Seattle Green Code Provisions: Over the Top?

This may be difficult to believe, but it appears the City of Seattle is in the process of drafting some provisions that may be controversial. This time since it relates to horticulture, and particularly, to my area of emphasis (water-wise plants) I have decided to get involved. Unfortunately I don’t have time to write a really detailed post on this, and anyway, it all happened pretty suddenly. So I will totally flake out here and refer you to for the full story in their words. Actually, they sum it up better than I probably could anyway.

I have decided to write a letter in response to this provision. You may wish to do so as well if you read this on time and don’t mind staying up late: the deadline is tomorrow! (If enough people ask for an extension, though, who knows? Perhaps they’ll offer another comment period.) So here is a copy of the letter I am sending for all to see. It would have been nice to have a few days to leave this posted here and bounce ideas off my readers, before officially submitting it. In any case I would welcome your comments.

Before getting on to the letter I guess I should say one more thing. All this talk of rules and regulations is rather obnoxious. Some might ask, why do we really need anyone telling us what we can or can’t plant? Isn’t this just another government infringement on individual property rights? (The examples of cities prohibiting front yard vegetable gardens come to mind.) Actually (trying not to get too political, heh) I usually tend to be rather sympathetic to such sentiments; as long as people are being fair about the distribution of finite resources and not infringing on the rights of others. In writing this letter I am assuming, based on my reading of historical trends, that the implementation of this provision in some form or other is pretty much unstoppable sooner or later, so we might as well make the best of it. Put another way, if we’re going to be stuck with more rules, let’s at least have rules that make sense. This is how I justify the inclusion in my letter of ideas for how to draft this rule.

All right, so here it is:

August 26, 2012

Attn: Kathleen Petrie, Green Code Provision Taskforce & Seattle City Council
700 5th Ave, Suite 2000
Seattle, WA 98124

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to provide my professional opinions regarding Section 4. Invasive species and native vegetation portion of the Green Code Provisions for Healthy Landscapes under proposal.

I am the owner of a nursery that specializes in water-wise plants including many native species. Since I agree that gardens use far too much water, and are often planted using plant choices inappropriate to our summer-dry climate, I applaud the spirit of the rule. However, I would like to address some problems that would arise if the rule were drafted exactly as proposed, and suggest a number of changes. Because I like to be helpful rather than merely criticizing things I don’t happen to like, this letter will be heavy on ideas, of which I hope that some may be found useful in crafting the final draft of this provision.

As a basis for my suggestions, I must begin with a brief assessment of the adaptability of native plants to urban environments. Many people assume that because a plant is native it can automatically tolerate difficult or harsh conditions without special care. In actuality a large proportion of our native plants are best adapted to grow in the forest’s shade or riparian or wetland environments, and thus make poor choices for urban gardens where sun and reflected heat are common, especially in new plantings. Even those that are adapted to grow in the sun cannot always be considered sufficiently tough, since they will take several years to establish, and may languish if planted without proper soil amendments and irrigation for the few years it takes to get established. For these reasons, despite the benefits of native plants, I do not believe using native plants in the large numbers suggested by “75% of all new plantings” in the proposal is a very practical approach to the objective of water conservation. Furthermore, it may result in significant outcry from a gardening public who feels their planting options are suddenly far too restricted, as well as from the nursery industry which depends on the sales of a wide variety of garden plants to thrive.

Therefore, I would like to propose some possible alternatives to be considered for modifying the provision, which are as follows:

1. The definition of “native plants” is expanded to include plants from the dryland regions east of the Cascades, and Oregon and California.
2. The term “native plants” is replaced with “plants native to summer-dry climates” (from a list of world regions with such a climate).
3. Restrictions could be placed on what can be irrigated, and for how long after planting, regardless of plant origin. This would be my professional recommendation as the most sensible approach in drafting the provision.

I spell out these options in greater detail below.

In option #1, the definition of “native” plants is broadened somewhat beyond western Washington. Inclusion of plants from the dryland regions east of the Cascades, as well as plants from Oregon and California, would give gardeners far more planting choices for their landscapes than those only “native to western Washington.” A large proportion of plants native to the aforementioned regions are very much appropriate for urban settings, perhaps more so than many of our own native plants in many instances.

In option #2, the provision would be changed from reading “native” plants to read “plants native to to summer-dry climates”, which would include the entire western region of the United States, the Mediterranean, central Chile, and a few other parts of the world. This gives gardeners yet more options while maintaining the objective of reducing water consumption.

