahoensis. Marianne Kooiman of the Salal Chapter, who talked as she worked the area, feels that the site is a little too rich and the grasses are seriously out-competing the other forbes with pretty blossoms. And it is true that the grasses were all much more vigorous than ordinarily seen, but handsome nonetheless. At this point, the meadow is in transition to allow the stronger inclusion of the many other meadow species typical to our region. Flowers in the meadow include Heuchera micrantha, Agoseris, pearly everlasting (which tends to be very dominant except when eaten by deer), fireweed, and Sidalcea hendersonii. There is also a generous patch of Stachys near the hemlock, along with goldenrods, lupines and asters.

Lathe House
The lathe house adjoining the Native Plant Garden photographed by Kathleen Winters. Copyright 2007. All rights reserved.

Lathe House
We also visited with Thad Davis of the Salal Chapter out at the lathe house, which adjoins the garden and is where much of the propagation for the Salal Chapter plant sale takes place. Plants are also being grown to provide support to many projects throughout the community. The lathe house was recently relocated to accommodate WSU expansion. Now, in its new and more permanent site, the lathe house provides an extensive area for native plant propagation. There is also a great storage shed and work benches that were built by Bob Knowles, providing plenty of room for needed landscape materials. Thad spends much time here growing plants for the sale. He feels that rock garden plants sell well and that interest is very high in the 200-plus species that are offered. The sale tends to sell out early and Thad feels that this is proven evidence of demand for native plants. Successfully growing in the lathe house is Lewisia nevadensis and a great diversity of penstemons in small pots, along with many choice native plants of all sorts. Generally the diversity of seedlings in the nursery was wide and the overall health very good. Challenges and outlook

Over pizza, coffee and desserts, the gardeners and I discussed the challenges of the Native Plant Garden, which go beyond the sun and the wind. Because the Skagit is well fertilized, plants in this garden often far exceed their normal size ranges. Even with mounding up the soil with the typically low-fertility mixes of topsoil, the surrounding area seeps in and the plants really grow big. The other main problem, of course, is the weeds that require continual vigilance. The areas where the larger shrubs cover the ground have less of a weed problem than in areas where the forbes are being maintained.

It is notable how the garden pulls the community together. The display garden has regular work parties on the second and fourth Saturdays every month. On the day I came to visit, there were twenty people focusing on many areas of the garden. But, every day is not so well filled lled and there is a need for new people to step forward and assist in the ongoing care and creation of this very special garden. If you have ever felt called to grow natives, this is a great place to hone your skills. Looking around the area beyond the garden, it would be difficult to ignore the meaning and purpose of this garden that is surrounded by a sea of agriculture.

As we walked back out to our car, we passed through the other gardens of ornamentals with the nearby orchard testing grounds and rose displays, back to the dusty parking lot with the fields and highway beyond, thinking what good fortune it is to have the wildness within this garden cared for so well, providing a seed of encouragement for native plants in the surrounding community.

For more information about the garden, please contact Louise Brissey at 360-293-5785; or Marianne Kooiman at 360-293-5815, eyrie@cnw.com; or Pam Pritzl at 360-387- 7024, ppritzl@verizon.net.

Updated: January 28, 2017
Copyright 2000-2018 Washington Native Plant Society. All rights reserved.

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