Natives: Why or why not?

jimbobfeeny(5a IN)June 18, 2012

It seems like this is a good discussion to get going again, been a while since there was a good debate on this subject. I'll start:

I admit I am a native plant enthusiast; I prefer my natives over exotics from other continents/countries. The natives "look better" to me, they are what I have always known. When I was "young" (I am only 20), I used to love walking in the woods (still do!) to see what I could find. There was always all sorts of neat plants to look at. At our new house, I was thoroughly disgusted to find the woods were a solid sweep of garlic mustard. I've been trying to re-introduce wildflowers and shrubs that should have been here in the first place - Not easy!

I love a nice, prim and proper manicured garden as much as the next guy, I just find natives more to my liking.

By the way, try to leave xenophobia out of it - plants are NOT people...

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I learned to love natives about 12 years ago - never really did much "gardening" before then so it wasn't a big deal to turn my attention away from non-natives.

I was thrilled in late 2007 to read what was a new book at that time - Doug Tallamy's "Bringing Nature Home". The information on the links between the plants and the native insects and birds sealed the deal for me.

Yes, I also like a "good looking" garden/yard, but I now know enough natives to make that happen with minimal exotics. Arranging natives in a landscape fashion seems to work both for those that like order and those that want to use natives.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2012 at 6:33PM
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dandy_line(3B (Brainerd, Mn))

Because our native butterflies can only survive on native plants. They are programmed that way. See my recent posting showing Monarchs feeding on the native flowers.

Here is a link that might be useful: Monarchs feeding

    Bookmark   June 19, 2012 at 2:03AM
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fatamorgana2121(Zone 5/6)

I love native plants. Living in a place that is frozen for half the year (it seems like it anyways!), hardiness is a factor for all the plants I add. Natives accustomed to your climate often fare so much better versus the weather and other adverse factors than most plants from elsewhere in the world. Although there are those "special" plants from elsewhere that literally explode into the ecosystem - we call them "invasives." Enough damage has already been done with them that who needs to add more of those? Go native!

I also have a special interest in the herbal and enthobotanical uses of native plants. Too many of those plants have become rare as much from overharvesting as loss of habitat. Besides helping to encourage some small, local populations of those plants, I get to "meet" and learn about those plants by growing them.


    Bookmark   June 19, 2012 at 4:04PM
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Although I have always visited the mountains, I grew to love natives after we purchased property up there. I had lots of time to see what Mother Nature can do in a relatively unspoiled area.

I have tried to transfer as much of these plants as possible to our property in the Piedmont of NC, so weed eating and mowing have been reduced. Yeah! (From a work perspective as well as environmental concerns.)And Tallamy's book sealed the deal, so to speak!

But I am NOT a neat gardener, so both properties look like a poorly kept state park. Still, that is what I like. Walking and looking are my activites, with some weed removal along the way.

BTW, there are no weeds at the mountain except for the non-native grass planted when the road was pushed in.

And I wanted to help preserve rare plants, but the NC legal arm seems to want to stop gardeners from doing so. Strange, to me. (Another post on this topic??)

    Bookmark   June 23, 2012 at 1:57PM
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lycopus(z5 NY)

Government agencies do not want people transplanting rare plants to their properties because any protection that might be afforded (assuming the plants survive) will only last as long as the homeowner owns the property. Without fail, the plants that I grew in the former places where I lived were destroyed by the new property owners. Fortunately they were all grown from seed or purchased from native plant nurseries. My personal view is that you can help preserve them if you can grow new populations from a little seed while leaving the parent plants in the wild.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2012 at 3:58PM
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Oh, I did not mean transplanting rare mt. plants to the Piedmont. (Most will not survive.) I am thinking of plants that grow in the area. I get seeds from NARGS and both plants and seeds from reputable nurseries. Then I grow them out, collect seeds, and want to share with other people. However, NC doesn't want home gardeners to share.

I understand and support conservation/preservation of plant communities, but I also know Franklinia would not be with us now if it had not been for the Bartrams, explorers and nursery owners in their time. I think gardeners can help preserve plants. Look at our new interest in heirloom vegetables now!

    Bookmark   June 24, 2012 at 9:56AM
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dandy_line(3B (Brainerd, Mn))

Here's a message we can give when visiting gardens that are covered in Daylillies, Hostas, Pansys, and all the other popular things that the stores push on us. Just ask "Oh, you must not like Butterflies too much because they starve here". Then explain that the Monarchs are dependent on native flowers to feed on and without them they die.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2012 at 6:16PM
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I'm not an absolutist about using natives, and sometimes they're not the best for my goals.

My goals:
-Reduce inputs (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides), ideally to nothing
-Encourage more wildlife
-Meet my functional needs
-Please me aesthetically

Sometimes to tick all these boxes I have to use a non-native.

For example:

I've gotten rid of most of my lawn, having instead a meadow and a bunch of ornamental grasses and shrubs. But I still have a small 20'x10' patch as a 'high activity / high traffic area'.

