In Praise of Native Plants
Native plants give us a sense of where we are in this great land of ours.
-Lady Bird Johnson
Native plant cultivation can enrich your understanding of whatever sliver of the planet you inhabit by teaching you how plants, soils and animals interact. Growing native plants is not only personally rewarding, it is a powerful way for one gardener to provide food and shelter for native animals and in the process help right the imbalance created by habitat and ecosystem destruction. Lady Bird was right. In a time when the growing homogeneity of the built landscape sometimes makes us feel that no matter where we travel we could be anywhere, it is the landscapes native to a place that provide its essence, its identity, its connection to ourselves.
Maple grove in Arkansas
There are many reasons why gardening with native plants is a good idea, and most of them are because native species have completely adapted to the local soil conditions and climates where they naturally occur. Simply put, they require less maintenance. This means that unless they are riparian or bog plants, they get along with less water because periods of bloom and dormancy are in harmony with wet and dry seasons. These plants neither require nor desire fertilizer; in fact, they can be damaged or even killed by getting too many nutrients beyond those naturally available to them. Similarly, they have developed natural resistance to pests so tend not to fall prey to infestations. But it’s the animal life these plants support that is the attraction for most of us.
Whether you’re a new gardener or one with experience but with not as much confidence as you might like, the prospect of growing native plants can add yet another complication to the many decisions you are faced with. The topic can excite or infuriate – it’s that emotional. Some people garden with natives exclusively, and have very strict rules against using “exotics”, or non-natives, from other parts of the world. At the other end of the continuum are those who simply reject the idea of natives and prefer a landscape that uses plants from Asia or Europe to create a certain “look” that bears utterly no resemblance to where they actually live. Others (like me, for instance) like to mix natives with non-natives that do well in their particular climate. You have to listen to the arguments on both sides and make up your own mind about this. There are many ways to grow and appreciate native plants.
Butterfly on Coneflower
If you do prefer non-natives as well as natives, don’t feel that you have an affliction. There are powerful reasons we’re attracted to the exotic and unusual. Keep in mind that when humankind first set off to explore new lands, they always took with them animals and the seeds and cuttings of plants. And when they returned home, they were applauded for the new plants and animals they brought with them. Human history is inextricably linked with these exchanges, and it only makes sense that we would still have a desire to have plants from distant places.
One strong caveat about non-natives, though. Before you use them, make sure they are not invasive. Invasive plants have the capacity to crowd out native landscapes in a relatively short amount of time and have a severe negative impact on native animal populations. I can’t say it plainly enough - do not buy them, do not plant them.
What is a native plant? Does it surprise you to know there are nearly as many definitions as there are sources? The Federal Native Plant Conservation Committee has a widely accepted one: “a native plant species is one that occurs naturally in a particular region, state, ecosystem, and habitat without direct or indirect human actions.” Author Andy Wasowski puts it more plainly: “a native is a plant that occurs naturally in the place where it evolved.” One thing is certain – no matter where you live, there are plants around you that are native, that haven’t been introduced from another part of the world. It’s an adventure to learn about them.
Experienced native plant gardeners often speak of the gratification of duplicating the feel or sense of the areas in which they live; others are dedicated to repairing some of the damage done to the totality of native vegetation due to development and incursion of non-natives. Large swaths of native landscapes disappear daily. This means that vast ecosystems are upset, damaged, or even destroyed, and certain species are endangered or can be lost completely. What I found most appealing about them is their intimate relationships with native pollinators and other animals.
When reading about natives it seems that because they’re adapted to local areas they need little care or water, and are powerful attractors of native wildlife, it should be so easy to use and love these plants. It’s a bit more complicated than that, though, and will take some studying and understanding to fully comprehend what it means to successfully grow native species in your own garden.
Just because a plant is native to a state doesn’t mean that it will fit in to your particular circumstances. This is when it’s most useful to remember that political borders bear little to no resemblance to the ranges of particular plants. A coastal Washington fern will not survive the rigors of the eastern Washington climate. Plants that thrive in the high mountains of northern Arizona are not at home the lower lying deserts. There are distinct areas in which plants have adapted over long periods of time. These are known as plant communities; learning something about these communities in your own locale will help you decide what plants are best for your site. Some grow dry and in lean soil, some thrive in shady, wet areas, even streamside, others are limited to open meadows. It always seems to go back to a topic we’ve discussed before – right plant, right place.
Georgia native landscape
As always, then, it’s up to you to determine exactly where you are and what kind of a plant community you can support. Remember how we’ve talked about microclimates? If you have a sunny, dry front garden but shade in the back and even a spot or two where water accumulates, you may be able to have plants from several different communities.
Here’s where assistance comes in handy. Many countries and every state in the US have a native plant society that can provide you with exactly the information you need to pursue this exciting and rewarding gardening adventure. Depending upon how extensive their organizations are, you’ll find everything from informative pamphlets to resources like native plant nurseries divided by plant community. A quick internet search of “native plants” along with the name of your state, region or country will yield a wealth of materials. Your local native plant society will teach you all about the plant communities in the state or region where you live.
Look for native plants that are widely considered among the easiest and successful to grow in a garden. Also, keep in mind that wildflowers are one of the easiest ways to get hooked on natives. Who can resist the allure of a sea of beautiful blooms in the spring? There’s a term you’ll see that will simplify this search: garden tolerant. A garden tolerant native means that it will put up with the relatively easy ride it’s going to get in your garden. Because of their ability to make adaptations, many native plants are accustomed to existing in fairly difficult circumstances and can succumb to the kind attention of an unsuspecting gardener.
You’ll be looking at your garden and most likely at the world around you in a new way if you try natives. It’s exciting and worthwhile if you can sort out the emotion and do what best suits you and your site.
We’ll be talking a lot more about specific native plants. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your experiences growing natives and some of your own favorites.