The natives debate continues…

Bert’s usually the one who posts on native plant news, but since he’s not in Seattle he will have missed this one.  So Bert, sit back and enjoy!

I just got an email from Seattle Public Utilities, who are having an open house to discuss “high efficiency landscapes” through their Green Code Provision Boards. One of the changes has to do with invasive species (a good thing). But these are the proposed changes:

Invasive Species and Native Vegetation (Regional Plan)

Who it Applies To:  For all new vegetated landscapes, or those being replaced


• Existing invasive plant species shall be removed and no invasive species planted.

• 75% of all new plantings will be native to Western Washington.

• A vegetation plan must be submitted for review.

• Existing native plant species shall be protected whenever possible.

I really don’t like the second bullet point.  75% natives?  Many of our Western Washington natives are understory plants adapted to the cool, moist coniferous forests that in no way resemble urban developments.   The few species that are able to tolerate hot, sunny, dry conditions won’t make for a very interesting or diverse palette. And we already know that a biologically diverse landscape is better than otherwise.

What’s wrong with using well-chosen nonnative plants that will tolerated urban conditions, support wildlife, and add some aesthetic interest?

Published by

Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and a Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - Books:

13 thoughts on “The natives debate continues…”

  1. Point one is heartwarming. It is great to see the common sense of removing and not planting invasive non-native plants.
    The second point should read: “at least 75%” in my opinion. As for not planting natives because most are understory species. That is a weak argument. What is needed is to follow the way nature does it. It is necessary to have a succession, starting with pioneer plants and moving on to more diversity gradually. Understory species will only be welcome when there is an understory; that takes time.
    “Well-chosen nonnative plants” do not support wildlife in the same measure as native ones do. Again and again we have to learn that lesson, like when we were planting butterfly bush because it attracts nectaring butterflies, but failing to realize that it is not a good host plant.

  2. Who is going to inforce this? I hate it when the government makes new rules and does not have the manpower or the money to enforce it. Most local governments are broke or going broke, no more taxes is the mind set. The original landscape plan may meet this requirement, but what will it be like in five years?

  3. Does this mean I need to get a permit every time I want to plant, or does this only apply to commercial operations?

    I’m all for removing and/or banning invasive species.I hate to see English Ivy, etc. in the nurseries.

    The other problem with our natives is that they deal with our summer drought by going dormant. The ephemerals disappear entirely. The shrubs look like hell. Native landscapes are not particularly attractive in August and September. Do aesthetics not count at all?

  4. Point well made! As a garden designer who thinks about these issues all day long…I am 100% in agreeance with Linda on this. We need more education so we can make smarter urban choices. Do we want a bland landscape that is artless- to say nothing of ecologically incorrect. I once drove past a wonderful “native” hedgerow planted with insect attractors that put the insects directly into harms way with oncoming traffic! We all need to have a deeper understanding of how this stuff all works in order to make wise & informed decisions- this may take years….

  5. Would this apply to a private yard? If so, it is absurd. The average homeowner (like 90%) couldn’t tell the difference between a native and non-native. Even the “experts” continue to have discussions on this. Are they going to have a list of what is allowed, and what must be removed? Do I now need a permit for gardening to add to the long list of other permits needed to do just about anything to my house/yard? If they want to prohibit the sale of invasives, go for it. But don’t even start to try and tell me what I can and cannot plant in my own yard.

    1. Greg, I can’t tell from reading the draft if it’s all new construction or just new commercial construction. But I don’t think it applies to existing landscapes.

