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Leslie 01-03-2017 12:49 AM

Wildlife gardening with a septic drainfield
Have any of you had experience with wildlife gardening on or near a septic drainfield?

In early March, I'll be moving to a little place on a quarter of an acre in Western Washington. My husband and I had planned to get a few acres in the country and use wildlife gardening to create a little sanctuary for wildlife, but that's not possible, so I want to do the best I can with my little quarter acre. The task is made more challenging because the yard is mostly taken by a septic drainfield.

I'm planning to plant as much as I safely can on top of the 50'x70' septic drainfield, but it has severe planting restrictions -- only shallow, fibrous-rooted plants, no bushes or trees, nothing that needs a lot of water, and nothing that would send roots seeking water. I'd appreciate any suggestions of plants that would work on (or near) the septic drain field, and plants to avoid.

I'll work primarily with native plants. The lot was forested with Douglas fir with an understory of mostly salal and evergreen huckleberry. Most of the understory and many of the trees have been cleared -- it hurt to see it go!!! These contractors clear everything with bulldozers. There was a native rhodenderon -- they razed it. I've begged them to leave as much as they can, but between the house and the septic system drainfield (about 70'x50') and clearing a strip at the property line to put a fence in, there isn't much room left. I'm still upset.

I will have some room around the perimeter of the back yard (10' to 25' on each side), on the sides of the house, and a 20'x100' strip in the front yard to landscape with trees and bushes and groundcover. For this space, I've ordered native plants from local native plant sales - they're fairly cheap but they aren't much more than twigs, so I ordered a bunch. I'm hoping they'll fill in quickly to give us some privacy, and they'll provide berries and shelter for birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits. I ordered things I've seen growing locally:

Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii)
Pacific Crabapple (Malus fusca)
Pacific Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus)
Douglas Fir
Grand Fir
Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana)
Douglas Maple (Acer glabrum)
Oval-leaf Blueberry (Vaccinium ovalifolium)
Red Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum)
Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)
Woods Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)
Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica)
Bitter Cherry (Prunus emarginata)
Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)
Creeping Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens)
Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
Pea Fruit Rose a.k.a. Wild Clustered Rose (Rosa pisocarpa)
Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)
Vine Maple (Acer circinatum)

Any thoughts on what to plant on the septic drainfield? I know the kinnikinnick and strawberries can go on the drainfield. I've been warned to avoid putting the cedar and maples anywhere near the drainfield because their roots will destroy it. Many wildflowers and grasses are okay, but some prairie types can be problematic because of deep, water-seeking taproots. Shallow-rooted fibrous plants are required. I'm not planting a lawn -- some bunch-grasses or sedges are okay, but nothing that needs to be mowed more than once a year.

Also, of the plants listed above, do you know how I can find out if they have a shallow fibrous root system, or a deep taproot?


dapjwy 01-03-2017 06:18 PM


First, congratulations on the move and the property. So sorry to hear that the bulldozing took much more than you'd expected. That would've been heart-breaking for me as well.

I am from the Mid-Atlantic area, and, as such, I am unfamiliar with what would be native to your area.

I too have a septic drainage field that I have wanted to plant in natives--I've yet to do it. My thoughts had been to create a rocky barren of sorts--with plants that can survive in such places--bunch grasses, birds-foot violet, bluets, Potentila simplex, and other species that I have yet to determine--AND I have yet to research their root systems.

While reading your post, I thought about suggesting the Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) for that area--then I saw that you already had it in mind. (I have thought about adding low-bush blueberries to my site--but, again, I am not sure what is native to your area...and I am uncertain if their root system will be compatible with the drainage area.)

I decided to do a Google search, of "Arctostaphylos uva-ursi 'root system'"...this is what I found in the results:

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) - Illinois Wildflowers
Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi. Heath family (Ericaceae). Description: ... The woody root system can extend 3-6' into the ground. This shrub reproduces primarily by ...
Although, I don't know of a site that specifically shows root systems (Wouldn't that be cool, though?), I suggest searching the botanical name with "root systems" in quotes. Or, perhaps we should try searching "shallow rooted native plants"--I'll do that after posting my reply. :)

Good luck.

Keep us posted.

dapjwy 01-03-2017 06:37 PM

Perhaps this will help:


Native Plant Guide:
A searchable guide to Western Washington
native plants and native plant gardening tips.

dapjwy 01-03-2017 06:40 PM

I am thinking the first link (above) seemed to include ornamentals--but the idea of the trailing Rhubus is a good idea--we have a native one here...and I've already added it elsewhere on the property.

