GROW: Why You Should Create a Native Plant Garden - Part 1
For gardeners, winter is the season of seed and plant catalogs and garden project dreaming. We are seduced by the catalogs’ photos of flowers, herbs and vegetables. We make and revise lists of what we want to grow and create in our tiny space in the universe. The non-gardeners in our lives mumble comments like ‘sounds like a lot of work’ or worse, insist on keeping the front lawn.
Almost 120 million people in the US gardened last year, making it one of our top five hobbies. Gardening assumes a wide range of styles and activities: from the two hour weekend gardener who mows his lawn, sprays for unwanted plants and does a bit of pruning to the 25 hour a week vegetable grower who is out early every morning before the heat starts, watering, weeding, sowing seeds and harvesting food.
Different strokes for different folks. Hobby or mission, conventional gardening practices require a commitment of time, energy and resources.
Except when you go unconventional - then it doesn't.
Do you want to create a garden that is super-easy to maintain, requires few resources, attracts and supports native pollinators and wildlife, and offers a natural landscape that works with nature instead of against nature? A landscape that requires little effort?
Then consider a native plant garden.
WHAT'S A NATIVE PLANT?
For most of us, our way of knowing plants is through culturally-assigned terminology: common & scientific names. We then assign value to plants based on their status in an ecosystem: native, non-native or exotic, weed, naturalized, invasive and likely the most misunderstood identifier, noxious weed.
There appears to be no common scientific definition for a native plant but there are important factors that most experts believe help define a native plant: specific geographical location (often called an ecoregion) and history of existence. Authors Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke’s offer what I believe to be the most complete definition of a native organism from their book The Living Landscape: “a plant or animal that has evolved in a given place over a period of time sufficient to develop complex and essential relationships with the physical environment and other organisms in a given ecological community."
Because most native plants are specific to ecoregions, a geographical qualifier should be assigned: for example, PNW native plants, Sonoran Desert native plants, etc.
BENEFITS OF PLANTING NATIVE PLANTS
LESS MAINTENANCE: Unlike the cultivated prima donnas of the vegetable world, native plants have adapted to their region and require little human support after their first year in your garden. Of course, it is important to plant species that are appropriate for your specific region as well as the microclimates of your yard or garden space. The rule is simple: the right plant for the right place.
If you plant species that are not from your immediate region, or plant a species in the wrong location and deprive them of their basic requirements (moisture and light), you will create more garden work trying to coax vitality from an unhappy plant.
FEWER RESOURCES: Once established in their preferred habitat, native plants are sustainable, meaning that you don't need to continually water and fertilize them. Toxic herbicides and pesticides are never needed. Native plants don’t really like a lot of attention and if you simply check in now and then, they will follow nature’s rhythms. Unfortunately, the reality of climate change is having an effect on native plants: temperature extremes and drought or excessive rain can take a toll on all plants.
SUPPORTS WILDLIFE: Native plants are part of ecosystems that include a variety of wildlife. Birds, insects, butterflies, moths, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals use native plants for food, nectar, shelter, protection, nesting and raising young. More importantly, many of our native fauna are threatened by declining and disappearing native ecosystems. Planting natives in your yard serves the needs of native wildlife and provides a front row seat to some of the most entertaining drama in the neighborhood.
TOXIC-FREE OUTDOOR SPACE: The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that each year 90 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides are applied to lawns and home gardens and more often than not, applied incorrectly and excessively (more must be better thinking). Native plants don't need those toxins so your yard is safe for humans, pets and all forms of wildlife to enjoy.
ADDS VALUE TO PROPERTY: Well-done landscaping can add as much as $20,000 to the value of a property but the benefit of a native plant landscape is the reduced maintenance. Here’s a tip on real estate marketing: when the ad for a home says “gardener’s paradise” that means there is a lot of gardening work that comes with the property. Change that up a bit with a native plant landscape by selling it as an little effort landscape!
There are a variety of resources to help you design and plant a native garden. Here are some of my favorites:
Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher offers an ecological approach to sustainable landscapes. The book focuses more on larger landscapes like meadows.
Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy a great introduction text to creating a garden that is a habitat for a diversity of wildlife.
The Living Landscape, authors DougTallamy and Rick Darke, focus on using nature as your guide for creating native landscapes.
The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden by Roy Diblik explains how to reduce the amount of work in a garden landscape.
Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West explores more detailed design principles centered on urban garden habitats.
Native Plant Society - many states have a state wide organization, made up of regional chapters within the state
Audubon - By far, one of the coolest websites for native planting research! Type in your zip code and up comes a list of native plants for your region, the birds they will attract, and the food they provide for wildlife. Be sure to research the plants to ensure they will work in your part of the region.
Xerces Society - They offer a ecoregion plant lists that are highly attractive to pollinators.
Conservation Districts - State government agencies that help landowners manage and protect their land and water resources. Many districts host annual native plant sales. You can find the district closest to you using the Conservation District Directory.
Watch for my follow up post: Native Plant Garden Design & Site Prep