DIY Lawn Replacement: Plant Success Report

Front yard in three planting beds

Front yard in three planting beds, September 2015

When I was selecting plants for my front yard lawn replacement, I had a challenging time guessing which plants would do well, especially the natives. There doesn’t seem to be a ton of info out there about which native plants take well to PNW Puget Lowlands gardens (or maybe I was looking in the wrong spots).

I planted between May and July 2015, shopping at multiple nurseries to get everything (and still couldn’t find everything I’d picked out), so I’m reporting back on how the plants I chose did after an extremely hot and dry summer. I think I had higher-than-normal mortality due to the drought, rabbits, and mistakenly thinking one section of my yard was much shadier than reality.

I’ve divided the blend of native, drought-tolerant, and wildlife-friendly plants into categories: favorites, doing well, surprises, meh, dying, dead, and scrapped.

(Check out the three-year garden update, with lessons learned about plant selection, garden design and the replacement process.)

Favorite Plants

Euphorbia amygdaloides ruby glow

Euphorbia amygdaloides ruby glow

Coppertina Ninebark: I love my varietal ninebark (the native was too large for my yard). I had planned to get Diabolo like everybody else in the world but changed my mind at the last minute – I didn’t particularly like the Diabolo at the nursery so I grabbed the Coppertina instead. The colors of the leaves are beyond fabulous – so far they’ve been reddish, dark purple, deep black, and fluorescent green new growth. Got it at Flower World.

Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Ruby Glow’: the color is fab, it’s grown about the size it said on the tag, it’s a keeper.

Goatsbeard: I loved the one I planted so much that I got a second one. The first one is thriving, despite some bastard rabbits eating off its single flower, but the second one has given up the ghost. Ten feet apart. I think the second one didn’t get enough water. Got the first one from GoNatives! and the second one from MsK Rare and Native Plant Nursery.

Golden Winterhazel: I love love love how it looks, and it grew some, but also went back and forth between looking good and looking not so good. It’s not looking great right now so I’m hoping it bounces back with fall. Found it at Molbaks.

Plants that are Doing Well

My crazy yarrow and self-heal plus unknown volunteer squash filling the void of the dead lupines.

My crazy yarrow and self-heal plus unknown volunteer squash filling the void of the dead lupines.

Coreopsis: had a hard time finding a version without red in the center, finally settled for moonglow and actually quite like it.

Euphorbia: it’s grown, hasn’t gotten a flower though. Maybe next year.

Evergreen Huckleberry: doing just fine out of the rabbit fence and off the soaker hose. The rabbits nibbled a bit, I think in desperation, but it bounced back and is looking good if a mite leggy. I should maybe figure out if I should prune it. Got it at GoNatives!

Inside-out Flower: totally pegged this to die, instead it’s kicking butt and spreading a lot. Got it at GoNatives!

Red Fountain Grass: I couldn’t find the varietal I wanted – all the nurseries only had the normal rubrum, so that’s what I got. Also it’s sold as an annual here, so I only got one and will see if it comes back. It looks kick-ass though.

Redwood Sorrel: totally pegged this to die, instead it’s doing well, flowering a little and spreading some. The two inside the rabbit fence, anyhow. The two outside the rabbit fence and off the soaker hose have survived but not spread due to getting eaten down about five times. Got it at GoNatives!

Rudbeckia: planted it in mid- to late- July and it bloomed in August, and is still blooming and looking awesome now. Maybe I’ll plant more next year!

Sword Fern: I sent my husband to pick up the first order of native plants and they talked him into buying the discounted ratty gallon ferns that were pretty scraggamuffin and rootbound, but they’ve all survived and grown some. Got it at GoNatives!

Surprises, Good & Bad

Bee Balm: thought I bought the hot pink bee balm – surprise! It was fuchsia instead! Was mad at first since I was counting on some hot pink to balance out a salvia on the other side of the planter bed, then decided I liked it – so did the bees. The first wave grew super duper tall and suffered from some serious mildew – the stems were like 4’ tall and fell over but the bees liked it anyway. Surprisingly I’m now getting a round of new growth that’s looking much more proper size.

