Native Yard Starter Packs for Willamette Valley Wildlife

Hey plant people of Portland, Oregon! We’ve got a question for you: Do you want to create a yard that will attract more butterflies, bees, birds, and other wildlife? If your answer is yes, you are not alone! In 2022, 1 in 3 US adults bought plants specifically to help wildlife. A significant increase from 1 in 4 adults from 2021. The majority of them did so by purchasing native plants.

It’s no surprise that the ecological gardening trend is growing every year, as more and more people are becoming aware of the negative impacts of Climate Change and industrial pollution. Luckily, planting native plants is one of the easiest ways to get into ecological gardening. This is because:

  1. Native plants provide habitats and food for wildlife.
  2. They do not require fertilizers, which has a high carbon footprint.
  3. They do not require pesticides, which can harm pollinators and other organisms.
  4. You rarely need to water (or maintain) them, once they are established.
  5. Many native plants have deep root systems, which reduce erosion and flooding.
  6. They help reduce air pollution.
  7. And of course, they are just beautiful to look at!

It’s not enough to just plant some plants and hope for the best, however. Building a backyard habitat takes a little extra work to do successfully. To start, you’ll need to figure out which plants are best for the particular sun/water level of your yard, which plants will attract wildlife, which plants will pair well with other plants, where to position the plants in your yard, how far apart to place the plants, etc.

To make things even more difficult, gardening information online can be quite disorganized, overwhelming, or downright contradictory.

As the largest native plant store in Portland, we at SymbiOp Garden Shop strive to make native habitat creation more accessible for everyone, especially new plant parents.

This is why we have created several Native Yard Starter Packs to help new ecological gardeners jump start their native plant journey!

Each starter pack below corresponds to a different sun/water level. They are drawn to scale by our lead landscape designers, so that you can properly position and space your plants, and rest assured that they will grow well together.

What is a plant guild, you say?

Like we said above, native plants have plenty of ecological benefits, and while planting a single Riverbank Lupine (Lupinus rivularis) in your yard can make a positive contribution to the Willamette Valley ecosystem, it’s not going to have nearly the same environmental benefit as one in the wild. The reason being that plants have evolved to work in coordination with other organisms to build habitats together.

A guild is a group of organisms that work together to create benefits for the collective more effectively than each individual can alone.

Tree Guilds, Permaculture Designer’s Manual

Most plant guilds layer plants of different height to maximize vertical space usage, sunlight absorption, and nutrient regeneration. The dense layers of foliages filters out the harsh sun and traps soil moisture. This creates a stable microclimate for the understory plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria. Such a habitat allows all the organisms to form symbiosis, mutually beneficial relationships, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Guilds are essential for regenerative ecological gardening. They maximize ecological benefits with less land usage. They restore soil health, attract beneficial insects and pollinators, repel weeds and pests, and prevent erosions much more effectively than individual plants would. They also efficiently extract carbon from the atmosphere and sequester them as biomass in plants and soil, which help reverse the effects of climate change. (For a more detailed introduction to Regenerative Ecological Paradigm, read this previous article).

On a human level, guild is also an easy framework for beginners gardeners to plan out their yard. Instead of figuring out your entire yard, you can just divide your yard into different areas and figure it out one guild at a time.

Here are the native guilds we have created specifically for beginner ecological gardeners! While these aren’t one-size-fit-all solutions for every yard, they will be good starting points for most yards. We are also coming out with some food forest starter packs soon. Stay tuned!

Table of Contents

Starter Pack 1: Woodland Guild, Part Shade (3-5 hours of sun), Drier Soil, More Drainage [1]

Click here to see photos of these plants.