  6. This is a debate that generally occurs in the abstract, among those who have the option to be passionate about it, the politically-driven pseudoscientists who, like most political entities, are in business without a customer, and those who are interested but largely unaffected. If Beatriz has the option to go 75% native or more, I applaud that; but I would have to disagree that these kinds of regulatory actions are necessary or desirable. While plants such as salal, sword fern, douglas fir, and evergreen huckleberry are relatively inexpensive and plentiful, to gain any kind of native plant diversity one has to go pretty far and wide among the one- or two tables of bedraggled natives which are generally at our local nurseries. The nursery trade is a decade or more away from being able to provide stock on the scale required for this, and when you compare a Rhododendron macrophyllum at 6″ tall in a gallon pot for $12.95 versus a Rhododendron hybrid at the Depot for $8.95 in a ten gallon pot, you will soon discover that native plants are 3 to 5 times as expensive as their hybrid, cultivar, or non-native analogues. Homeowners, landscape architects and designers, and builders, already stressed in this economy, are not going to subborn this easily, or happily, and many people just don’t want this ‘look:’ and homeowners should have the right to choose what outdoor space they should have to live with. Leaving aside aesthetics and costs, let us pretend that we are going to re-create the native landscape. Plant a whole bunch of 4-5 foot Doug firs and vine maples, maybe some Red alder. Wait 15 years for them to develop meaningful shade. Plant understory plants that require this shade and the nitrogen fixing of the alders. Call your city biologist back to have it inspected. Do you have the time and energy to devote to developing a native landscape, or desire to pay an outside consultant to develop a forest restoration plan for your back yard? Most people don’t even live in their homes long enough to see something like this through. I have been living with a 100% native plant restriction for the past two years. Trust me, you don’t want this.

  7. I am 100% against this. I am all for native plantings and for protecting and preserving the environment. However, this sounds like something thought up by people living in a condo, deep in the city, with no space of their own for gardening. Part of the joys of home ownership is that you get to choose what gets planted where.

    Also, do they include lawn plantings in this? Even local blends usually do not contain local grasses.

  8. I am a proud liberal environmentalist and local business owner. I believe in the concept that our local and regional governments have a legitimate role to play in establishing codes and regulation that serve the greater good of the community. I also strongly believe in protecting the rights and freedoms of the individual. Where these two ideals conflict it is important to be sure that the greater good attained though regulations and codes significantly outweighs the individual rights that are sacrificed. As an industry professional, I am confident that the proposed code provisions regarding “Healthy Landscapes” do not serve any greater good AND substantially restrict the individuals’ freedom. Furthermore, the greater good is actually harmed by these proposed code changes as the aesthetic quality of our neighborhoods and public spaces will be diminished while the goals of the proposal will certainly not be achieved through this course of action.

    Let’s begin by examining the stated intent: “The intent is to encourage native plant selection in order to reduce the use of fertilizers, water and the strain often imposed on native environments by foreign constraining species.” To begin with, if this becomes code it will not “encourage” the use of natives for 75% of new or reconstructed vegetated areas, it will require it. There is a huge difference between an incentive program designed to encourage an outcome, and a code that mandates it. If we as a community want to encourage this approach, I would suggest looking at the excellent program run by Saving Water Partnership in collaboration with the city of Seattle and a number of water districts in the region as a good example of a program designed to encourage an outcome through the use of rebates. This same concept could be employed to promote the use of native plants in new landscape projects. However, after reading on, it may become clear that the stated objectives, vague as they are, are very unlikely to be achieved, thus making this first point somewhat irrelevant. More on Saving Water Partnership later.

    The first stated objective is to reduce the use of fertilizes. I think this is a great goal. My company, Elliott Bay Landscape Design Inc., does not use fertilizes and believes firmly in an organic approach to landscaping. So, if we can determine that a significant greater community good is achieved by sacrificing an individual’s right to apply chemicals to his or her yard, then I would support regulating the use of fertilizers. Thinking that any more than a negligible reduction in the use of fertilizers will result from requiring new landscapes to use any percentage of native plants, is naive and dances so far around the perimeter of the problem as to be just plain silly. If the problem is the over use of chemicals, then address that problem. I for one will support this if done with thoughtful consideration of objectives and measurable goals. It’s worth mentioning the irony of current policy allowing home owners to apply chemical with no training or limit, while requiring that industry professionals have an applicators license. Regardless, let’s restrict or ban the use of chemicals that are doing the most harm and base those restrictions on good science.

