Going Native, but Maybe Not All the Way

Meadow in Summer, at the edge of the woodland

The garden style I’ve always preferred is informal, a little on the wild side, where there’s not a lot of fussiness and certain plants are allowed to self sow and naturalize. Managing such a garden requires a knowledgeable caretaker, someone who can check growth on plants that are too exuberant, and know which varieties play well together. It is a style of gardening that is now in vogue, especially when it is composed of native plants.

This winter, I attended numerous virtual lectures and symposia that discussed how to create and manage native plant landscapes. It’s most encouraging that this native plant style is now being employed in many commercial and urban landscapes, as it provides a wildlife habitat along with visual aesthetics. The cardinal rules for success: Understand your site and soil composition, monitor the landscape the first year to insure that plants establish, weed out unwanted invaders, and practice ecologically sensitive pest management.

Popular “native” plant ensemble: Echinacea, Vernonia, Amsonia, Schizachyrium

There is one question that many proponents of planting natives have trouble with…defining which plants can be truly considered native. Are these plants native to your county,  or your geographic region (i.e. southern New England), or can we include the whole country (and the US is a big one)? There are so many gorgeous native plants (think Amsonia, Aruncus, Phlox, etc.) that hail from the Ozark region, an area that includes parts of  Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Illinois. Southern New England and the Ozark Mountains share similar hardiness zones and so many Ozark natives are happily growing in our gardens. But let’s be honest…the Ozark’s are 1400 miles away, from us, anyway.  So, how should we define the range limit of what can be considered a native plant?

A corner of our garden with native and "foreign" species". We lost the variegated Cornus alternifolia, a native, but the Clethra barbinervis, native to Japan, has thrived and provides nectar for our honeybees.

A corner of our garden with native and “foreign” species”. We lost the variegated Cornus alternifolia, a native, but the Clethra barbinervis, native to Japan, has thrived and provides nectar for our honeybees.

At Avant Gardens, we have always grown selections of ornamental native plants. We also have and will continue to grow ornamental hardy plants native to faraway places: Japan, China, Croatia, England, Spain to name a few. They bring us joy and add to our gardens immensely. I hesitate to  be religious about the native plant movement because I do not what to exclude Elkhorn Cedar and Hinoki Cypress, Japanese Dogwood and Tree Clethra, Hellebores and Perennial Geraniums. And before I hear a lecture,  I fully understand the need to eradicate invasive non native plants!

a form of “native” Hydrangea arborescens: ‘Haas Halo’

I think that we can find a compromise on choosing both native and non native plants for our properties. The suggested goal is to devote 70% of your property to plantings specific to your region to create a native habitat. Now, this percentage assumes that you live on a large enough parcel, but some city dwellers’ homes might take up 70% or more of their lot size. For argument’s sake, let’s allow that  if one’s property is generous in size, with a house footprint of 10%, one can still allot a large space to locally native plants and still be able to find home for some treasured foreigners.

I would like to hear your thoughts on this subject. Please share.

20 thoughts on “Going Native, but Maybe Not All the Way”

  1. “And before I hear a lecture, I fully understand the need to eradicate invasive non native plants!”

    I liked this piece – thoughtful, informative, and just plain enjoyable to read. Your aside about “a lecture” prompts me to ask: What’s happening to gardeners? We used to be unfailingly friendly and tolerant. Now, more and more, we’re becoming censorious and abusive.

    It’s not just invasives, which, with you, I “fully understand.” At every turn there seems to be someone frowning and shaking their finger at us. Grass lawns? Bad. “Chemical” fertilizers? Really bad. Plastic pots? Oh my God! There doesn’t seem to be anything that somebody, somewhere, isn’t deeply offended by.

    The other day I was dutifully unpacking a block of coir to use in place of peat, and although warmed by my sense of virtue I couldn’t help wondering how long it would be before the coconut trees would need saving, too.

    So, yes, we can overuse and misuse anything, and it’s important for the more knowledgeable among us to help — as of old — the less informed. But I wish we could do so with more kindness and patience. We can help Mother Nature without turning her into a grouchy old scold!

  2. Walter, Thank you for sharing these insights. I sometimes fear that we are moving to an “either/or” or “black/white” world. What about the nuanced ways of thinking? There are many shades of gray.

  3. Thank you for a wonderful, thoughtful “garden musing”. I too fear we are moving to a right or wrong way of thinking in all aspects of life. Gray is my favorite color! My garden brings me joy…no judgement.

  4. The plant ‘nativists’ are out of control. I volunteer for an organization in Gloucester MA, and help maintain a perennial bed in an extremely exposed site., (also popular with dog walkers).The bed includes Asclepius tuberosa, and Asclepius syriaca, Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’, Aster cultivars, Echinacea, Liatris and Solidago, but I have received several negative comments for allowing Buddleias , because they not native. My response is to tell that to the butterflies enjoying the nectar.

