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Bring on variety when landscaping with native plants – Casper Star

Incorporating carefully selected native plants into your garden is a great way to create a landscape that needs less water, fertilizer and pesticides and that also benefits native pollinators, such as bees, moths and hummingbirds. Many western native plants are adapted to strong sunlight, limited amounts of precipitation, soils low in organic matter and challenging winters. Even putting these benefits aside, many gardeners grow native plants to bring more of the natural landscape around them into their day-to-day lives.

As with all landscaping projects, you’ll first need to assess the conditions in your yard. Take a look at the amount of sunlight and wind you have, the kind of soil and available water. You can then start selecting plants you think will suit the environment. As you begin to research possible plants for your yard, remember that drought-tolerant plants—those that will help you use less water in your landscape—are often adapted to full sun. If your yard is shady, you may need to look for plants that prefer a bit more water.

Also keep in mind that many western wildflowers are short-lived perennials. Many live for three to five years, during which they will often produce seed that—if given the chance—will grow into plants to replace their parents. Expect your yard to change a bit from one year to the next. Self-sown seedlings are great for expanding your plantings or passing along to friends.

Here are some plants you might consider trying in your yard. The descriptions are from the new booklet Plants with Altitude: Regionally Native Plants for Wyoming Gardens, co-written by myself, Amy Fluent with the Laramie Garden Club, Dorothy Tuthill and Brenna Marsicek with the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute

Kelsey’s phlox or marsh phlox, Phlox kelseyi

  • Exposure: full sun to light shade
  • Water needs: low to moderate

This early bloomer is covered in glowing bright-purple flowers that hide its needle-like green foliage. It stands between 1 and 1.5 inches tall and is between 5 and 8 inches wide. It has a long bloom time (at least a month in many locations) and is less likely to suffer from winterburn than more common creeping phlox species (perhaps because it is so short). It’s a great plant for the front of a garden bed. Phlox kelseyi is found in a few locations in Wyoming; the cultivar ‘Lemhi Purple’ was originally collected in the Lemhi Mountains, which are near the southwest portion of the Montana-Idaho border. ‘Lemhi Purple’ is becoming increasingly common in quality regional nurseries.

Rocky Mountain beardtongue, Penstemon strictus

  • Exposure: full sun
  • Water needs: low but adaptable

Penstemon is the largest genus of wildflowers restricted to the new world—mostly north of Mexico. In Wyoming, there are more than 40 species, some broadly distributed and some restricted to very narrow ranges. They usually stand between 18 and 30 inches tall and are between 12 and 36 inches wide. Of the purple/blue penstemons, Rocky Mountain beardtongue is the species most commonly found at nurseries. (It is also easy to start from seed.) With tall spikes of blue-purple flowers and shiny dark green leaves, it is attractive in any garden and very attractive to pollinators, too. Like most penstemons, it has a short blooming season—typically a month in summer. Also like most, it prefers dry soils. With excess water or too much shade, it can develop mildew on the leaves, and the root crowns may rot, especially if it goes into winter with wet feet. Rocky Mountain beardtongue can reseed aggressively, but cutting off the flower spikes after the blooms fade is an easy way to control this tendency.

Narrow-leaf coneflower, Echinacea angustifolia

  • Exposure: full sun
  • Water needs: low but adaptable

These purple-flowered, hairy-leaved plants are tough, standing between one and two feet high and about 12 and 18 inches wide. Though shorter than the much more common purple coneflower, these plants are definitely more drought tolerant. Plants can be started from seed and should be transplanted when small; they are more difficult to transplant when larger because of their taproot. Plants start out a bit slowly and take a few years to bulk up in size. This plant can reseed a fair amount depending on conditions.

Tufted evening primrose, Oenothera caespitosa

  • Exposure: full sun
  • Water needs: very dry to moderately moist

This short-lived plant produces huge, fragile-looking white flowers with a sweet lemony fragrance. The plants are less than a foot tall and between one and two feet wide. The flowers, which are often visited by white-lined sphinx moths (also called hummingbird moths), open in the evening and shrivel in the heat of the day. It can be a vigorous reseeder depending on where it is placed—as a result it will move around your landscape, dying out here, sprouting up there. This plant has a taproot, so transplant it when it is young. (Some other native evening primrose’s spread aggressively underground, becoming garden pests to some —know your Oenothera before you plant it). Rabbits may chew on the plant, especially when food sources are scarce. Given the chance, tufted evening primrose will usually recover very well from this activity.

Western mock orange, Philadelphus lewisii

  • Exposure: full sun to part shade
  • Water needs: low to moderate

Although mock orange might not have visible characteristics of a drought-tolerant plant, its looks belie its hardy constitution. It blooms in early summer, during which the shrub is covered with lovely white flowers that are strongly and sweetly scented. Be sure to site this shrub where it has plenty of room to grow and where its flowers can be appreciated. It came be between four and nine feet tall and wide. This plant can become a bit scraggly over time, which can be corrected with judicious pruning shortly after flowering. The selection ‘Cheyenne’, which originated from the Cheyenne High Plains Grassland Research Station, is especially lovely and easily found in nurseries.

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