Coneflower: They don’t even carry this in stores until summer, apparently. I planted it in mid- to late- July and shouldn’t have bothered. Get the 4” – they only had one left so I got two gallons and only the 4” bloomed for longer than a week or two, plus they were super wilty all the time even with extra watering. Withholding judgment to see whether they survive the winter and come back. I’d originally wanted a non-varietal but found straight-up Echinacea hard to find, so I went with Pow Wow Wildberry.

Sea Pink: finding the native version was hell, and the ones I got didn’t look so hot. They got overcrowded by the overenthusiastic self-heal and yarrow and got super leggy. Seriously, they looked like grass. And then the flower came in white, not pink. Do yourself a favor and get the varietal, and plant it where it’ll get plenty o’ sun. I think I got mine at MsK Rare and Native Plant Nursery.

Self-heal: another plant that was supposed to be 18” diameter and now is 2-3 feet around. The bees love it, but the flowers die quickly and are kind of ugly when they’re brown. But they’ve bloomed for months. At least it’s happy? Mixed success. Found it at MsK Rare and Native Plant Nursery. I picked this as a more native substitute for purple prairie clover.

Yarrow: I have the batshit-craziest yarrow. It was supposed to get a foot and a half or two feet wide, but mine is bushy as all get out and three to four feet wide. Has not attracted a single goddamned butterfly as far as I can tell. But some fake bee hover fly things seem to like it. Got at GoNatives!

Yellow Monkeyflower: I pegged this to die – instead it did quite well, with a long blooming time, and now is sending out billions of runners. I have not yet decided whether this is a good thing. Got it from GoNatives!

Meh Plants (so far anyway)

Unimpressive middle bed until the shrubs fill in.

Unimpressive middle bed until the shrubs fill in.

Blazing Star: I wanted white, but I couldn’t find it, so I got purple ‘kobold’ instead. It was really wilty after planting for weeks and needed extra watering (thanks July planting) but it did bloom some so I guess I forgive it. Maybe. Got it at Molbaks.

Blue Oat Grass: it didn’t grow much and the rabbits munched it a bunch so I decided to say fuck it and move them to a better location. They’re doing better I think but still haven’t decided if I like how they look. Got it from GoNatives! but spotted some better-looking plants at traditional nurseries later.

Broad-leaved Penstemon: it’s grown and expanded, but never flowered. I think the nursery (GoNative!) actually didn’t have Penstemon ovatum so I believe I wound up with Cascade Penstemon, Penstemon serrulata, instead. Withholding judgment.

Corsican Hellebore: had a hard time finding this, but spotted it at MsK Rare and Native Plant Nursery while I was shopping for other stuff.

Daphne Carol Mackie: really hasn’t grown much since planting and I think the main stem has cracked, whether from the neighbor kid or a dog bumping it, or just from the heat / drought, I don’t know. We’ll see if it survives.

Deer Fern: I got plugs from the King Conservation District native plant sale. Half lived but haven’t done too much. The drought and rabbits aren’t helping.

Hellebore: the rabbits gave in and ate part of these because I fenced off everything else. They’re doing OK even off the soaker hose (with periodic hand watering). More expensive than I realized.

Heuchera: these were doing well until the rabbits chomped em, and they never recovered. The bees love the flowers though, so I’m considering it worthwhile. Got some from Flower World and some from Molbaks – they wound up being more expensive than I realized, like $13 each! Heck, most of my natives were cheaper than that.

Nodding Onion: it was cute when it finally flowered but it took goddamn forever for the blossoms to open, and then they didn’t seem to last too long. It’s looking kind of brutalized by the heat, will see if it comes back or not. Maybe not worth the hunt. Got it at GoNatives!

Red Tussock Grass: I couldn’t find this anywhere – thanks Great Plant Picks for getting my hopes up. Instead I got some rando drought-tolerant-ish grass that was the right size for my spot – Regal Mist Pink Muhly. The pink muhly has lived and expanded but hasn’t shown any signs of flowering. Shrug.

