Eye on Extension: Using native shrubs in landscapes

VALLEY — What makes native shrubs better than introduced plants? Let’s thing about the advantages they offer. Native shrubs fit their native environment, including climate and soils quite well. They are naturally adapted to their specific climate.

When correctly sited, they can be ideal plants for a sustainable landscape that requires reduced external inputs such as watering, fertilizer, and pruning. In order to realize these benefits, the planting site must approximate the natural environmental conditions of the plant in its native habitat. 

Another benefit of using native plants in landscapes is that they may attract a wide variety of wildlife.  This can include mammals, birds and butterflies. With urbanization reducing the biodiversity as habitat is used for building, native plants, even on a small scale, can maintain biodiversity.

When deciding where to plant these shrubs there are things that need to be considered. The variation in elevation and topography offers a variety of habitats. To maximize survival and minimize external inputs, plants should be selected to match the site’s life zone and the plants moisture, light and soil requirements.  Even if a plant is in the correct life zone the aspect (north, south, east, west facing) of the site should match moisture requirements.

Growing native shrubs does not exclude the use of adapted non-native plants. There are many non-native plants well adapted to Colorado’s climate. They can be used in a natural landscape if the soil, water and light needs are similar. Some adjustments can be made to help such as using irrigation. Dry land plants can be used in non-irrigated pockets within the landscape. 

Colorado can be divided into five life zones, three of which include the San Luis Valley. The Upper Sonoran life zone is located below 8,000 feet in the San Luis Valley. This zone contains semi-desert shrub-lands and pinon pine-juniper woodlands at the upper limit. 

The montane zone covers 8,000 to 9,500 feet in elevation. Aspen woodlands, and Douglas Fir trees inhabit these areas. Dense forests of Subalpine fir and Englemann spruce from 9,500 to 11,500 feet include areas of the San Luis Valley. 

A successful native planting may need supplemental water after planting. Once the plants are established the watering can be reduced or eliminated if the plants are in their native environment. Container grown shrubs can be planted at any time during the growing season. 

Using native shrubs offers many benefits in addition to reduce maintenance. They are part of the natural heritage and the ecosystems of Colorado and the San Luis Valley. The plants make Colorado unique and are distinct between different parts of Colorado. Native plant gardens are wildlife friendly and each plant contributes to the biodiversity of the community.

For more information, call the Colorado State University Extension, San Luis Valley Area Office at 719-852-7381.

Extension programs are available to all without discrimination, Colorado State University

Extension, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Colorado counties cooperating.