Follow these tips to salvage native plants

3 Tips to Salvage Native Plants for Your Property

In this episode, we’re going to look at 3 tips for salvaging native plants for your property. Buying native plants can be expensive but salvaging them is a great option when you don’t have a lot of money to spend on new plants. And doing it right without damaging the living world is important. Plus, you want to make sure your new plants survive. So, let’s look at what it takes to salvage native plants.


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My first experience with salvaging native plants was when I was a kid growing up in eastern Washington north of Spokane. In that part of Washington, there are large areas of state and federally managed lands that people use for recreation.

These are beautiful areas filled with natural beauty, and I always loved hiking and exploring these places.

Occasionally, we would salvage small native plants that were growing right along the edge of access roads and bring them back to plant at our place. These plants weren’t likely to thrive due to traffic and the management of the roadway.

This was my first experience with salvaging native plants. And since then, I’ve had many opportunities to salvage native plants on my own and by volunteering with a local non-profit called Native Plant Salvage.

If you live in western Washington, I recommend checking them out—I will include a link to their website in the resources section of the show notes.

Native Plant Salvage provides hands-on education to protect and conserve water resources and habitat from the South Sound prairies to the shores of the Salish Sea.

I’ve volunteered with them a bunch over the years, and I hope you will check them out. Even if you don’t live in this area, they have a lot of great resources on their website.

Part of what they do is run salvage events in the winter. These events take place at sites that are being developed. These are places where all the native plants will be bulldozed or otherwise destroyed.

At these events volunteers dig up native plants or take cuttings to propagate back at the nursery and for people to plant where they live.

Salvaging native plants is at its core as simple as this. Just digging up a native plant and transplanting it. Or taking cuttings you can later root in a nursery or collect seeds.

Each of these methods works to salvage native plants. But they don’t all work with every species of native plants.

Some won’t root from cuttings and others are hard to transplant unless they’re tiny. I can’t cover every native plant in this episode so instead, let’s dive into some core strategies that you can apply to native plants where you live.

And we will also talk a bit about how to salvage native plants sustainably and responsibly.

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Okay, let’s get started.

Episode Resources:

1. How to Salvage Native Plants by Transplanting

Here are 3 tips to salvage native plants

These are all native plants that I dug up and transplanted to my place. Some are easier than others. These red elderberries generally transplant easily when small.

The easiest way to salvage native plants is by transplanting them. This is where you dig them up and then replant them at your place.

You can pot them up if you like first and let them grow a bit though I prefer to just get them in the ground as soon as possible.

When digging them up try to get as much of the roots as possible and stick with small plants. While you may like the idea of salvaging a large native plant the smaller ones are much more likely to survive and thrive.

And generally, you will want to salvage native plants when they’re dormant in the fall or winter. This gives them time to get established before they have to start growing in the spring and summer.

Wild Tip:

And when you dig them up you will want to keep the roots covered and moist. Often I cover the roots with fall leaves, moss, or dirt from the forest floor.

If you can’t plant them right away then potting them up is your best option. Though you can also put them in a pile of mulch for a couple of days to protect the roots from frost and from drying out.

Beyond these general tips, there are 2 types of plants that you may struggle to transplant successfully. 

  1. Those with long taproots.
  2. Those with long underground rhizomes.

Plants with taproots have a big, long single root that goes deep into the ground with smaller roots growing off to the sides.

Carrots and dandelions are classic examples but lots of plants have taproots.

The issue with these plants is that it can be really hard to get the root out without breaking it and these plants tend to be more sensitive to root disturbance.

For these types of plants try to salvage small ones that are only a year or so old. Here in western Washington, our native lupines tend to have long taproots and don’t like to be transplanted. Our native Oregon oak is similar and even a small oak seedling can have a taproot that has grown several feet down.

So if you’re going to salvage native plants with a taproot stick get ones that are as small as possible and make sure to get as much of the root as possible.

The other challenging type of plant is those with long underground rhizomes. Here in western Washington our native Salal and Oregon grapes grow like this.

Often you dig up what looks like a small plant only to discover that it’s actually a shoot off a rhizome with very little actual roots. This often results in a lot of leaves and stems with very few roots to support them.

Plus, these plants hate to have their rhizome tips broken.

In these cases, you need to very carefully get as much of the rhizome and roots as possible with only a small number of top growth—the stems and leaves. And watch the tip of the rhizome and try not to break it.

Not all plants with rhizomes are this picky but you will want to be careful with these types of plants.

And when you go to plant them you will need to dig a decently long trench to make room for the rhizome with the small stem and leaves sticking up out of the ground at one end or potentially in the middle.

This is why I tend to avoid salvaging these types of native plants and instead buy them from a nursery. Though if you follow the tips we’ve covered you can successfully transplant them. Though I would salvage extras since they’re not all likely to survive.

2. Salvaging Native Plants by Seed, Cuttings, and Live Stakes

Grow lupines from seed

I love collecting lupine seeds for planting. Since they don’t transplant well this is a great way to get these plants started.

Sometimes digging up native plants isn’t the best option. Either due to the type of plant or because you need a lot more plants than you can salvage.

Collecting seeds can be a great option in this situation. You can just go out and find native plants that have gone to seed and collect them. I like to do this from plants along the edge of trails and roads since they’re more likely to get cut down and otherwise disturbed.