Most of the native lawn substitutes are okay for light to moderate traffic, but most native-plant enthusiast landscape designers I know say that a waterwise turfgrass is still the best bet for high traffic areas, as the natives will get torn up/worn down. So I have some deep-rooted turf type tall fescue.

To reduce the need for fertilizer, I've interseeded nitrogen-fixing clover (both crimson and dutch white) with the grass. I no longer have a monoculture. It uses less water and no fertilizer. It's lush, healthy, thick and green.

It attracts TONS of pollenators: honey bees, bumble bees, hover flies. It attracts predator insects like yellowjackets and big wasps. Birds come to eat the insects.

So I met most of my goals, and created an ecosystem that is good for the wildlife, and didn't use any yucky chemicals.

Was this bad?

Then there is the issue of trees:

Most of the native trees of the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, are really really large (redwoods, big leaf maple, valley oak, california black oak), 30-100 feet tall, 30-50 foot spreads.

I live on a small suburban plot, with power lines at the edges of my property. Trees this large, while they may be manageable as a 'teenager', will become an issue when mature, encroaching on property and utilities in a way that would quite possibly lead to the tree having to be 'dealt with' in a way that isn't good for the tree.

So should I be a purist and stick with the native shrubs, which stay a more manageable 10-15 feet tall? Sure, I'd be native, but I'd be foregoing the benefits of having a tree.

Or should I get a non-native tree that is more suitable to the size of my property and also is low-water? And then I'd gain shade, reduce heating/cooling in my house, water plants in the shade less, and provide shelter for birds and other nesters...

Thus, I've come to the following set of guidelines:

1. Use natives as a first choice when they meet all or most of the goals, but don't throw away all the goals just for the sake of using a native

2. Realize I can't create a wildlife preserve. I live in a suburb. I have streets front and back. Neighbors on either who side who grow random things. I don't own enough land to get very high up the food chain and to start hosting deer, foxes, mountain lions, etc (although I seem to be hosting gophers just fine). Insects and birds are probably the upper limit.

3. I can't do habitat restoration. As far as I've been able to discover, 200 years ago the area where I live was a combination of tidal marsh, estuarine meadow/grassland, and a bit of riparian habitat near the creeks. I can't make my property into a wetland. And yet the soil I have is from 200 year old wetlands -- clay, silt, poor draining. A lot of the native plants from the foothills, chapparal, and coastal sage may like the 'dryness' level I keep my garden at, but they're not fond of the soil texture. And amending is controversial. So compromises must be made.

4. Realizing that sustainable practices and use of natives are not always 100% synchronized. Sometimes there are plant choices that are great for sustainability or permaculture, but aren't native.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2012 at 10:52AM
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"I prefer my natives over exotics from other continents/countries"

When it comes to the United States, calling something 'native' just because it comes from within the territorial boundaries of the United States is fairly meaningless when it comes to what is native to your local area. When it comes to the continental US, there are HUGE differences in plant communities east and west of the Rockies.

For example, redwood trees are native to the United States, but their cultural requirements are so far removed from the environment of Indiana that the label 'native to the US' is essentially meaningless -- from the point of view of your environment, they're high input exotics not likely to survive without heavy help from humans.

For native to have meaning, it needs to be much more local than country or continent. It has to be native to your local plant community.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2012 at 11:14AM
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jimbobfeeny(5a IN)

I can certainly understand what you mean, I guess I meant "Native" to mean things that would grow naturally in your region, say eastern forests, prairies, dry grasslands, etc.

That doesn't mean that I'm not going to grow flame azalea or Allegheny foamflower just because they aren't native to Indiana - They grow in Ohio, and that's close enough for me! I guess they both are part of the Eastern Forest Region. Local plant communities are important to note, as they will tell you what grows well around your area. In my area, we are subject to occasional summer drought, and we have a predictable late-summer dry-down. Protected ravines and lowlands are mostly covered in Beech-maple forest, and the dryer uplands are covered in Oak-hickory forest. Most understory plants go dormant in the summer, except for on forested East-facing slopes or sheltered ravines. But, of course, gardeners stretch the rules a bit, that's what makes a garden different from a wild area. I've got a decent sized woodland area, split in half by a little drainage ditch and edged by a large creek. I've made one half a "woodland garden", although it is certainly not formal by any means. The "garden" is modeled around Cove Hardwood forests, which aren't typical of the forests around here (there are a few in Southern IN). The other half is more the typical wild woods, with natives that can be found in woods around our area.

I guess, stick to plants that are found in your region, and you won't beat your head against a brick wall so much! That said, in an extreme year like this, I've still had to work to even keep young plantings of natives alive, but that's part of the work to be done. Native plantings generally require less maintenance ONCE ESTABLISHED - You still have to do preliminary work to "get things going".

Some people have reasons for "why not", such as limited appeal (Most natives don't have the razzle-dazzle colors and forms of some hybrids you see in garden centers), less "tidy", attracts rodents, whatever. It just makes me happy to plant natives, as that's what appeals to me, and I'll keep right on doing that!

    Bookmark   July 14, 2012 at 3:24PM
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