Dry, brown clumps of grass surrounding Darren Borgias' Ashland home seem the stuff of neglect for most of the year.
Yet at the first signs of spring — when Borgias' neighbors wonder whether this year he'll put in a lawn — slopes and hollows around the house emerge as carefully cultivated habitat for native plants, many of which Borgias introduced from seed. The resulting miniature ecosystem supports native birds and pollinators while promoting biodiversity, says Borgias, an ecologist for the Nature Conservancy's Southwestern Oregon Program.
"It satisfies my aesthetic."
Against a muted backdrop of indigenous Southern Oregon trees, shrubs and grasses, Borgias has painted a vibrant landscape with nature's palette of wildflowers. April brings sunny, snowy and rosy hues of Siskiyou iris, white field chickweed and shooting stars. Colors deepen in June with columbine, lupine and farewell-to-spring before flaming out for Fourth of July in Oregon sunshine and Applegate's paintbrush. Once the blooms have withered, Borgias dispassionately scythes and mows for wildfire season.
"It's not like you can just let it grow," he says, pointing out that Mother Nature doesn't do all the work.
Residing on Strawberry Lane — just across the street from a field of nonnative foxtail, beggar's ticks and vetch — Borgias created a clean slate for landscaping after moving in five years ago. With a miniature excavator, he scraped off the top inch of soil and pushed the dirt — with most of its weed seeds — to one corner, giving his native plants the advantage.
"Even in the first year, there were wildflowers," says Borgias. "Once it's established, it owns the site."
In preparation for planting, Borgias even "impaired" several sites with pebbly subsoil from the excavation of a neighboring lot. Some native plants, such as lupine, are suited to such a nutrient-poor medium that discourages nonnative competitors.
However, with "the force — the pressure — of the nonnatives just always blowing in," Borgias almost continuously weeds his property, despite its appearance to the untrained eye as an expanse of weeds. In reality, some of the least conspicuous plants are rarer species that Borgias takes great pains to propagate.
Three-toothed horkelia, a member of the rose family stymied as local forest canopies have grown more dense, does well in the "savannah understory" around Borgias' home. He says he'd also like to increase the presence of sulfur buckwheat, an evergreen plant that thrives in open, dry valleys and on mountain slopes.
Native bunchgrasses, including California oatgrass, also are vital species and stay green in winter. In summer, Borgias maintains a manicured and irrigated patch to serve as lawn and fire deterrent closest to his front door.
"I'm not gardening up against the house."
And in defiance of the notion that native plants don't need watering, Borgias hoses down scattered swaths of grasses to prolong their green growth in spring and early summer. Apart from the odd stand preserved for seed-saving, ripening perennials all too soon are sacrificed for fire safety. Manzanita, buckbrush and sagebrush also are pruned up from the ground to minimize fuels, says Borgias.
Those native shrubs nestle under two Ponderosa pines that dominate front and backyards. Madrone, cyprus, mountain mahogany, incense cedar, western juniper and canyon live oak punctuate the widespread white oaks, some caged as seedlings to ward off deer browsing.
"I don't keep the deer out of here," says Borgias.
In addition to making deer-proofing measures irrelevant, a yard of native plants requires fewer natural resources, including water and fossil fuels, says Sasha Joachims, field-trip coordinator for Native Plant Society of Oregon's Siskiyou Chapter, which toured Borgias' yard in June. Guarding against erosion, native plants also help diminish pollution from machine fumes, chemical fertilizers and pesticides arising from mainstream landscaping, says Joachims.
A recently compiled list of resources for native-plant gardening is posted to the society's website (www.npsoregon.org/landscaping5.php). Although the topic interests many, most balk at the idea of identifying plants, collecting seeds and ongoing maintenance, says Borgias, a past chapter president. So the society recommends 10 nurseries in Jackson and Josephine counties, including Talent's Plant Oregon, where Borgias obtained several species of trees and shrubs.
"There is a native plant for every type of place in your garden," says Kristi Mergenthaler, the chapter's volunteer program coordinator.
The chapter also hosts a seed-collecting class annually through Ashland's North Mountain Nature Center, says Mergenthaler. Even when collecting seeds on private property, be sensitive to plant populations, say Borgias and Joachims. Obtain the proper permits from government agencies to harvest seeds on public lands, they say.
And never transplant from the wild. It's not only illegal on public lands and ecologically unsound, but transplants usually don't succeed in their new environments, says Borgias.
For more information on native-plant gardening, see the U.S. Forest Service's online guide at www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/nativegardening/