Gardening with Native Plants: Essential Answer

April 29, 2012

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Gardening with Native Plants: Essential Answer

Photo: Courtesy Samantha Winter

What are the actual benefits of home landscaping with native plants, especially if my garden currently contains mostly non-native plants? Would it be worth it to uproot my garden and replant it with native plants?

Asked by Irene Check, Chicago, Ill.

I grew up in a small town in the mountains of Colorado. Like most 2-year-olds, I spent my summer days stuffing grasses, berries, leaves and handfuls of dirt into my mouth. I was particularly fond of thimbleberries, glacier lilies and serviceberries. At the time I liked them because their consumption didn’t end in a trip to the local emergency room for a charcoal smoothie. Now, they are three of my favorite species because these sublimely tasty plants not only surround and beautify my family’s home and sustain some of my favorite furry creatures—they are also native to Colorado.

Native or indigenous plants are those that have evolved over thousands of years to a specific ecosystem, community of plants and region. All plants were native to some environment at some time. Once introduced accidentally or intentionally into a different ecosystem, however, they are more prone to local pests and disease, and often require special treatment, such as heavy watering.

Some non-native food species benefit humans substantially, feeding families and communities, bringing in a profit, or even just adding a little aesthetic variety. Unfortunately, most non-indigenous plants, whether edible or decorative, are water- and nutrient-hungry in their new environments. There are tame non-native species that co-exist well with native plants. On the flip side, invasive non-natives, as their name suggests, take over; in the worst scenarios, they eliminate local plant species and animal habitats.

Okay, okay, so non-natives may be a thorn in the local environment’s foot, but what’s that got to do with you? Here’s what:

1: Native plants do not require fertilizers

2: Native plants require few or no pesticides

3: Native plants need little to no water and are more resistant to local weather changes

4: Native plants help improve air quality by reducing the need for lawn mowers and other carbon-emitting maintenance equipment and, like plants in general, by “breathing-in” carbon dioxide [CO@ or just C?] from the atmosphere

5: Native plants provide food and shelter for local wildlife while mowed landscapes provide little to no habitat for animal and insect species.

6: Native plants save you money

Not sure you and your shovel are up for a landscape makeover? Don’t worry. Even if your garden and yard are well-established, put food on your table, support you financially, or are just downright too much to tackle, you can still benefit from natives.

1: Try finding native species replacements for edible, medicinal or cash plants.

2: Try intercropping with natives, e.g. planting a mutually beneficial assortment of natives and non-natives or introducing compatible natives into your established landscape.

3: Consult local native plant nurseries or go out in nature and observe plants that grow well together. See if you can mimic these wild ecosystems with the plants in your garden.

4: If bigger doesn’t seem better—or possible—start small. Plant little patches of native plants in your gardens.

5: If you’re feeling bold, consider replacing your lawn with native grasses and flowers. If not, try replacing infrequently used areas with native grasses and/or learn to care for your lawn in an environmentally friendly way.

Buying natives can be a bit more expensive because they are generally sold by small, locally-owned nurseries. However, natives reduce or eliminate fertilizer, pesticide, water, fuel and labor costs. So in the long run, they do save you money and time. In fact, according to a recent study, larger properties landscaped with natives saved their owners approximately $17,000 per acre over a 20-year period.

A light shines through the trees into an open meadow on a lush bush.Photo: Courtesy John SullivanAnd don't forget: for those of us who are children at heart or in the flesh, native landscapes are magical. After all, it’s enchanting watching butterflies and bees bob in and out of grasses, smelling wildflowers, hearing birds chirping, and tasting a berry you picked yourself. Native landscapes enhance this experience because you know you are experiencing what a native inhabitant or frontiersman probably discovered decades or centuries ago—in your own backyard.

For more information on the benefits of using native plants and for more resources about getting started read on to the Nitty-gritty.

Samantha Larson, '11, is a graduate student in Earth Systems.

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