Here is another link that seems to be more focused on natives: http://soundnativeplants.com/wp-cont...tic_Mounds.pdf

Or choose from these results :) : https://www.google.com/#q=%22shallow...tive+plants%22

dapjwy 01-03-2017 06:45 PM

Sorry for the multiple replies, but you've really got me thinking, and in my (limited) research tonight, I found another species that I originally planned to grow there with the bluets (assuming that I can get them established): Antennaria neglecta (Again, I am not sure of the root system...but I think you are getting a picture of what I have in mind for my area...maybe some will work for you...or it will spark an idea of what kind of native habitat you may be able to create--even if it requires mowing on occasion to prevent natural succession.

Leslie 01-06-2017 12:34 AM


Originally Posted by dapjwy (Post 157696)
I am thinking the first link (above) seemed to include ornamentals--but the idea of the trailing Rhubus is a good idea--we have a native one here...and I've already added it elsewhere on the property.

Here is another link that seems to be more focused on natives: http://soundnativeplants.com/wp-content/uploads/Screening_Septic_Mounds.pdf

Or choose from these results :) : https://www.google.com/#q=%22shallow...tive+plants%22

Thank you --- I've been researching landscaping on septic drainfields, but I didn't try that search, so these are new resources.These were very helpful!!

dapjwy 01-06-2017 08:55 AM


Originally Posted by Leslie (Post 157716)
Thank you --- I've been researching landscaping on septic drainfields, but I didn't try that search, so these are new resources.These were very helpful!!

Glad to hear it.

Funny, I included nothing about location, and it seems many of the resources that came up were for your area.

Please let us know what you learn, decide, and do.

I'm hoping others will add their suggestions and/or experience. I am sure that you and I are not the only ones with this issue. I am still trying to plan for mine

wildwatcher 01-06-2017 03:35 PM

Rudbeckia hirta
3 Attachment(s)
I would probably try going with various 'wildflowers'. Wildflowers often can be perennial in nature, and once established can generally be allowed to fend for themselves. I generally try to steer toward perennial, as they are easier to deal with in the long run.

I like brown-eyed susans for example, a small [yellow] sunflower it is only about 3' tall, easily reseeds, transplants, and cleans-up easily in the fall, can be a bit invasive, loves sunshine and slightly improved dirt seems to instantly improve it, they even respond to pruning!...& there are some really pretty/special variations available. These roots rarely go deeper than 5". Easy, inexpensive. I guess you could even plant some strawberries in among wildflowers, but it would require a lot more attention to get strawberries to work without some serious dirt improvements and probably some kind of mulch program.

Attachment 44525a new plot for 2016, little transplants take off the first year.

Attachment 44526even beside the roadway, I did water & mulch from time to time to get them established. I will add a little more compost in 2017, to keep these guys happy.

Attachment 44527 These are the 20+ yr. old 'momma' plants, that gave me the -volunteer transplant babies- that dotted all over my back yard...I simply relocated the springtime babies to the rocky, dry, driveway.

If you search around the WG website you will find some excellent, even unusual wildflower plantings pixs, your bound to find something of interest.


rockerBOO 01-07-2017 10:13 AM

Ninebark has some crazy root system so I would say that one would be of a concern. It would do really well considering how adaptable they are but the roots go down 12-15' and very fibrous.

Specific ecological environments might be understory plants in flood plains and maybe flood plains in general. Understory plants won't have roots as aggressive and flood plain plants are resistant to flooding. Serviceberry is an example of the perfect plant. Shallow roots, adaptable growth, part-shade to full sun.

Sounds like you have some partially acidic soil so you could get some Azaleas/Rhododenrdrons back in there.

Mint, Violet, Sedge, Gentian families would all be fairly short rooted. Aster, Goldenrod are more variable but would be good too. Most grasses will probably have too aggressive rooting systems but some options here maybe too. Pretty good list of native wildflowers on Browse Plants by Family common name | Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest

Leslie 01-07-2017 09:40 PM

Brown-eyed susan -- I have some seeds stratifying in the fridge right now. I've wanted to try that one. I'm glad to hear its root system will work for me. One thing that worries me -- wildflowers are supposed to do well on septic drainfields according to most lists, with those prairie types listed there, yet another source warns that prairie plants are not good because their roots go deep to find water and can be very tenacious and tangled.

Thank you for the warning on ninebark. I won't put it anywhere near the septic system.

I've wanted to grow serviceberry for some time now. Glad to hear it's a good one. Thanks also on the other suggestions.

It's going to be an ongoing project. I'm still not certain how much sun it will have.

Leslie 10-07-2017 11:28 PM

First plantings!
3 Attachment(s)
It's been a long hard road, but we finally moved in on July 29th. I've waited 'til the rains started (mid-September) to begin planting, and now, at least, here I go.