Canopy Layer: Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) [2], Vine Maple (Acer circinatum) [3]

Shrub Layer: Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)

Understory Layer (more sun): Woods Strawberry (Fragaria vesca), Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva ursi), Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa), Pacific Bleeding Heart (Dicentra Formosa)

Understory Layer (less sun): Creeping Mahonia (Mahonia repens), Salal (Gaultheria shallon), Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), Western Sword Fern (Polysitchum munitum)

Ecological Functions:

  • Woods Strawberry supports 75 different species of butterflies and moths and also supports birds. Its berries are also edible for humans.
  • Douglas fir’s habitats support an abundance of wildlife, including the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet.
  • Western Columbine and Pacific Bleeding Heart both support hummingbirds.
  • Creeping Mahonia supports birds such as Towhees, Robins, and Waxwings, hummingbirds, and pollinators like bees, moths, and butterflies.
  • Evergreen Huckleberry supports bees and birds. Its berries are also edible for humans.
  • Oceanspray are important hosts for many native butterflies including the Pale Swallow Tail.
  • Snowberry provides late season forage for native birds.

Additional Notes: This woodland guild loves decaying logs which help to create a humus rich top layer of soil.

Starter Pack 2: Woodland / Rain Garden Guild, Part Shade (3-5 hours of sun), Wetter Soil, Less Drainage [1]

Click here to see photos of these plants

Canopy Layer: Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), Black Hawthorne (Crataegus douglasii), Big Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) [2]

Shrub Layer: Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea ssp. sericea), Pacific Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus)

Understory Layer (more sun): Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana), Fringe Cups (Tellima grandiflora)

Understory Layer (less sun): Deer Fern (Blechnum spicant), Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina), Soft Rush (Juncus effusus), Slough Sedge (Carex obnupta)

Ecological Functions:

  • Big Leaf Maple hosts a variety of moss, lichens and Licorice Ferns on their bark and supports moths, pollinators, small mammals, and songbirds.
  • Red Twig Dogwood offers berries for birds like the American Goldfinch, Northern Flicker, Purple Finch, American Robin, Cedar Waxwing etc. The leaves of this shrub provide for over 100 species of butterflies and moths.
  • Pacific Ninebark provides a place for birds to nest, plus shade and cover for small animals. Birds eat its seeds, which persist in the seed heads into winter.
  • Iris flowers attract insects and birds and provide nectar to hummingbirds.
  • Fringe Cups support hummingbirds and various bird species and are beneficial to many insects.
  • Soft Rush provides wildfowl nesting habitats. Its stems provide shelter for birds.

Additional Notes: This woodland guild loves decaying logs which help to create a humus rich top layer of soil. Rain gardens in shadier understory environments can help create habitat and shelter for wildlife. These shade loving plants also enjoy having their feet wet seasonally to process rain water.

Starter Pack 3: Meadow Guild, Full Sun (6+ hours of sun), Drier Soil, More Drainage [1]

Click here to see photos of these plants.

Canopy Layer: Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana), Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii), Oregon White Oak (Quercus garryana) [2]

Shrub Layer: Redstem Ceanothus (Ceanothus sanguineus), Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium)

Understory Layer (more sun): Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Common Gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata), Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), Douglas Aster (Symphyotrichum subspicatus)

Understory Layer (less sun): Idaho Fescue (Festuca idahoensis ssp), Prairie Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha)

Ecological Functions:

  • The Oregon Oak ecosystem is one of the most endangered habitats on earth. The mature tree can sequester a ton of carbon over its lifetime. As a keystone species, it can support thousands of other native species. For example, its flower hosts native bees, while its leaves host larvae of California Sister, Hairstreak and Duskywing butterflies. The entire Quercus (Oak) genus hosts more caterpillars and other insects than any other genus in the northern hemisphere. Oak forests also hold a higher diversity of bird species than nearby conifer forest.
  • Redstem Ceanothus, a member of the buckthorn family attracts butterflies like the Pale Swallowtail while also being a nitrogen-fixing plant [4].
  • Douglas Aster attract many types of pollinating insects, like butterflies and bees. It’s an important late blooming flower (August to October).
  • Milkweed provides a critical part of the Monarch butterflies life cycle.
  • Yarrow provides food (pollen) for beneficial insects like Lacewings, Hoverflies, lady bugs, and predatory wasps.
  • Idaho Fescue and other native perennial bunchgrasses provide food for many game birds, song birds, small mammals, and beneficial insects.

Additional Notes: This meadow guild loves to have denser soil coverage with bunch grasses, flowering herbaceous perennials, and scattered pockets of shrubs and trees.

