Many gardens in North America feature a glorious display of plants that come from all over the world. These beauties may be exotic and the envy of your neighbors, but they are also unnatural additions to our lands.
Natural gardens, made up of plants that work together within the ecosystem, have several advantages over their foreign brethren. And they are quite beautiful too.
Here’s why you should consider the biome of your backyard when choosing plants this spring:
1. Native Plants Support Local Wildlife
While all plants can provide shelter and some food, plants that are indigenous to a particular region have developed symbiotic relationships with wildlife for thousands of years.
Native plants have adapted and evolved alongside local insect, bird, reptile, waterfowl, and mammal populations. They provide shelter from the elements, a source of food, and a place to nest, mate, raise young, and hunt. Wildflowers, grasses, trees, and shrubs also perform the necessary checks and balances within the ecosystem to prevent one species from overrunning the rest.
Some fauna is so specialized that they only feed on one type of flora, and when the plant disappears so does the creature. For example, monarch butterfly populations have declined by 90% over the last 20 years, in part due to the loss of milkweed in the natural environment.
2. Native Plants Preserve Our Natural History
In North America, native plants are rapidly disappearing. A 20-year study of the New York metropolitan area identified 50 native plants that have vanished from the landscape over the past 100 years.
This loss of habitat is primarily caused by urban development, agriculture, climate change, and pollution. Further complicating the struggle of native plants is the introduction of foreign plants.
A good example is the Norway maple (Acer platanoides), a European transplant introduced to North America in the 1700s. Over the last three centuries, it has grown to dominate forests and wooded areas of the US and Canada. Because its roots grow very close to the surface, it starves other plants for moisture. Its dense canopy inhibits the growth of plants beneath it as well. Its foliage is less likely to be consumed by herbivores, giving it a major advantage over the native sugar maple. Despite this, Norway maple is still widely used in urban landscaping.
The ability of non-natives to crowd out the local flora has a massive impact on the ecosystem, including the loss of biodiversity and the appearance of monocultures. Where there would be marshland filled with 50 species of grasses, rushes, reeds, and low-growing shrubs, you might now see only phragmites.
When you plant your garden with native species, you are helping to keep your area’s natural history alive. Seeds are spread by wind, water, and wildlife, and so those indigenous cultivars have a good chance of spreading to other areas within your biome.
3. Native Plants Are Low Maintenance
Because native plants have spent centuries attuning themselves to the local climate, they are the perfect choice for the passive gardener.
Native plants require far less work and resources than foreign imports. They are incredibly drought-tolerant and can typically survive season-to-season on rainfall alone without the need for supplemental irrigation. They are better adapted to the local soil conditions, needing less fertilizers and soil amendments to thrive. Often, they are much more resistant to insects and diseases too.
Take, for instance, the hollyhock (Alcea spp.), a lovely flowering plant native to Asia and Europe and a popular guest in North American gardens. When kept here, however, hollyhocks are needful beings and are quite prone to rust. To keep it happy, you’ll need to be vigilant: always water from below, treat regularly with fungicides, and ensure the plant has good air circulation.
Compare with the steambank wild hollyhock (Iliamna rivularis), a native denizen to the west coast. Just as pretty but so much less trouble, it is found in the wild growing in meadows, open forests, mountain slopes, and along streams. Long blooming and hardy to zone 5, all steambank wild hollyhock requires is part shade to full sun and a moist spot in home gardens.
4. Native Plants Are Best For The Ecologically-Conscious Gardener
Native gardens do not need a guiding hand to grow and thrive. With fewer demands for fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides, and water, native gardens are an excellent choice for a greener, less wasteful world.
Conventional garden design, on the other hand, has displaced the natural environment. Vast tracts of grass monocultures, up to 50 million acres in America alone, are incredibly resource intensive. According to the NRDC, each year lawns in the US consume 3 trillion gallons of water, 70 million pounds of pesticides, and 200 million gallons of gas used for mowing. The chemical treatments needed for lawn care extend beyond the confines of your yard, leaching into the groundwater and poisoning fish and other aquatic animals.
Transitioning away from grass to native sedges, clovers, meadows, or other lawn replacements is essential for creating a sustainable landscape. Naturalized gardens have an immediate positive impact – they restore lost habitats, strengthen the food web, reduce chemical run off, lessen our reliance on fossil fuels, and are mostly self-sustaining.
How To Identify & Source Native Plants
A native plant is defined as those that occurred in North America prior to European settlement. When selecting native cultivars for your garden, the more local the better.
And with about 17,000 flowering plants, shrubs, and trees native to the United States, there’s no shortage of interesting and unusual home grown plants to choose from.
If you love a particular type of plant, there is usually a local alternative. Swap out Chinese butterfly bush with New Jersey tea or snowbrush. Use trumpet honeysuckle instead of the Japanese variety. For more examples of native replacements, check out this chart.
Whether you wish to keep a wholly naturalized garden or start small with a particular spot, an excellent resource for identifying plants specific to your area is to contact your local county extension office. You can also search by zip code using this Native Plant Finder.
Your local plant nursery will very likely have a selection of native cultivars. Amazon also has a decent stock of live plants and seeds. And best of all, once the plants are established, they are perennial and self-seeding – sow them once and enjoy them year after year.