    The second stated objective is to reduce the use of water. I have to wonder if the city has consulted a horticulturalist on this issue. I took the Native Plants ID course at South Seattle Community Collage from Van Bobbitt whom I respect immensely as a horticulturalist and education professional. On the first day of class we discussed the definition of a native plant and dispelled many of the myths surrounding native plants. While the definition will be quite problematic if adopted into code, it is the “drought tolerant” myth that I would like to address here. Native does not equal drought tolerant. With in our native environment there is a wide range of soil/ exposure/ and moisture conditions. The native plants of western Washington range from the very dry rocky soils that Arbutus menziesii (the Madrone tree) thrives in, to the standing water only conditions better suited for Typha latifolia. To say that native plants are more drought tolerant than non-native ornamental landscape alternatives is a stereotype that often leads to bad choices and in this case, potentially, bad public policy. What is needed is an approach that emphasizes “right plant, right place”. Again, if the goal is to reduce water usage, than lets weigh the greater public good against the individual right to buy and use water how we see fit. If the greater good significantly outweighs the individual right, then let’s write policy directed at water usage in the landscape. Limit water usage and the plant pallet will necessarily follow AND we will still have the horticultural diversity that makes the North West a beautiful and vibrant place for communities to thrive.

    Better yet, don’t mandate water reduction; charge more for excessive water consumption. At a minimum stop allowing home owners to have a second water meter for their irrigation so that they can pay the lower rate (no waste water cost) for the irrigation water they use. It’s simply inconceivable that public policy would allow cheaper water for residential irrigation AND require the use of native plant material in a misdirected effort to reduce irrigation needs. Perhaps those who use excessive amounts of water should pay a progressively higher rate. The extra revenue this approach could generate should then be used to fully fund the Saving Water Partnership program whose budget was dramatically cut two years ago. We (Elliott Bay Landscape Design Inc.) strongly promote the use of water saving technologies that qualify for rebates. This incentive is a great selling point and often tips the scale for our clients when making investment decisions in the use of weather sensing equipment, smart controllers and drip alternatives to more traditional pop-up systems. A smarter approach will get the result you’re looking for.

    The third goal stated is to reduce “the strain often imposed on native environments by foreign constraining species”. Well, I’m not even sure what this means. I think any stated goal or intent needs to be concise and hopefully measurable. Let’s be very clear that we do not live in a “native environment”. We do not live in a native environment and there is no turning back the hands of time to create one. That does not mean that it can not be a healthy, diverse and sustainable environment. Let’s make that our goal as we move forward. I am an environmentalist at heart and I would encourage all who read this to go to my web site and read about my love for the natural world and how that has lead me to this profession. I believe that a strong connection with the living environment is key to thriving in an urban setting. My goal is to help people realize that nature is all around us and we can enhance our lives though the landscapes we live in. The rich diversity that this climate allows for in plant selection makes this a unique place to live. I can’t imagine creating a code that would limit this living tapestry, this masterpiece of diversity, which we have been blessed with. Native plants are great and I spend many of my weekends in them traipsing though the mountains and valleys. They do not, however, offer the variety of color and texture, fragrance and taste, form and splendor that the full range of well suited ornamentals which adorn our streets, parks, homes, and many public places, could ever hope to achieve. If the “strain imposed” is the result of invasive species, then by all means, lets weigh the greater good…..
    These are a few of my initial thoughts on the subject and speak only to the stated objectives and what I think is an ill conceived approach to achieve what might be worthy goals. I think there may also be considerable legal issues around property rights, freedom of speech etc.. that would be far better addressed by someone with a legal background. I mentioned to a colleague today that I’m a liberal environmentalist, but when I see a proposal like this, I have to wonder at what point I would switch teams. This stunning city of ours can and should be at the leading edge of environmental policies. It looks and sounds really progressive to claim the use of natives as public policy, but the problems we face go much deeper and need to be approached with more thought. If this becomes code the real issues will still need to be addressed and the overall aesthetic quality of our urban environment will be diminished in the mean time. Lets not be the city that ruins a good cause with bad policy.

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