Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Can't Have Enough Native Plants

I'm not sure how many of you here also read my articles at Houzz and Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. Last week I posted the below piece at the latter site and was surprised at the reception I got -- even my wife said it begs for a bigger article. How do you feel about what I say?

I’ll just come out and say something to alienate lots of folks: I believe our landscapes should be planted with mostly native trees, shrubs, flowers, sedges, and grasses. And by mostly I mean 80%, 90%, 100%. I know, I know. But I’m the kind of guy who sees a cause and knows that to even get halfway, you have to push for all of the way. And yet folks still aren’t sure what “native’ means or where it is. Nurseries often have a sparse collection; independents have more, big boxes have practically none. All have cultivars and hybrids — not the straight species plants. Here’s a list of resources.

Ok, so, I believe we should have at least 50% straight species native plants. Trees, shrubs, flowers, sedges, and grasses that, before westward expansion, were prevalent in your town (it’s like the current food movement — most of what we eat didn’t even exist 100 years ago, the same could be said for plants). All of this is not because I have any belief that we can or should return to some pre-settlement perfection; no, it’s about the insects who evolved in ecosystems alongside plants, both adapted to one another from flower to leaf, both symbiotic, all the beginning and end of the food web from bee colony to human dinner table.


“I love monarchs,” someone will tell me, eyes brightening as we both ogle a photograph. I ask them if they have milkweed. “Oh no, should I? I have lilac and butterfly bush, and see them on there.” Do you have baptisia? Willow? Elm? Oak? Do you have side oats grama grass? Viburnum? Bird’s foot violet? Zizia? Bluestem? If you don’t, I bet you see just 1/20th of the butterflies (and their larva) that you should, not to mention other pollinators you never knew existed.

Gardening with natives is about giving up certain levels of ownership to your landscape. Life isn’t a battle royale with nature. Gardening with natives is about sharing, about living with the world and not in it; with the world and not against it; with the world and not apart from it. Bridging the gap. It’s about taking a leap of faith that you are this planet’s faith given momentary form, bound to its rhythms, and when you struggle to remake or ignore those rhythms everything seems intangibly off kilter — we suffer higher food prices, eroding shorelines, dirty water and air, new bacteria resistant to antibiotics.


My wife told me a story she saw on Facebook where someone was concerned about the masses of bees at their blooming crabapple tree. Their kids often climb the tree and might get stung. Should they spray the tree, they asked? Remove it? Someone suggested a dousing of chili powder spray. Finally, someone talked about colony collapse, pesticides, habitat destruction. I have put my head into bloom after bloom for six years now, literally had bees and wasps landing an inch from my nose and ears, and have not been stung. I have, though, been transfixed, overjoyed, unburdened, and generally at peace. Come to my table, I think, come share this great purpose and hope. There’s more divinity in a bumblebee pushing open a baptisia bloom and pulsing its body than there is in a hymnal or stained glass window.


This is my plea, and a sort of pledge I want you to take with me if you are new here or want to do something massive with minimal effort: plant one milkweed. Tell your neighbor about milkweed and the decline of insects. Tell your child. Plant an aster, a mountain mint, a joe pye weed, palm sedge, oaks. Plant one native something that helps insects. Put the plant out front with a spotlight, maybe one of those flashing arrow signs you can rent. Have the sign read: “This is a native plant, adapted, low maintenance, of benefit to dwindling wildlife, and I’m in love with it.” Feel free to change the sign’s wording. Somewhat.


Carol said...

Beautifully said. Amen.

Corner Gardener Sue said...

Hi Benjamin,
I wish it was easier to find native plants locally. I will look for a certain plant, and then give up and buy a cultivar from the arboretum or Finke's, only to find the native plant somewhere later. I face the dilemma of whether I should take out the cultivars. I have found, though, that the pollinators seem to like them quite well. So, right now, I have native Purple prairie clover, and the 'Stephanie'. I have phlox pilosa, and the 'Eco Happy Traveler'. Both of those have spread around, and I may not be sure which is which at this point. I have a number of cultivars of asters, and New England, I've had for many years. I have Liatris spicata 'Kobold' and another cultivar that I thought was a native kind, and also several native ones. I am thinking about taking out most of the 'Kobold' ones because they reseed themselves around. I have several cultivars of Switchgrass, and one clump of the native kind, which I was told will spread too much, and maybe seed itself around. So far, it's not aggressive.

I have taken out quite a few non native plants to make room for natives, but I have decided to keep some for now, to help with the budget, and to decide as the season goes, which ones are good to keep. I am enjoying the process, even though I run into obstacles.

Do you have any cultivars you decided to take out? By the way, LuAnne Finke says the cultivars are still native. She even recommends some cultivar of Little Bluestem, which I have found to be a nice plant for the garden.

Jen Colbert said...

You are awesome, great post.

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Benjamin Vogt said...

Sue -- I sorta dislike 'Kobold' liatris. It's not as attractive to insects it seems. I do have cultivars, and some are great, but I would not consider them native. I'm becoming purist in that thinking, though. Take coneflowers -- straight species perform FAR better and get more insects that cultivars. My cultivar cones have all but died out, while species keep going!

Corner Gardener Sue said...

I have seen plenty of bees and butterflies on 'Kobold', but I am still in the process of taking it out because of the reseeding. There are a few coming up in other areas, and I can't tell for sure which they are. I'll probably be able to tell when they bloom.

The last time I was at Finke's I mentioned to LuAnne's husband, whose name I don't remember, that I see they still have plants with tags that say they are native, when they are not. He went into a big speech about what one would consider native. Is it plants only found in your neighborhood, plants native to ... I told him that 'Milkshake' coneflowers are not native plants. He said the tags are made separately from where the plants were grown, so you may not be able to know if the plant you are getting is native. Oh, my!

I remember when we first moved here 15 years ago, an elderly neighbor lady gave me some coneflowers, and warned me not to get other kinds, because the new ones they are selling will breed with the originals, and we could lose the original ones. I don't remember if she called them native. Unfortunately, the clump she gave me eventually died off. I have found more to plant, but about 7 years ago, I got a couple of the new fancy colored ones that weren't even on the market yet when the neighbor warned me. I was not impressed with them. The next year, they didn't look the same, and ended up getting aster yellows. I pulled them out, but this year, I have loads of seedlings, and wonder if they are going to have it, too. I have dug some out, and may dig more out. I am waiting for 38 plants to come from Prairie Moon the end of this month. I hope they do well considering how hot it may be by then.