At first, Dorota Haber-Lehigh and her husband, David Lehigh, tried growing grass in their shady, wetland front yard just below Tillamook Head. But after several years, they realized it was a losing battle.
The grass didn’t get enough sun, and they had to reseed it every year. Water flooded it in the winter, and it would be ruined when deer walked over it.
So, Dorota, a botanical illustrator who is devoted to preserving local native plants, decided to recreate a native forest surrounding their home in the Seaside Cove area.
Now, the half-acre yard is a happy home to salal, skunk cabbage, deer and sword ferns, huckleberries — both red and blue — vine maple, and other native species.
“We stopped fighting the grass and started allowing whatever wanted to grow there,” Dorota said.
Some of the plants are “rescues” she collected, with permission from Superintendent Sheila Roley, from the hillside east of Seaside Heights Elementary School, where the new Seaside School District campus will be built. Logging on some of the site is about to begin.
“We made trips and trips and took buckets and shovels and brought back a little of everything,” even though the task was exhausting, she said. But so many native plants had to be left behind.
“That’s sad, because we see all of this native vegetation disappearing,” she added.
The new plants have taken to her yard well, noted Dorota, who teaches English as a second language and botanical illustration at Seaside High School. She also mentors students who work in the school’s culinary garden.
“Everything I planted this year looks like it has been there forever, but it hasn’t,” she said.
Skunk cabbage, salmonberries and ferns grow along the creek that runs through the yard. A graceful hemlock tree provides shade.
A bridge built over the creek offers a seating area for Dorota and David to relax and enjoy the natural setting.
Trails, outlined in barkdust, meander through the area for the deer. Dorota has taken into account that the deer are bound to nibble on some of the plants, which grow in abundance.
“I want it to go wild; I’m OK with that,” said Dorota, who also wants to add more mushrooms — a particular interest for her — to the yard.
When she plants the native plants like rattlesnake plantain (a native orchid) or native currant, she considers what creatures will come come to her garden.
“We’re trying to create a habitat that attracts hummingbirds, bees and birds,” she said. “The birds like the elderberries.”
Planting natives is a passion for Dorota, who is a member of the Native Plant Society and Oregon Botanical Artists.
She recalls when her garden had far fewer native plants, and the non-natives she introduced failed to cooperate.
“I used to fight it, control it,” she recalled. I struggled with anything flourishing. Then, I would go on hikes and find everything thriving in the woods. Nobody was doing any trimming or watering. I realized I was doing something wrong.”
She learned more about native plants through workshops at the Hoyt Arboretum in Portland and from local experts with several North Coast organizations. She also has a plot at the Sunny Hunt Community Garden behind the Sunset pool.
“I grew up in Poland,” Dorota said. “Everybody had a community garden. It was a necessity. After the war (World War II), the borders were closed and there were no imports of fruits and vegetables. Whatever you ate, you grew.”
Even in the 1980s, community gardens flourished. Dorota and her family would ride bicycles – there were few cars or paved roads — to their community garden, which measured about one-tenth of an acre.
“There were cherry, peach and plum trees. We weren’t farmers, but we would grow carrots, cucumbers, zucchinis, lettuce, herbs and tomatoes.”
In the summer they would forage for wildflowers to make tea and for mushrooms.
After Poland joined the European Union in 2004, development flourished: Large stores and malls replaced mom-and-pop shops, and highways filled with cars.
“Now people realize they have lost a lot of the countryside. Instead of planting lawn, they plant native prairies because they’re feeling nostalgic,” she said.
Dorota worries that the same thing will happen here. But she also hopes that, with more awareness of the variety of native plants and the ease of caring for them, people will consider incorporating them into their gardens.
“We’re losing so much. I feel like it’s our responsibility to preserve as much as we can. But I think more people are gaining awareness about landscaping with natives. The movement is growing.”