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Improve your garden with native species
When I first started doing talks on native plants it was generally to half a room of people (if I was lucky) and they knew absolutely nothing on the subject. A few years back I gave a talk on native plants to a packed house that included one person who had received habitat status from the Audubon Society and two others in the process. In an incredibly short time, there has been a rising ground-swell among the gardening community shifting towards the use of native plantings.
People are starting to care about what kind of an impact they have on the surrounding ecosystem. People are alarmed by global warming and other issues, but feel helpless to do anything about it (Don’t you?). Recent consumer polls show that 76% will change brands or products for a good cause. The native plant gardener is concerned about the environment in general.
The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection website on Green Building states, “Use Native Plants: A built green landscape uses native vegetation that competes well with weeds and other pests. These plants are native to your region and climate. Emphasize plant diversity with a palette of plants that naturally grow together, are reseeding, and spread without much maintenance. This strengthens the ecology of your yard requiring less fertilizer and pest control. Native plants also attract more birds, butterflies and other wildlife.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
How can plants that are native to our community help us in our gardens? Let’s look at the issues…
Native plants can be solutions to all these problems. Let’s take deer. Think of our environment as bread for deer. They’ve gotten used to bread, but along comes Joe & Jo homeowner and they’re decorating the yard with sugar coated donuts (hosta), lollipops (yews) and triple layer chocolate cakes (rhodies). Hey, who gets the bad rap in the Hansel and Gretel story? The kids for eating the house or the witch for putting it up in the first place? All kidding aside, half our deer problem is the plants we continue to use in our landscapes. I’m not suggesting that native means deer proof; this is what they were eating before we showed up. But I am suggesting they are less likely to eat something in your yard that they run across in the woods all day long. In any case, native plants are far more likely to survive the feeding frenzy even if they do get chomped.
What about shade? I am at a loss to explain why ferns haven’t made
a bigger splash in the American landscape, and more specifically our Christmas
fern, Polystichum acrostichoides. Here’s a plant that will tolerate
anything short of full blazing sun (up to and including full shade). It’s
deer-proof, drought tolerant and as if the rest wasn’t enough it’s
evergreen! So why isn’t this wonder plant in every yard in Suburbia?
It is clear that many if not most of our native plants are very happy
in shady areas. As our suburban landscape starts to look more like the
woods that these natives come from, they’re going to be more and
more at home.
Plants are as green as it gets. Remember those consumers willing to change brands for the right cause? Instead the industry continues to sell the plants they have always sold (including some that state and federal sources are telling the consumers are harmful to the environment). The trade has conditioned itself (and in so doing, the consumer) to look for big flowery, plants that sell off a retail space quickly. But often these plants have little sustainability in the landscape. They are selling the promise of a magical landscape but rarely delivering long term. Rhododendrons and azaleas will continue to sell despite deer, black vine weevil, phytophhora, and rhizoc, but should they? We as customers want to believe our garden centers are selling us the right plant for our yard but we’re skeptical. How can we make good plant decisions that our children and theirs can live with?
Here’s the good news. We are probably ahead of the industry on a lot of the big issues. Your state government may already be trying to educate you on what and what not to plant. Working with the state can shorten our education curve considerably. In Missouri the Department of Conservation started a program three years back called Grow Native. The state made posters and tags available to participating garden centers touting the benefits of native plants. They set up a corresponding web site and started featuring native issues on the DOC site as well. Three years later the program is 200 garden centers strong, has 150 featured plants (soon to be released on CD), is getting 150 to 200 hits a week on the website, and is gaining national attention. The state is helping the retailers sell more plants, the retailers are helping the state stabilize the ecosystem, and we are getting a sustainable landscape that will beautify our yard with less cost in time and money.
Your garden can help promote native species
Lawn is the largest area in most yards and ecologically the most useless. It has many individuals and few species, the antithesis of biodiversity. While prairie front lawns still remain controversial, entire neighborhoods in this country have gone native because they saw the long term beauty of one brave neighbor’s yard. Next time you need garden screening try a hedgerow of natives, what Ken Druse calls a ‘bio-hedge”. There is a doubling of species that happens in the interface between any two different ecosystems that biologists call the edge effect. Twice as much food attracting twice as much bio-diversity; the edge of the yard can be the richest biosphere of all. Set yourself apart from the pack by being the first to turn your yard into biohabitat.
We are very early in the learning curve on most of what I’ve talked about here. Ecology is still a fledgling science and many of the phenomena discussed here have only been studied for a decade or two. The green industries are the best positioned to make use of green marketing, and in doing so, make a difference in preserving the world’s ecology. We can help influence that industry by spending our discretionary dollar on responsible, safe gardens that can not only help to clean and preserve our environment, but actually supplement and improve it.Related links
your garden with native plants