Jeannette Compton

Article Summary:

Gardening with native plants has many benefits to you, your garden, the birds, and the natural gardens around you.

Gardening with Native Plants

Native plants have been gaining popularity, and availability, over the past decade or so. There are many benefits as well as considerations to incorporating these into your own garden. Many of these plants are very hardy, because they evolved to live in a particular region, and can be much more low maintenance than the traditional flower garden. Many are shade tolerant woodland plants that can help with those pesky shady areas which conventional flowers cannot tolerate. It can also be very rewarding to create a garden within your yard with a more natural appearance. Added to the benefit of using native plants is avoiding exotic plants, which can be invasive in natural areas as they "escape" the garden.

Exotic plants are everywhere. It is estimated that one-fifth to one-third of the plants growing in North America are said to be exotic. Species such as the Norway maple, bittersweet and barberry are taking over forests and edges, squeezing out native plants. Many of the plants loved by gardeners for their hardiness are a problem for the same reason. Without the pests and diseases from their origins, these plants easily take over natural areas due to their hardiness. Despite these concerns, many problem plants are readily available at garden centers. It rests upon the individual gardener to know which plants cause issues in nature, and to try to avoid these plants. Many resources are available online or books about native gardening at libraries about problem plants.

As the debate to use native or not has grown, it is important to understand exactly what native is, which lacks an accepted definition. Some use the more broad definition, considering all plants that originate from the US. Others are more focused on regional species, which are found in that specific area. Some native seed suppliers go as far as to collect local seeds to assure that they are genetically local, as there are variations among the same plant in different areas. Thrown into the mix is the debate as to how long does a plant have to live in the US for it to be native; 200 years, during colonization, or before that? How specific you want to get is up to you.

Many people advocate using native plants to avoid the problem of exotic and invasive plants. Beyond helping your local environment, gardening native has a lot of benefits to you. Low-maintenance wildflower gardens present a great, drought-tolerant, low-care solution to the intensive flower garden, and are great for large areas that could use some color. They not only are adapted to living in the area, local birds have adapted to eating them. Wildflowers and other native trees and shrubs are a great way to attract birds into your garden. Because these plants evolved in a particular area, they are more likely to be resistant to diseases and insects. It is important to note that simply because a plant is native; it is not adapted to all types of gardens. Take care to know your site and find plants that are meant to grow in that place, just as you would with any other plant selections. Many native suppliers do a wonderful job of describing the plants they sell and the types of gardens they are best suited for.

Using exotic or native plants in you garden is not a one or the other decision. Rather, as native plants become more available, they are a great enhancement to your garden. They provide a low-maintenance, nature-friendly option for a great garden that is also sensitive to the natural gardens all around you.

Jeannette S. Compton is pursuing a master's degree in Urban Ecology from the Horticulture Department of Cornell University. She also holds a bachelor's degreen in landscape architecture, also from Cornell. A gardener her entire life, Jeannette is interested in the environmental aspects of gardening and how ecology and landscape architecture can be married to better urban spaces. For more information see Jeannette's student profile.

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