But growing native plants from seed does have some challenges. Often these seeds will need stratification. This is what happens naturally when the seeds sit out over the winter in cold and wet conditions.

And some need a combination of warm and then cold to trigger germination.

Other native plants have seeds that need fire to germinate and others have hard coatings that are normally softened when they’re eaten by birds and other animals before being deposited in their droppings.

This is called scarification and you can mimic this process by scrapping the seed coating with sandpaper and sometimes even cracking them with a hammer.

It really depends on the type of seed which means you will need to do your research and experiment a bit.

But to be safe I would use one of these 2 methods with any native seeds you collect. 

  1. Sow your seeds in outdoor pots, seedling cells, or directly in the ground in the fall and let them be exposed to wet and cold conditions. They likely won’t germinate until spring though some will germinate more quickly.
  2. Place your seeds between 2 sheets of damp paper towels and then put them in a plastic bag or another airtight container in the fridge and wait for them to start germinating. This takes at least a month and often 6 weeks or so. Though if they start to germinate make sure to plant them right away.

I’ve put a couple of links in the resources section of the show notes that talks about how to germinate native seeds using the wet paper towels and refrigerator method.

Another option for salvaging native plants is to take cuttings and live staking.

Live staking is fairly simple though. Some plants like willows will grow from a fresh green branch that is cut off the parent plant and then planted in the ground.

This should be done when the plant is dormant in the fall or winter. And you will want the live stake to be from 1–2-year woody growth that is at least 2-feet long though 3-feet is better if you can get it.

Then just push the live stake into the ground with at least half of it buried up to about three-quarters. Make sure at least 2 of the buds remain above ground since these will grow new stems and leaves.

The live stake will start to root over the winter and then new above-ground growth will appear in the spring.

This doesn’t work for all species but it’s a great option for some.

Last week’s episode covered live staking so make sure to check that one out since it goes into more detail than I can today.

Propagating from cuttings is very similar to live stakes. You will be using greenwood cuttings that are around 2-years old and your cuttings will be smaller. Generally, around 6-inches to a foot.

These cuttings can be treated with a rooting hormone though that isn’t always needed—but it will increase your success rate.

You will want to prepare pots or trays with sand or some other light growing medium. Keep it moist but not too wet. Then stick your cuttings into the growing medium and place them inside or in a greenhouse where they stay warm.

Keep the pots or trays moist and wait for your cuttings to root. Once their roots have grown out you can carefully pull them up and plant them in pots for later transplanting.

Propagating native plants from cuttings can quickly expand the number of plants you have. Just like with live stakes not all native plants can be grown this way. So, it will take some experimentation and research on your part.

Salvaging native plants from cuttings, live stakes or seeds also has the advantage of not removing the parent plant from the landscape. Though you still don’t want to overuse these methods since they can still hurt the parent plant or decrease the number of seeds available for wildlife and for regrowth.

3. Make Sure to Salvage Native Plants Responsibly

You can fit a lot of salvaged plants in your car

Make sure to salvage native plants responsibly by not overdoing it. Leave most of the plants and seeds for the wildlife and for the plants to stay healthy and thrive.

Salvaging native plants is a great option to get native plants for your property. But you don’t want to hurt the place where the plants are already growing.

This generally means you shouldn’t salvage any rare or endangered native plants unless you’re working with a group that is working to conserve them. Sometimes nurseries will actively partner with conservation groups to grow rare and endangered plants to expand their numbers.

And you should also avoid going to natural areas that aren’t being disturbed by people. National parks and other similar areas generally don’t allow any plant collection.

But in other areas like along bike trails, roads, and even hiking trails in national forest land you can do some limited salvaging.

All these trails and roads will be maintained which means the plants growing along their edges will be cut down once or twice a year.

These are some of the best areas to collect cuttings, live stakes, seeds, and transplants of native plants. But still don’t overdo it—leave most of the plants or seeds where they are.

I tend to take only 1 or 2 branches from any one plant for cuttings or live stakes. A single branch can be used for 2-4 cuttings or a couple of live stakes depending on how big it is.

And don’t collect on private property without permission of the owner. Though asking people you know if you can salvage native plants from their property can be a great option.

Finally, a really great place to salvage native plants is from development sites where new houses or other buildings are going to be built. Unfortunately, these areas are often completely cleared which I don’t like but it does mean you don’t have to worry about going overboard salvaging native plants from these spots.

But you should still ask for permission first. Though often the owners won’t care since they will be clearing the land anyways as long as you can get in and salvage before they start their work. Don’t expect them to wait for you.

Wild Tip:

This can also be a good time to get old logs to make snags and critter homes. I wouldn’t cut down any of the trees but old rotten logs won’t be missed.

And don’t forget that you can use these techniques at your place. I have a bunch of volunteer native plants coming up in my paths in my food forests. I plan to dig them up and transplant them to new areas. And I’m also going to take cuttings and live stakes from other plants when I cut them back from our trails.

Learning to salvage native plants is a great skill to have. So, give it a try and see what native plants you can salvage for your property.

And stay tuned for our next episode where we will look at using Nootka roses, snowberries, and similar plants to create dense hedgerows. And don’t forget to check out the show notes for more links and resources related to this episode.

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Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.