Starter Pack 4: Meadown / Rain Garden Guild, Full Sun (6+ hours of sun), Wetter Soil, Less Drainage (Rain Garden)

Click here to see photos of these plants.

Canopy Layer: Sitka Alder (Alnus viridis ssp. sinuata), Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides), Vine Maple (Acer circinatum) [3]

Shrub Layer: Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea ssp. sericea), Nootka Rose (Rosa nutkana)

Understory Layer (more sun): Riverbank Lupine (Lupinus rivularis), Camas (Cammassia leichtlinii), Douglas Aster (Symphyotrichum subspicatus), Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

Understory Layer (less sun): Soft Rush (Juncus effusus), Slough Sedge (Carex obnupta)

Ecological Functions:

  • Lupine is a nitrogen fixer. It attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. It has a large white dot on each small flower directing these insects to the nectar source.
  • Douglas Aster attract many types of pollinating insects, like butterflies and bees. It’s an important late blooming flower (August to October).
  • Camas attracts i bees and hummingbirds. Indigenous people use camas bulbs extensively for food.
  • Red Twig Dogwood offer berries for birds like the American Goldfinch, Northern Flicker, Purple Finch, American Robin, Cedar Waxwing etc. The leaves of this shrub provide for over 100 species of butterflies and moths.
  • Soft Rush provides wildfowl nesting habitats. Its stems provide shelter for birds.
  • Alder’s twigs and leaves are food for Cottontails, and Snowshoe hares.
  • Vine Maple flowers attract butterflies and bees. Its seeds attract birds.

Additional Notes: Sunny rain gardens allow for more diversity of plants that bring habitat and a beauty of colors, flowers, and textures. These plants enjoy having their feet wet seasonally to process rain water.

Starter Pack 5: Oregon Oak Urban Guild, Full Sun (6+ hours of sun), Drier Soil, More Drainage

Click here to see photos of these plants.

Canopy Layer: Oregon White Oak (Quercus garryana) [2]

Shrub Layer: Buckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus or Ceanothus sanguineous), Ocean Spray (Holodiscus discolor), Red Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum), Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)

Understory Layer (more sun): Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Camas (Cammassia leichtlinii)

Understory Layer (less sun): Blue Wildrye (Elymus glaucus), Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia cespitosa), Oregon Iris (Iris tenax), Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris)

Ecological Functions:

Additional Notes: Here are some other native plants you can add to this guild for more diversity as the canopy grows – Allium acuminatum, Claytonia perfoliata, Anaphalis margaritacea, Asclepias speciosus, Eriophylum lanatum, Lupinus rivularis, Madia elegans, Mahonia aquifolium, Amelanchier alnifolia. Or, click here for a larger implementation of Oregon Oak habitat.

General Planting Tips

  • See this article for the basics of how to plant native plants.
  • Larger trees should be planted 10 – 15 ft away from buildings and 5 ft away from patios or fences. Ones that grow over 15′ tall should be a safe distance away from power lines.
  • Best times to plant natives are fall and spring seasons – when it’s not too hot or cold and there’s regular rain. Winter can still be a good time to plant many natives, if the ground is not frozen.
  • For people who want more advanced information, check out the USDA’s Soil Survey to learn more about the kind of soil you have. Or you can get a soil test done.

General Maintenance Tips

  • Mulch new plantings with hardwood chips, straw or other organic mulch (avoid bark mulches).
  • Water new plantings 1-2 times a week in hot weather for the first 2-3 years
  • Making sure the roots never sit in standing water (unless it’s a rain garden guild) and have ample time to dry out. As the plantings mature, watering needs will drop off completely, only requiring an extra drink in unseasonably hot weather.
  • While young plants are establishing, it is important to remove undesired vegetation such as invasive species, noxious weeds, and common naturalized weeds that will outcompete your plants for light, water, and nutrients. Use USDA Noxious/Invasive Plant Database and OregonFlora.org to help you identify plants and weeds as they appear in your newly planted guilds.
  • Spread other support species seed to encourage them to be the dominant understory species, when needed. As other native species naturally find their way into the guild, encourage their growth to increase diversity and support larger amount of native fauna. As plantings mature the density of plants will increase, take advantage of the increased plant cover for moisture retention and weed suppression.