  5. Gardens are like families- some members are very outgoing and sociable ( “aggressive”) and love to travel, and others are more (“homebodies”)and mostly stay home. Read the labels and ask questions before acquiring new plants and just be prepared for some extra work if your “ must haves” love to reproduce.

  6. I really enjoyed reading the article about going native and couldn’t agree more. Living in a high altitude valley (7800 ft) that is also quite dry, I depend a lot on the plant select program of CSU and DBG to find plants that are beautiful to look at and survive in arid dry conditions. This does not always include natives

  7. We loved this well-penned article – it should be published in a national magazine or newspaper. I, too, agree that one should question the use of all natives. Many that we have purchased through native-only nurseries or extension service have turned out poorly. Gardeners need to know that Celandine Poppy is poisonous to the skin; asarum canadense,, asters and Virgin’s Bower can take over a garden. I should have done my research!
    We do love Avant Gardens & hope to visit again this season. Thank you for your articles.

  8. Three years ago I decided to increase my proportion of native plants and ordered them from a very purist nursery. The non-hypbridized sedges, boltonia, and solidago proved to be incredibly invasive, not suitable at all for my small urban garden. My maintenance tasks have increased accordingly. So beware before you go native.

  9. I have also noticed an all native mindset, too. I think the movement for natives is a way to garden without chemicals and non-invasive plants, but it shouldn’t exclude non-natives that can grow in our climate. I have a hydrangea paniculata in my garden that is a bee magnet when it is flowering. I love the hydrangea for its foliage and fragrance and the bees love it, too. Win win in my book.

  10. Wonderful article. There is a tremendous emphasis on the importance of natives right now, and for good reason. However, there is less discussion about the effect of climate change on our native plants, and how they are going to need to migrate as our growing zones warm and change. As gardeners we can help this process by introducing natives from adjacent warmer zones into our garden beds and promote those that take hold. It does expand our definition of “native” but it is a way we can adapt and support our changing world.

  11. Some common sense at last! I’m happy to hear someone finally speaking out and putting native plants in perspective. How dull would it be if everyone’s gardens looked the same and then a blight or insect appears and whips it out along with your neighbors. I like to have a garden with plants that grow in my zone that are different and show stopping. Plants that were in favor years ago are now considered invasive. Of course, there are plants that are native and invasive such as poison ivy! I hope to be able to plant beautiful flowers in my garden, native and non-native and not be restricted by narrow minded people in the future.

  12. The native plant societies are just asking folks to be reasonable – make sure that 70% of your plantings are native, and if you absolutely have to have something else, that’s fine – as long as it isn’t invasive.

    That push to have something new, something unique in our gardens ended up horribly impacting US agriculture and costing billions in damaged crops, removals of invasives, etc. We imported all of this plant material from other countries and ended up causing havoc – Dutch elm disease, the Chestnut blight, Gypsy Moths, Japanese Lantern Flies, and the tons of other agricultural pests imported on plant material. In addition, many birds species on in decline, since they can’t find adequate nest sites because we over-manicured our yards and got rid of dead trees, or find enough bugs to feed their nestlings on non-native plants. Many butterflies and moths are specialists, which means that they just lay their eggs on certain native plants. If you garden for birds or butterflies, it would behoove you to add that Hackberry tree or Spicebush or Coral Honeysuckle Vine in addition to the non-natives, to pick a native Serviceberry as opposed to a Bradford pear, and to put in native little bluestem vs an invasive Miscanthus. Yes, every year I put in salvias for the butterflies and hummingbirds, and they aren’t native, but I can balance that by planting monarda and goldenrods. My garden is lovely, and I am happier having it filled with birds and butterflies and bees.

  13. Eileen, Excellent points. The more informed we are about which plants provide habitat and nourishment to the ecosystem, the better we can make decisions about how we can have a soul satisfying garden. I agree that there are so many better native choices to Bradford Pear and Miscanthus.
    Let’s not forget what we grow to feed ourselves. The plants in our vegetable and herb gardens are for the most part, not native. We just have to find the right balance.

  14. Yes! I heartily agree, there needs to be a balance. I thought native extremists were only in my neck of the woods, where people are extreme on everything. I live in rural, coastal Northern California, literally surrounded by redwood forest. Yet, many of our beautiful public gardens are being yanked out and replaced with native only plants. Many of these really only look nice when blooming in spring, then look kind of weedy the rest of the year. If a garden looks the same as it’s surroundings, what makes it a garden?

  15. Lela, We should certainly include native plants for wildlife habitat,but remember it’s all about balance. I wonder how many of the extremists actually have a garden, or if they are just on an opinionated bandwagon?

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