Sea Holly: couldn’t find the alpine version, so I planted the normal version. It got maybe six leaves and never flowered. Withholding judgment until next year to see if it grows more. Found it at MsK Rare and Native Plant Nursery.

Siskiyou Bitterroot: one of the two died right away but the other flowered. The flowers were beautiful and changed color as they aged so I loved the hell out of them but I’m a little underwhelmed by the plant overall. Claimed not to want water but seems like it needs watering, at least where I planted it in a pot with another succulent. I thought I’d have a hard time finding it and had given up on it, but spotted it at the Lake Washington Technical College plant sale. I think I might have also seen it at Molbaks later.

Sunset Hyssop: decided I didn’t like the sunset varietal at the nursery and grabbed peach sensation or something instead. Regretting that decision, the flowers look really faded. I planted it at the same time as the coneflower and blazing star, and it didn’t do especially well either. It’s holding out better than the others now.

The Dying Plants

Sparse front yard after plant death and unimpressive growth.

Sparse front yard after plant death and unimpressive growth.

Bleeding Heart: simultaneously torched and got leggy foliage. Make up your mind, bleeding heart, is it too sunny or not?! Got from GoNatives! but spotted some happier looking ones at Flower World later.

Bunchberry: was doing quite well until August or so, now it’s looking kind of fried. Maybe since it’s made it to September it will survive. Got from GoNatives!

Fringecup: between the rabbits and being off the soaker hose right under a pine tree, these did far worse than I expected, considering they volunteer all over my back yard.

Orange Honeysuckle: the plant I got didn’t look especially good and it didn’t get much better once it was in the ground. It grew a little, but never started climbing its chain. Most of the leaves have fallen off so I think it’s toast. Got from GoNatives!

Western Meadowrue: burned in the sun. It’s serious about wanting shade. Got from GoNatives!

The Dead Plants

Bear Grass: died almost instantly, just as I knew it would. Save yer money! Got it at MsK Rare and Native Plant Nursery.

Big-Leaf Lupine: kicked ass and bloomed early and often…until they got a horrific mildew problem, and then atrociously brutal aphid attack. They wound up being rather expensive ($15 each at MsK Rare and Native Plant Nursery) so I’m hoping they come back.

Giant Fawn Lily: rabbit ate the flower off, then the neighbor kid stepped on it. Then I accidentally mulched over it. Maybe the bulb will come back next year. Found at MsK Rare and Native Plant Nursery.

Hooker’s Fairy Bells: got toasted by the sun and died by mid-summer. Definitely full-shade plant! Believe I found it at GoNatives!

False Lily of the Valley: the first of the gang to die. They didn’t look super great to start, then the rabbits nommed them and they were toast. I got these at GoNatives! and shouldn’t have bothered.

Low Oregon Grape: these died almost immediately, despite planting them in February. It didn’t rain enough, and I didn’t water em. My bad.

Mock Orange (native): died very early on in the summer. Wish I’d saved that receipt since I think I bought it at Molbak’s.

Oak Fern: did well until the rabbits munched some, then took a quick nosedive and even substantial watering couldn’t bring it back. I think the spot was too sunny. Got it from GoNatives!

Scouler’s Corydalis: made it all the way through late August looking OK – it actually grew a fair bit in the spring – then crashed and burned. I think the spot had too much sun. When I see these in the wild they’re growing in soggy ground so I’m thinking the spot also wasn’t wet enough. Got at GoNatives!

Scrapped Plants from the Planting Plan

False Solomon’s Seal: too rich for my blood at $15-20 each at MsK Rare and Native Plant Nursery. It was hard to find racemosa not stellata. Subbed more bleeding heart.

Maidenhair Spleenwort: the MsK Rare and Native Plant Nursery was sold out, IIRC.

New Zealand Flax ‘Guardsman’ & ‘Dark Delight’: nobody carried these varietals, everyone just had pink stripe and the dark one.

Sea Kale: never found this. Damn you again Great Plant Picks!


About Tracy Durnell

Seattle-area graphic designer and SFF writer inspired by the Pacific Northwest, crafting a sustainable and intentional life.

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