In Praise of Native Landscaping: Permaculture Your Yard!

When I was a 10-year-old tomboy I had strong ideas about trees, I remember spending a tear-streaked afternoon with my arms wrapped around my favorite climbing tree, a red alder (Alnus rubrus), which my father was determined to fell (In his defense, light is at more of a premium than native trees in Southeast Alaska). In the end, I prevailed and that Alder, plus another some years later, survived. Their survival was because of both my stubbornness and my father’s love of native trees and shrubs. Over the years he transplanted many into our yard. He also loved other trees though and was an eternal optimist. He planted various maples (Acer), a Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and some Birch (Betula) trees, a flowering plum and others into the yard. I remember a surge of enthusiastic excitement with the introduction of each new exotic tree as visions of fresh cherries, or plums danced through my head. None of them ever bore fruit however, and I survived the disappointment as the much-vaunted fruit trees gradually drowned or were eaten by porcupines, beavers or bear. In the end several of the maples, the birch and the Douglas fir did survive.
My early passion for those red alder trees is now bearing fruit in the form of birdwatching opportunities. The winter flocks of pine siskins and redpolls virtually ignore the maples and Douglas Fir, as they enjoy the alder seeds. In the Spring the alders flower and warblers hawk for insects in their branches while robins anoint their crowns with song each morning and evening, nesting in a secret crook in one of the trees. In addition to the red alder, the 2-acre yard of my family home has native crabapple (Malus fusca), Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Sitka mountain ash (Sorbus sitchensis), red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum) , blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), devils club (Oplopanax horridus), rusty menzesia (Menziesia ferruginea), and winter chanterelle mushrooms (Craterellus tubaeformis). Red-breasted sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus ruber) and hairy woodpeckers (Picoides villosus) flit between the hemlocks, while song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) nest in brush piles, and red cross bills (Loxia curvirostra) and pine grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator) binge on crab apples and mountain ash berries.
This plethora of native vegetation and its location on a salmon lake also brings many mammal visitors to our home. Black bear (Ursus americanus), beaver (Castor canadensis), river otter (Lontra canadensis), porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum), and Sitka black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis) often grace the yard. It is not always an easy sharing of space, however. The black bears ruined several mountain ash trees by climbing them to eat their berries in the fall and their occasional transit through the yard causes a general evacuation of humans. Their presence also necessitates a cessation of bird feeding each spring as they come out of hibernation. Beavers felled several prized exotic crabapple trees, and porcupines have demolished raspberry bushes and been subject to dog attentions that required the dogs get expensive veterinary care. The deer’s passion for hostas often leaves them lopsided. The deer also enjoy the ‘lawn’ (quotes denoting the fact that it is more buttercup, dandelions, moss, and violets than grass). The lawn composition is because I stopped liming and fertilizing it a few years ago after noticing that the lily pads in the lake are being replaced by horsetail and that freshwater mussels have disappeared. I think it is possible that these effects are a result of changed water chemistry due to runoff of lawn fertilizer and herbicides.
We still maintain flower beds, a few pots of vegetables, and a rhubarb and raspberry patch but the native vegetation provides harvest values to us as well. We pick blueberries, salmonberries, and chanterelle mushrooms from the yard, and cut the occasional tree for fire wood. This year I’m going to try eating the cow parsnip for the first time as I’ve called a (sheepish) truce on poisoning it with Round Up. (Honestly, it’s the only thing I’ve ever used Round Up on and I’m not proud, but it does cause a terrible rash if brushed up against by a lawn-mowing human.) I’ve also been seeing that Scandinavians use mountain ash sprigs (they call it ‘Rohan’ which sounds much more edible) and I’m going to try that too!
So, look around your area, see what the birds and mammals are eating and bring some trees and shrubs home. You’ll save time trying to force the land to be something different from what it wants to be, and money buying exotics and make a lot of birds and animals happy in the process! (Also you can tell everyone you’re into Permaculture and you’ll sound really hip!)