Adapting residential landscapes to a changing climate

Garry oaks are well suited to thrive in the warmer, drier climate the South Island will likely soon see

James and Kristen Miskelly own and operate Saanich Native Plants out of Haliburton Farm. They’re seeing a growing trend of homeowners converting their lawns to something similar to the native Garry oak ecosystem with plants such as the edible nodding onion James is holding

James and Kristen Miskelly own and operate Saanich Native Plants out of Haliburton Farm. They’re seeing a growing trend of homeowners converting their lawns to something similar to the native Garry oak ecosystem with plants such as the edible nodding onion James is holding

With the anticipated shift to a warmer, drier climate on the South Island, residents are planting their yards and gardens with a mind for the future.

“We’re seeing people who want to convert their lawn from grass to a native landscape that will demand less water and maintenance,” said Kristen Miskelly, co-owner of Saanich Native Plants at Haliburton Farm.

Kristen and her partner James have a half-acre plot where they grow dozens of native plants and are developing a seed bank to offer. They recommend a variety of food and non food-bearing plants, which they mostly sell to conservancy agencies for restoration, as well as the District of Saanich.

On a bigger scale, trees such as the western red cedar are already ailing throughout Greater Victoria due to the drought-like conditions of the past two summers. The cedar is among a group of trees and plants which are expected to suffer as the conditions repeat themselves in the future. However, many of the native plants that thrived here prior to European arrival date back to a time when the climate was warmer and drier.

Which is why Habitat Acquisition Trust is encouraging residents to plant for tomorrow.

“It’s difficult to predict just what’s coming but we can expect more extended periods of drought and wet winters with severe winter storm conditions,” said Jill Robinson, stewardship co-ordinator with the Habitat Acquisition Trust.

“It takes a few years to transition from plants that need water to plants that can sustain extended dry periods,” she added. “We’re encouraging people to transfer lawns to Garry oak meadows, which are dormant in summer but vibrant in the winter.”

Water usage is already a hotly contested topic. In Vancouver, for example, well-to-do homes have been the subject of online lawn-shaming, where photos of homes with lush green grass have been shared through social media for clearly abusing the temporary watering ban.

Meanwhile, the Sooke Lake Reservoir is expected to fall below 80 per cent capacity this week. Watering restrictions are creeping in despite the fact the Capital Regional District expects the fall rains will replenish the reservoir before it dips to a level of concern.

Regardless of the Sooke reservoir’s health, the reality is the non-native, water-loving grass that most of us grew up on is now a target. Municipalities are moving away from planting grass for that very reason. And landscapers, as well as agencies such as HAT, are suggesting native grasses and shrubs instead.

“Garry oaks are the big example of trees the can survive in the climate we expect,” said Robinson.

So are arbutus, Douglas fir and Pacific dogwood, as well as fruit-bearing trees choke cherry and Indian plum, all of which are native. The latter two are mid-size trees ideal for smaller yards, which also include shore pine, western yew, black hawthorne (not English hawthorne, which is invasive) and cascara, all maxing out at about 10 to 20 feet in height.

“There’s so many, but a few that we recommend, especially in an urban setting, are ocean spray, Oregon grape, red-flowering currant, snowberry, Saskatoon berry, hairy manzanita, among others.”

To get the word out, Robinson and HAT engage with local schools through the Green Sports program, which uses hands-on experiential learning (planting) to teach about the native plants. They also install bat boxes, built by inmates of the provincial detention centre on Wilkinson Road.