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 Native Plants Improves a Garden

Five ways native plant species improve your garden

  1. Native Plant Species are Deer Proof
    Deer are one of the biggest problems facing our Northeastern landscape. (Anyone want to argue?).  It is probably a problem in other areas, too. We’re interested in plants that will survive the onslaught of deer. Native plant species tend to be able to withstand deer.
  2. Native Species are often Shade Tolerant
    Many of us are are packed into old established suburbia with old established landscapes. Not a lot of sunshine in most of these older neighborhoods. Our homeowner is looking for plants that will thrive in lower light conditions.
  3. Drought Tolerance
    The past few summers haven’t been long on rain (2003 has been the exception this decade); in fact we’ve been going short. Is this just part of a cycle or has the oasis effect come to the Northeast? Either way Joe/Jo is looking for tough plants that are well suited to our ever changing climate. Drought tolerance is especially important in desert climates such as in the Southwest and Central to Southern California.
  4. Resistance to Pests and Disease
    Japanese beetles, black vine weevil, wooly adelgid, anthracnose; exotic plants aren’t the only things invading our landscape. Our plants need to be able to stand up to the bugs and microbes that live here.
  5. Native Plants Don’t Need Coddling
    We want the yard to look good but don’t have the time to fuss about the garden. At least an hour a week of that precious time will be taken up by the lawn so anything else in the yard had better take care of itself. Native plants tend to not need excessive amounts of time helping them cope with the environment. They’re the ultimate set it and forget it garden plant species.

Why Native Plants are a Good Fit for Your Garden

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. 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.

Native Plants are Tough

But how about drought? In a paper titled “Wildflowers: The Case for Native Plants” author and nurseryman Neil Diboll states “Native plants also possess the advantage of being adapted to the conditions of their region. For hundreds, if not thousands of years they have survived and prospered. They are well accustomed to handling the climatic curve-balls Nature throws their way.” He goes on to talk about the Drought of 1988 and how native plantings survived in much better shape than the standard landscape. “Perhaps most amazing of all was that prairie plantings that were seeded in 1988 were surprisingly successful; most species germinated and grew despite the cataclysmic conditions.” While Neil is talking about prairie plantings in the Midwest, the same holds true everywhere. Natives are suited to our environment because they’re home.

Much the same argument can be made for pests and disease. With the exception of some of the foreign invaders, like wooly adelgid, our native plants have developed coping mechanisms for every bug and microbe that lives around here. Less spraying and weeding means savings in time and money for our homeowners, and a better ecology for the plants and animals that live here. As our natives also provide food and shelter for the local wildlife, it’s best we’re not poisoning these plants. We’ve seen that native plants will stand up to deer, shade, drought, pests, provide habitat and cost the homeowner less money and time. So why isn’t every home in the country planted with plants that are native? Because the homeowner doesn’t know about native plants or they can’t find them.

Native Plants: Ask for them by name

Many garden centers and nurseries have been reluctant to grow or carry plants that can be dug from the wild, and yet the responsible native gardener would never rip plants from the wild and the market for native plants continues to blossom. Ask around your local garden center; I find more and more often you will find staff who are thrilled to help you with native plants. If you don’t, ask to speak to the nursery manager or buyer. Let them know that you are interested and that this could be an on-going profit center for him. Get your friends to ask. The industry will only respond to direct pressure from the consumer. (believe me, I tried…) Show them that you will patronize someone who provides ecologically sound products. There are good models in other industries to demonstrate that being green can net you green…

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.

Native Plants Promote Native Insect, Bird and Animals

Let’s talk about habitat creation. Butterflies and birds are flying flowers in the garden. Planting Lindera or Asclepias incarnata as ornamental plants does double-duty as nectar and larval food for butterflies. They attract swallowtails and monarchs as well as other butterflies; research the ones you want to attract. Bird feeding is the second most popular hobby after gardening. Find out what plants attract birds in your area, paying close attention to a few species you really want to attract. Providing seeds and berries can really boost the environmental value of your yard, and don’t worry about only attracting a few species. Most birds don’t read and I have yet to plant a bird garden that didn’t attract more species than usual, not less. Talk about replacing lawn with native plantings or prairie rass (sandplain grassland is the most threatened ecosystem in the Northeast).

Lawns are 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.