I met Andrea (Andie) Ptak, five years ago in a class for bloggers where I learned, unrelated to the class, (but maybe the most useful thing to come out of it) that she had converted her yard into a native plant garden and certified backyard habitat.

When I drove up to Andie’s house in South Seattle last Saturday for an interview in honor of Native Plant Appreciation Week, this week, she was standing outside surveying her work.

Her front yard was abuzz with low flying bees working the Lithodora. “It’s not native but the bees like it,” says Andie who is in her mid-sixties. “I leave the dandelions alone, at least until there are more flowering plants,” she adds, noting the few dandelions that spotted the yard. (Dandelions are after all a native, and the bees first food coming out of hibernation.)

Andie is talking a mile a minute pointing out all the natives – native violets, native bleeding hearts, native irises, more than I can quickly write down.  All these plants I’ve heard and seen pictures of but never been able to find.

“It’s very hard to find natives at nurseries,” Andie says, “You have to wait for the native plant sales.”

And those only happen a couple of times a year.

I know. I’ve been trying to cultivate a backyard habitat since my daughter was in preschool. A butterfly garden sounded good; it would take food (native plants), water and shelter, but it never went anywhere.  

The sales are daunting. Full of pots with straggly bits of green in them – it’s hard to know what you’re buying or what to do with it unless you’re an expert.

And Andie is. She’s a Certified Master Urban Naturalist, a titled she earned in 2015 through an intensive 6-month program at Seward Park offered by the Audubon Society. Completion required doing a major project, and hers was a Native Plant Super Saturday that she organized at the park.

She also wrote about gardening with native plants for the blog that she started back when I knew her, The Green Queen of Moderation. It has tips on being sustainable and thrifty and not feeling you must be zealous about it; that’s the moderation part.

Next, we head to her back yard which is about six times as large as the front. Both were just pure grass she tells me, when she and her husband Aaron bought the place. Not even a tree. Now there are native and fruit-bearing trees and bushes throughout. Andie’s yard is about half native, half non-native. If the non-natives are not invasive, they’re fine. About a third of the back yard is covered in wood chips and serves as a dog run for their two Golden Retrievers, Paprika and Cayenne, “The Spice Girls.”

The dogs follow us into the back yard living up to their names. Paprika, the older dog, is mellow and sweet, and Cayenne, about seven months, is excitably jumping on me almost every chance she can get, which is flattering. Andie keeps warning her off, finally calling Aaron to take her away.

“Maybe you should have called her Cinnamon,” I offer.

The garden in back has meandering paths, with bird baths, yard art, a trellis enclosed patio, and other seating areas. It’s just starting to come into bloom. There are more natives back here from flower to fern to ground cover to tree. Hidden within this garden is a loosely fenced-in food garden with large blueberry bushes, a ground cultivated for planting vegetables, and another area with raspberry canes. 

Why native? So many reasons, Andie says, they support the pollinators. That’s a big one as she writes in her blog, “As our population grows, mankind encroaches on the natural world, pushing out species of both plants and animals—some to the state of extinction. There’s not a lot I can do personally to save the tiger or polar bear, but I can make sure that area songbirds have plenty of food and a place to nest, and that bees and butterflies have sources for nectar.”

Native plants also conserve water, she adds, because they’re acclimated to our climate of wet winters and dry summers. And they’re beautiful. “They’re not as showy as the non-natives,” she admits, “and they’re hard to cultivate in pots, and that’s likely why they’re hard to find at the nurseries.” 

They’re also not as straggly as I feared.  Her natives are thick, growing in dense clusters. Andie’s yard will be lush come summer. They spread and reseed themselves, says Andie. She also helps them along by dividing and replanting. What started as just a couple of small pots picked up at a native plant sale has spread to cover nearly every inch of her yard.

Native plants are low maintenance once established, which is what attracted me to them, but they’re also slow to grow.

I started by planting a few natives in one bare spot in my yard, throwing water on them regularly as they took root.  But I never really had time to cultivate them. Sometimes years would go by with barely a weed being pulled. Now, these many years later (my daughter is about to graduate from college), they’ve taken off. They’re crowding each other out. The Tall Oregon Grape, Low Oregon Grape, Inside-out Flower, Sword Fern, Columbine, Kinnikinnik, a Mock Orange, which everyone loves, and a Red-Flowering Current. Only the hardy Salal didn’t take. Go figure.

The Red-Flowering Current went from being a couple of feet tall to over six feet and almost as wide. Recently trudging home from work, I came upon it in bloom spilling forth pinkish red blossoms that lifted my spirits. Then if that wasn’t enough a hummingbird was zipping around them.

Seeing Andie’s garden, I’m inspired. Maybe a backyard habitat is still within reach.

Nodding toward the non-natives as I’m leaving, Andie tosses out why she keeps them with the natives, summing up what I’m looking for in a garden, “You can live here if I don’t have to do too much for you.”

Andie’s Native Early Blue Violet
Andie’s Native Iris
Andie’s Native Bleeding Heart
My Red-Flowering Current (that humming birds love)

Native Plants seen in Andrea Ptak’s yard:

Trees

Black Hawthorn

Red Twig Dogwood

Shrubs

Evergreen Huckleberry

Mock Orange

Red-Flowering Current

Low Oregon Grape

Ferns

Sword Fern

Ground Cover

Oxalis

Early Blue Violet

False Lily of the Valley

Kinnikinnik

Wild Strawberry

Inside-out Flower

Flowers

Columbine

Bleeding Heart

Iris

Camas

Lupine

Fleabane

Asters

Penstemon Azures