Rain Garden Specific Tips

  • 2 of the guilds can be implemented as rain gardens, or not. If you choose the rain garden route, the canopy plant should be planted along the bank (berm) of the basin, instead of inside the basin. See this video on how to install your own rain garden.
  • After planting a rain garden guild, you will not have to give any supplemental water during the wet seasons as long as it rains 1-2 days a week. 
  • In the spring/summer when the rains stop you will want to water your new plants deeply ~1x a week. It is important to water your landscape while it is still establishing. It can take 2-6 years to establish a new landscape. We have found that after about 2 years of spring/summer watering, your native landscape won’t need much spring/summer watering, if any.


  1. More drainage roughly means when you water a patch of soil, water won’t pool. Less Drainage means water will pool. Here’s a video on how to test drainage more accurately.
  2. This canopy layer tree can grow very large in a few decades. Its truck can grow very wide, which will require more spacing from other plants than the drawings indicate, when matured. Luckily by then, the shrub/understory plants would have multiply, spread, and adapt to the canopy tree’s size. This is regenerative ecology in action. Thus having the shrub/understory plants initially planted closer as the drawings indicate, when the canopy tree is still young, is not a problem. In fact, they will protect the young canopy trees before its own canopy is wide enough to protect itself.
  3. Vine Maple is technically not a canopy tree. It’s more like a tall shrub (10 – 20 ft height). We put Vine Maple as an alternative canopy layer candidate in case you don’t want a tall tree.
  4. A nitrogen-fixing plant forms a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria, and convert atmospheric nitrogen into a soluble form of nitrogen that is usable by plants as fertilizers.

7 thoughts on “Native Yard Starter Packs for Willamette Valley Wildlife”

  1. Most gardeners prefer attractive bloom or foliage across the growing season. This is a huge challenge when gardening with native plants and something worth mentioning when writing about native plant gardening.

    1. Hi Mary, it’s true that many gardeners prefer bright color plants. This is why, the focus of this article is about attracting wildlife. Some gardeners prefer having a garden full of life, even if it means it’s not as brightly colored as a lifeless ornamental garden. Plus, we think plenty of native plants are just as beautiful as ornamentals. Part of the battle is to change what the general public considered to be beautiful. It’s a slow process, but it’s happening!

  2. This is really helpful, as I’m about to re-landscape. I’m worried that I don’t have enough room to put in the keystone species. I wish someone could figure out some smaller cultivars of Oaks, Incense Cedars, Douglas Firs, etc. that would still support insects etc. It sounds like they have to be tested one by one. Maybe a certification or something, rather than hearsay or guesswork. Also, I heard California is helping homeowners by not letting HOA’s tell homeowners that they can’t take out their lawn and go native, etc. I’d love to see Oregon do that also.

    1. 1. There are a couple of natural shrub variants of Quercus garryana (Oregon white oak): Q. garryana var. semota and Q. garryana var. breweri. I think the native range for those variants only goes as far north as SW Oregon (not the Willamette Valley), in case that matters to you. It’s hard to find them for sale.
      2. Some smaller keystone shrubs are host to a very high number of moth/caterpillar species. Vaccinium is a big one. I think evergreen huckleberry might host more Lepidoptera species than Douglas fir. So no need to create a shrub Doug fir cultivar — just plant a native huckleberry. 😊 Rosa, Rubus, and Ceanothus are some other keystone shrubs. Lupines host more species of Lepidoptera than incense cedar. Same with Fragaria and native strawberries are only a few inches high.

  3. Wow! Thank you for breaking it down like this into such easy to use information! I love this concept! It can seem so daunting figuring out which plants to choose, with so much information out there. I’ll be sure to send friends here to read this.
    One thing I’ve recently learned is to check out information about your own yard’s soil on the USDA’s web soil survey. Though you can often determine some of the same information yourself, such as whether your soil is well drained or poorly drained, it also helps to know a little more about the type of soil in your area in order to make good decisions about which plants will flourish in your soil.

    1. Thank you for your kind word. And that’s a great suggestion about the soil survey. I have added it into the general planting tips section. Let me know if you have more suggestions!

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