Many of is remember the old nursery rhyme Mary, Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow?
Although historians disagree on the possible political meanings behind this 18th century English nursery rhyme, I wish to use this question “How does your garden grow” to explore the various approaches to gardening with native plants.
We all garden with native plants for different reasons. Some gardeners attempt to create a more ‘natural’ habitat for insects, birds and other wildlife on their property and design their gardens around ecological principles. These gardens may often appear messy to the uninitiated, and are often more suited to larger properties and/or rural properties. Otherwise, they may fall afoul of local city ordinances that were often developed in the 60s and 70s when uniform, mowed grass was seen as desirable and when bylaws were enacted to prevent homeowners from simply neglecting their yards.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who have taken the formal flower beds of European ancestry and simply replaced some or all of the non-native species with native ones. These gardens are often geared to human sensibilities and historical tastes. The fact they attract more insect life than gardens comprised solely of exotic species is more a lucky side effect than a planned outcome.
And then there is the whole gamut of garden design options between the two extremes.
The Importance of Native Plants
I would be willing to bet that most of us grow native plants, at least in part, for the benefit they provide to our wildlife. To that end, ANY incorporation of native species is likely to be better than none at all. However, Doug Tallamy’s research in the US has shown that the successful fledging of a nest of Carolina chickadees requires at least 70% native species within their foraging range. And anything below 30% will likely result in the complete loss of the nest of babies. This is because non-native plants do not host the diversity and numbers of insects necessary to feed a nestful of baby birds. Although Tallamy’s research looked at just the one bird species, it is probably safe to assume that it is similar for other bird species, since most birds – even the seed eaters – raise their young on a diet of caterpillars, spiders and other soft-bodied insects. (If you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend Tallamy’s books Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope.)
If you’re reading this article, then you are most likely already aware of the importance of native plants. But how many others are? You would hope that anyone who gardens would have an appreciation for nature. And even though native plant gardening is the fastest growing (pun intended) sector of horticulture in North America, a lot of gardeners are still unaware of its virtues.
Take for example a recent trip I made to a scenic small town in southern Ontario, noted for its active horticulture society and its beautiful gardens. In a 10 block walk, I saw one yard containing a native species in its flower beds. Note the singular. And technically, the town was a bit far north to actually claim Rudbeckia fulgida (orange coneflower) as a native species. (To be fair, in another part of town I did find a couple of gardens that were primarily natives, but that was it.) We have a long way to go to educate other gardeners on the benefits (and beauty) that adding native plants can provide.
Where Do I Start?
But if we want to grow natives, which way is best? Well, that depends. My own gardens fall somewhere closer to the ‘formal flower beds’ end of the spectrum, designed to be showcases of what we can do with native species. Though with the passage of time they are slowly moving away from that as I let plants spread and self-seed, often where they want.
I came at my gardens from the perspective of an educator wanting to show folks that native plants can be just as beautiful, and usually a lot more beneficial, than non-native species. My aim has been to bring those who knew only the Edwardian style of manicured gardens full of exotic plants into the world of native plant gardening.
In the municipality of Chatham-Kent (in southwestern Ontario) we recently held our second annual native plants garden tour. (Thanks and a shout out to Mike Smith with ReLeaf Chatham-Kent for spearheading this). This year, gardens once again ranged from restored acreages to small butterfly gardens, from gardens planted in a cul-de-sac island by a committee to a half acre of formal flower beds of only native species set in a private garden. Some have natives mixed with non-natives while other “purists” try to plant only what was found locally (or nearby) before Europeans arrived. Some have been growing natives for a decade or more; for others this is their first venture into growing indigenous species.
If you’re reading this, then at least you are interested in growing native plants. And if you haven’t started yet, don’t worry – it’s easy. But it will take some thought and some homework. First you need to decide WHY you want to grow native plants. That will help you choose the style that will work best for you.
Do you have already established garden beds? Perhaps you just bought your first house and have inherited a lot of non-native and possibly some invasive species. Do you like the layout of the gardens, or do you have a vision of your own? Start by identifying the non-natives that are invasive or otherwise problematic and digging those out. There are lots of on-line resources to help with this. Just Google “invasive plants” and your state or province. Or look up a document called “Plant me Instead”. Visit some native plant nurseries (this web site has a map of all the native plant sources in North America that I’ve been able to find), attend a webinar by your local naturalist organization, join a native plant gardening Facebook group (if you haven’t already). These are all great ways to learn about what is or isn’t native and to help you decide what to plant where.
Do you have a large, blank slate? This can sometimes be very intimidating. And unless you’ve got very deep pockets, you probably won’t want to convert the whole yard at once. But don’t just jump in with both feet. Even if you’ve been growing natives for a while, if this is a new location then watch the sun – where is it sunny the longest? Where is the shade? What is your soil type? (If you don’t know, get it tested. Your local department of Agriculture will be able to tell you where, and how much it will cost. Or you can buy a soil test kit from a number of sources, and though these won’t be quite as accurate as an official laboratory test, they may be good enough to get you started.) Is the soil dry? Are there low areas that might stay wet for part of the year or after a heavy rain? If all else fails, there are lots of knowledgeable folks living probably not far from you, and some of these will be happy to come and advise you (for a fee).
Water is Important,Too!
If your intention is to attract birds, dragonflies and other creatures, try to add moving water – either a small waterfalls or simply a fountain. The sound of running water will attract birds from far and wide, and you’ll see a huge increase in insects like dragonflies and damselflies, all of which will come to bathe and to drink.
There is no prescription for native plant gardening. We all grow what we grow for our own reasons. One thing everybody growing native plants seems to agree on, though – we wonder why everyone isn’t on board yet.
Happy native plant gardening.