The first picture is before planting, taken in May before the rain stopped for the summer. The yard (which is mostly the septic drainfield, no trees allowed) was a mud-bowl in the spring, then became a dust bowl all summer. I had a constant film of dust in the house. Several northern flickers were regular dust bathers -- at least someone liked the dust. Watching the dust baths was a thrill -- they are the coolest birds.

So, dust. Too much dust. I didn't want lawn, and the soil was like iron interspersed with gravel and rocks. I can't afford to get topsoil, so I spread 10 yards of shredded bark mulch. I'll have the flower gardens where the mulch is. Currently there's only Rudbeckia Goldstrum (black-eyed Susan) and a few roses.

I've planted grass seeds (not natives) in the middle non-mulched area (Pro-Time fleur de blanch lawn seed, mix of grasses, clover, sweet alyssum, and daisy) because my husband wanted a little bit of lawn, and I wanted something short that didn't need frequent mowing. In the more open areas in the back, I'm planning to plant some taller bunch grasses.

On the right and left sides and back I've planted my native bushes and trees from the list in the start of this thread, mostly Douglas fir, western red cedar, serviceberry, Indian plum, bitter cherry, western crabapple, vine maple, Douglas maple, blue elderberry, red flowering current, Pacific madrona, kinnikinnick, and red osier dogwood. I planted the baby bushes and trees pretty close together, but at this point they're just 1-2' sticks in the ground. It seems like it'll be forever before they'll fill in. I'm torn between taking some out, or waiting to see what survives and grows and then eventually having to thin them.

I have a lot left to plant, but at least it's started. Once the rains started, the ground softened up, so I enjoyed planting them. I can't wait to see them grow!

I've also set up my bird feeders, and have regular Northern flickers, Stellers in the yard several times, and I'm hoping they'll come to the suet feeder, too. I already love my yard!

jack 10-08-2017 10:27 PM

I'm happy that you're experiencing the thrill of establishing a landscape from scratch. Many never have the opportunity; indeed, it's actually a rare experience. I too enjoyed good fortune when I purchased my home, which was a cow field previously and was without even a shrub or a vine.

Choose your plantings with great attention to how they will develop into the future. I made many irreversible mistakes, and I lament not having had more ecological awareness when I first began planting. Though most of what I planted were attractors of wildlife, some were aliens and some, for the purpose of blocking off a home being built that overlooked my back yard, were fast growing hybrid poplars and willows.

They accomplished sequestering my yard from neighbors, but now my tallest, most dominant trees are alien hybrids... Some day the understory trees I have long since planted will overwhelm these alien giants, but my best years in the garden will have gone by.

Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to establish the landscape on my own, so I know how exhilarating the feeling is, and how excited you must be!!!:)

dapjwy 10-13-2017 07:40 AM

Congratulations, Leslie.

Great response, Jack.

I love that the birds have a spot for their dust baths. I am actually trying to create snall sections for butterflies to ouddle in when wet, and birds to use for dust baths when dry. Hopefully, you can figure out a way to incorporate them into your design.

I have to admit that, when we moved to our place, I was at a loss as to where to start. I wasn't quite starting from scratch, but there were few trees or landscaping around the house. I had grown up adding to my parents' landscape; that was much easier than designing from scratch.

I, too, have dealt with trying to imagine mature heights of bare root seedlings. That was another landscaping challenge. They will fill in. It is hard to be patient.

Nature plants things closer than gardening guidlines--I think leaving everything in to fend for themselves makes sense. If you don't like the end result, transplant some or thin them as you have said.

Keep us posted on your project.

Leslie 10-15-2017 12:00 AM

Good suggestion, Jack. All of the trees and shrubs I've planted so far are native to this area, that I've obtained from county native plant sales.

I do need two quick-growing evergreen shrubs to use as screens along the back fence, and can't find a native option. They need to grow fairly quickly to about 5' high and wide. Any ideas? I'm in the Pacific NW in Washington state.

jack 10-15-2017 09:40 AM


Originally Posted by Leslie (Post 159589)
Good suggestion, Jack. All of the trees and shrubs I've planted so far are native to this area, that I've obtained from county native plant sales.

I do need two quick-growing evergreen shrubs to use as screens along the back fence, and can't find a native option. They need to grow fairly quickly to about 5' high and wide. Any ideas? I'm in the Pacific NW in Washington state.

Everything I looked up that I would now use is native to the Northeast. I am quite in the dark about what would be a good choice in your section of the country, but I'll be interested to know what you choose, when you do...

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