Before getting on to option #3, here I must include my thoughts regarding native vs. invasive plants, emphasizing that a very great majority of introduced plants are not invasive. Given that the plant species and cultivars that have been grown in the Northwest throughout history range in the tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands, yet only a handful of these have posed a serious invasive threat (I base this on the list provided on the website of the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board); I conclude that a very small percentage, such as perhaps 0.1% or less, of all cultivated plants possess the potential to be invasive in the Pacific Northwest. While I can see supporting the removal of existing populations of invasive plants in some way or other, I do not consider “invasive potential” as a sensible restriction on plant choices, or support for the exclusion of non-native plants generally.

Of course, no matter what kind of plants one chooses to plant, it is still possible to use water irresponsibly. Under guidelines requiring a certain quota of native or water-wise plants, it is easy to foresee a frequent scenario play out in which all the right water-wise plants are installed, then irrigated excessively for the indefinite future under oversight that does not know any better how to maintain such a planting. For this reason I present option #3, a water-use based rule; based on the principle that a truly effective provision focuses not on the selection of plants themselves, but on the purposes for which plants are irrigated, and for which irrigation systems may be installed. By extension, I would put forth that watering native or water-wise plants for the first two years to get them established, then withholding water thereafter; is an idea worthy of support: watering any planting indefinitely, whether the plants be native, drought tolerant, or not; is not beneficial to the end goal of creating landscapes and gardens that reduce water use.

Here I would like to note an important exemption: Plants that produce food or meet some other significant utilitarian goal (bamboo for poles, for example) should be exempted from any rule regarding both plant selection and water use. The reasons for this should be obvious, but homeowners need to have the right to produce their own food without undue restraint. Let’s go after big water users like unused expanses of lawn and large-scale ornamental landscapes full of water-loving plants, not homeowners striving towards independence from big ag and reducing their carbon footprint.

Therefore (clarifying, I hope, my option #3 here), a sensible provision is one establishing that all new plantings (excepting food crops, as noted above) may be irrigated only for the first two years (perhaps three), and allowed no irrigation beyond natural rainfall thereafter. It doesn’t so much matter what plants are used: after two (three) years, they have to be tough enough to survive on their own, or not. This permits the broadest possible range of water-wise plants for use in gardens and conserves water by pulling for landscapes and gardens that can sustain themselves (as far as water is concerned, at least) in the long-term; and protects the rights of homeowners to grow food. It also leaves room for people to grow certain slightly thirstier plants they may feel they can’t live without, by means that have no impact on municipal water consumption, such as the incorporation of rainwater catchment systems and rain-gardens into the landscape.

Now for some further thoughts about how this provision may relate to the nursery industry. I strongly believe that native and water-wise plants are, broadly speaking, not difficult to grow either in nurseries or gardens. I feel qualified in saying this since, at our nursery, we propagate and produce all of our own stock. It’s true that certain species pose challenges, but perhaps not disproportionately so when compared with conventional or water-loving plants: in many cases, growers and gardeners simply need to be re-educated away from conventional higher-water-use practices to succeed.

I have independent data demonstrating that at least three quarters of plants offered by Northwest nurseries are native to parts of the world having climates where reliable, significant summer rains occur. An astounding number of these (48% of all nursery plants in my study) are native to eastern Asia, including our beloved Rhododendron hybrids, Japanese maples, flowering cherries, and a huge range of other ornamental shrubs, trees and perennials.

I believe the scarcity of water-wise and native plants in nurseries is based partially on supply and demand, yet also (much more so than people usually think) on what growers choose to produce and market. I therefore think it would be helpful to add an incentive for nurseries, landscape contractors, and related businesses to market/sell/use water-wise plants (meaning, those native to summer-dry regions of the world, or whatever criteria from the options above are chosen). For example, if Bob’s Nursery in Montlake can be determined to sell water-wise plants as 75% or more (or whatever number is chosen: this is admittedly arbitrary) of their total stock, they would be eligible for some kind of bonus or tax exemption, or a greatly reduced municipal water rate, or some such incentive. This would both raise awareness of the issue in general throughout the nursery industry, hopefully providing growers to move more towards the production of water-wise plants; and push the nursery business to diversify their range of water-wise and native plant offerings at the expense of thirstier choices; which, I believe, may be a tall order but certainly not an impossible goal to achieve.

I predict that there will be major obstacles to the success of this provision without the support of the nursery industry, since they are the ones who supply our landscape plants through a variety of channels. This ties in with another good reason to change the criteria for plant choices to something beyond just natives: if gardeners are given a wider range of drought tolerant options, there may be fewer objections among the general public at not being able to get their favorite Rhododendron or Japanese maple at a local nursery whose selection of such plants is vastly reduced from what it was. I believe it is important that this provision be crafted in such a way as to deliberately compel nurseries to provide more options for water-wise plantings, rather than just drafting it with only the landscape/garden in mind leaving the business end of this to fate.

