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Oh Where, Oh Where, has my monkey flower gone?

by Kathy Kuebbing

My plant love story starts in 2010. At the young age of 60 years old, I decided to take on a monster gardening project. After retiring to the beautiful Oregon coast and having more time to spend in the yard, I decided to transform a very weedy and ugly hillside into a native garden. I walked the hillside for months, thinking about what I could possibly be done to improve it. More importantly, however, I thought about how to prevent the hill from eroding away during a long rainy winter. Eight years later, I am amazed at how much change has occurred and how much fun I had along the way.

In 2006, when we purchased the house, the hillside was covered in ugly grasses, annoying weeds, and invasive plants that my daughter continually informed me needed to be removed after each visit! By 2010, I finally determined that the only way to begin this project was to tackle small plots--about 3x3 feet at a time. The tedious process allowed me to research plants native to Oregon and then try them out to see if they loved their new home. And like any worthwhile experiment, it would take years to determine if the plan worked.

I first learned that the hillside had 3 different growing zones! The end closest to the house was the sunny side, and the far end near the back of the lot was the wetland. In between, was the steepest part of the hillside rising up over 10 feet tall with partial shade. I started with the sunny side, and selected 3 Nootka roses (Rosa nutkana) to plant in my first plot. Next, I decided only the native Salal berry bush (Gaultheria shallon, above) would be able to hold onto the steep hillside. These first few attempts were very successful, giving me confidence in my selections and my experimental design.

However, the wetland gave me the most challenge. For the wetland, I explored adding some color other than green. My first attempt at adding color was with the addition of a yellow monkey flower (Diplacus aurantiacus) during the rainy season in late November. Usually, I wouldn’t have planted anything at that time, but this was when the County Conservation & Soil group in town held their annual plant sale. Unfortunately, I did not mark the place where I planted my lovely monkey flower and for the next 2 years I searched relentlessly to find the yellow in my wetland. It was not to be. I had lost my monkey flower. That was not my last attempt at adding color, but I failed many more times before I realized that green is a beautiful color. Today, lovely green mosses and ferns adorn the wetland.

When I began this project, I had no hypothesis or hint of a theory of what would happen. I just had hope that years into the project I would not need to hire a professional landscaper to clean up any disaster I might create. But, I did discover something unexpected halfway through the project. Once the hillside filled with more native plants than weedy plants, I would find native plants choosing the hillside garden as their home. One year thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) showed up and then a gooseberry (Ribes spp.) moved in next door to the thimbleberry. Brackens (Pteridium aquilinum) decided the wetland needed a slightly softer color of green than the dark green sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) I planted in the area. Native flowers populated the slope from time to time, my favorite being the Fringe Cup (Tellima grandiflora). Now my hillside project is done, but years into the future I will enjoy visiting it frequently to find what new native plant or flower has decided to join the community.

Best of all, I purchased 2 more yellow monkey flowers after my hillside project was complete. I upgraded these plants to the formal gardens in my backyard and I put signs around them to remind me of where my lovely monkey flowers would forever grow.

Kathy Kuebbing is soon to be 68 years-old, retired, and living in Oregon on the beautiful Pacific Coast. All photographs in this post are her own.


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