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Learn as You Grow with Native Plants

Gardening with native plants is a process requiring curiosity, patience, and experimentation.

close-up of Physostegia virginiana, Obedient Plant flower
Physostegia virginiana, Obedient plant.

I remember the day I first understood the value of gardening with native plants. I was weeding a garden bed at my local Audubon center when another member of the group mentioned a book he had recently read. The book was Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy. "You have to read this book," my colleague said. "The author lays it all out in black and white: plants feed insects, and insects feed the world. Without a foundation of native plants, we lose biodiversity." At the end of our work session, he handed me his copy of the book. I took it home and devoured it.

My husband and I had recently built a home on eight acres in rural Maryland, on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. I was working on planting gardens as well as trees and shrubs, and deciding what I wanted the property to look like. It had been an agricultural field, and I struggled with guilt over the fact that we had added to the rural sprawl that was overtaking the landscape. Meanwhile, I had dreams of creating beautiful gardens full of exotic flowering plants with enticing fragrances.

As an environmental planner, I already had an understanding of the need for open space, undisturbed forests, and clean water. As a beekeeper, I also knew that bees needed forage sources. Somehow, however, I had not fully put two and two together about the precise relationship between these principles and how we cultivate the spaces right around our homes. I come from a family of gardeners and nature lovers, and yet never really questioned the planting choices I was making in my home landscape. I always looked at my gardens as pleasure centers: MY pleasure centers. I chose plants for their flower color, smell, height, or texture. Often, I chose them for their exoticism. If insects found the flowers, great! If a toad called my hosta home, wonderful! That was an excellent benefit.

Upon reading Bringing Nature Home, however, I began to see the fundamental connection between native plants, caterpillars, other insects, birds, and mammals. It really struck me when Tallamy wrote about non-native ornamental plants as little more than plastic statuary. Think about it: a crape myrtle is a shrub or tree that is very commonly planted here in the Mid-Atlantic region. It hails from Asia. Because it did not evolve here in North America, it has few insect predators. Therefore, no juicy caterpillars flock to its branches. Therefore, few birds visit to pick off the caterpillars. Yes, crape myrtles have beautiful peeling bark, interesting shapes, and bright, long-lasting flowers. That is what makes them ornamental! But to wildlife, there really isn't much there.

I clung to my desire for interesting and exotic garden plants. In went the 'Eternal Fragrance' Daphne, the 'Snow White' mock orange, the 'Nanjing Gold' Chinese paper bush, and the fragrant tea olive. I began mixing in native plants, especially ones with lots of flowers to attract bees. Soon, I began seeing loads of butterflies, ants, bees, and other insects. They flocked to the gardens, enjoying the lavender, zinnias, and verbena along with the native penstemon, baptisia, and butterfly weed.

A few months later, I met a new friend who was starting up his own native plant nursery. He was very clear in his stance: plant only natives. "But what is so bad about planting a few exotic plants next to my house that aren't going to escape or invade?" I asked. "Well," he said, "I look at it this way: every non-native plant you put in the ground is a lost opportunity. It is taking space away from a native plant that could be providing essential ecological services that support biodiversity." I nodded gravely, for there was no logical rejoinder.

The next time I saw my friend, I asked (perhaps a bit desperately), "Okay, but what about cultivars? Can I plant cultivars of native plants, to add more color, control the height, get more flowers?" He answered, "I don't use them. I grow and sell and plant only straight species. Some cultivars perform in the same way as the species, but botanists don't know exactly how they compare. And if you add cultivars that pollinate plants in the surrounding natural areas, you can't control how the gene pool changes. Maybe you're spreading traits that cause the local populations to grow smaller, or spend more energy on flowering, causing them to compete less robustly."

Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis

After those two conversations, I did a lot of thinking and reading and looking around. I felt guilty for being an inadvertent "bad guy" by planting exotics. I learned a lot about native species. I enrolled in an Ecological Gardening certificate course at Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware.

At Mt. Cuba Center, the philosophy is a little different from my native plant nursery friend. Mt. Cuba Center features plants native to the Piedmont region, including not just Delaware, but states up and down the Appalachians. They also conduct cultivar trials and publish their findings on the performance and garden suitability of straight species against a range of cultivars. For example, they will plant Echinacea purpurea, along with ten or twelve cultivars to see how they perform in drought conditions, overly wet conditions, how attractive they are to insects, etc.

Navigating the Spectrum of Gardening With Native Plants

What I eventually realized is that there is no one perfect approach to gardening with native plants. Or, to put it another way, we each define what it means to us to garden ecologically. For some people, rigid adherence to using only local ecotype native species may be the priority. For others, there is room for cultivars and non-natives. What most of us have in common, however, is a desire to benefit both ourselves and the natural world around us as we create and develop our gardens.

My philosophy continues to evolve over time and become more nuanced. For example, I don't want to come across as being self-righteous or rigid and tell someone they need to get rid of their grandmother's tea roses just because those are not native. There is plenty of room for people to retain plants that have special meaning to them, or that provide other ecological benefits, even if they are not strictly native. What I will always advocate for is the use of MORE native species, and the removal of any non-native invasive species, which harm the local ecosystem. But I recognize that everyone is on their own journey of learning and that gardening should be about enjoyment! So let's get gardening.

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