One more idea that may be useful would be for the city to initiate and maintain a “trial garden” to determine which plants meet our region’s criteria for true drought tolerance. This, I think, would have to be quite extensive to be worthwhile; but the educational value of such a garden could be very much worth the trouble and expense. The OSU trial gardens at the North Willamette Experiment Station might serve as a model for such a trial garden, though their plant selection has been more limited and focused on specific plant groups than what is needed here.

Finally, on the subject of preserving existing native plants, I would prefer to include for protection only certain vulnerable or particularly enigmatic species (for example, garry oak). There seems little sensible purpose in preserving something like the ubiquitous Douglas-fir or a field of horsetail.

While I could ask the expected questions about how the terms of the provision will be defined and who will enforce them, I will leave such questions for others to ask as I am not a Seattle resident.

Lastly I would like to request that the comment period be extended. There are far more people who need to know about this provision and have the opportunity to comment.

Thank you for your consideration of this letter. It is my hope that some of the ideas I have presented may be helpful. As described, I believe some significant changes need to be made for this provision to be sensible, realistically enforceable, and able to achieve its desired ends. Please feel free to contact me if you have an interest in discussing this further or any other questions.

Ian Barclay
The Desert Northwest
PO Box 3475
Sequim, WA 98382

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. georgeinbandon,oregon
    Aug 27, 2012 @ 11:31:46

    Ian, looks like a very reasonable response to what seems to me a well intentioned but ultimately dangerously resttictive law which “the founding fathers” would have found ludicrous as a unwarranted use of state powers on the rights of individuals (assuming this ordinance effects EVERYBODY and NOT just publicly funded and maintained plantings in the city and/or county) just like the stamp act. horticulturally and envrirnonmentally it makes no practical sense if strictly implemented law mandates the use of plants that are not necessarily well adapted to the average garden without special care which defeats the purpose of the bill. how would such bill impact botanic and display gardens which almost by definition utilize a variety of plants which obviously DO NOT meet the criteria of the ordinance? as you metioned, the economic effect on the nursery industry, landscape contractors, and likley many other sectors of both the economy and society are at best problamatic especially in the short term. IMHO, the folks who wrote this thing sound more like idealogues and theorists than gardeners or homeowners. i am afraid that it is just this sort of mandates in this and so many other ways will destroy many valued things (not just freedom of flower choice) in our nominally free society all in the name of “for your/our own good”. hopefully, your letter and similar messages will give them pause and allow them to rethink and at least greatly modify this proposed law. good luck.


  2. Marie
    Aug 27, 2012 @ 12:13:49

    Excellent post! I have been thinking of writing one along these lines myself which I was going to title, “In Defense of NON-native Plants.” Every plant, after all, is native somewhere and has some value in the landscape. I find it curious that people who are appalled at the idea of ethnic cleansing when it applies to humans can become downright gleeful at the thought of eliminating “alien” plant species from our landscape. It’s creepy. While it is true that some plants are invasive and cause problems, they are few in number. The majority work and play well with others. And as you have pointed out, many introduced species do far better in harsh, urban settings than the local “natives.” Contrary to what people seem to believe, most natives are drought tolerant ONLY when they are planted in shady and/or boggy areas.

    As an example, planting a native like vine maple (Acer circinatum) in full sun, in a place like a parking lot “heat island,” (yes, I have actually seen this) makes no horticultural sense. These trees are adapted to life in the cool shade beneath cedars and firs in the forest. In full sun, these trees struggle to survive. By early to mid-summer, their leaves are already beginning to turn brown from stress and lack of water. Stressed-out plants, like stressed-out people, are targets for disease and pest problems. Unhealthy plants equal an unhealthy landscape. What value is there in that?


  3. Ian
    Aug 27, 2012 @ 19:12:49

    George, not to pick on anyone too much, but this probably isn’t the first time that a local provision or rule was crafted from one person’s utopian pipe-dream without having been properly thought out or the right sources consulted beforehand. I suppose that is why they have these comment periods! Of course it’s not a big deal for me personally – since we offer an increasing selection of drought tolerant native plants I could stand to benefit. Anyway I am pretty far from Seattle, but what happens there may work its way over here eventually.

    Marie, I should perhaps qualify my statement about many native plants being unsuitable for urban environments – because actually our native plants reach their greatest diversity in the dryland and alpine zones of the Northwest. The problem is that these plants are not the ones any nurseries are actually growing, so no one knows about them. This also leads to the misconception that native plants are boring. It’s the woodland ones that are most amenable to conventional nursery production and hence they receive the most attention by far. It is not that most native plants are not drought tolerant – just that most of the ones we can actually get are not drought tolerant. There is lots of cool stuff out there and I guess we need to work on introducing and growing more of it!!


  4. Trackback: Dryland Plant Management in the Nursery and Landscape « THE DESERT NORTHWEST [blog]

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