Choose Natives for Your Garden
As I opened my front door, I looked down at two anxious little faces. Our eight-year-old neighbor girl and her blonde friend asked, "Can we catch butterfliAes in your yard?" "Of course," I replied, "but you probably have some in your yard too." "Oh no," they both said solemnly, "you have the only yard with lots of butterflies."
Not long after our 2003 move from Indiana to Minnesota, I attended a Wild Ones native plant conference. A landscape design professor from the University of Michigan was the keynote speaker. She had recently done a study on how people wanted their yard to look. The majority of those surveyed replied that they aspired for it to look like their neighbors'. And that is true of most people. Unfortunately, their omnipresent turfgrass lawns are sterile, neither attracting nor keeping birds, butterflies, and other wildlife content enough to stick around. Few yards include many native plants.
Our house is a typical two-story house in a relatively new neighborhood. We are the resident grandparents in this small, close-knit community just south of Minneapolis.When we purchased this house, the seller boasted, "My lawn is the best in the neighborhood. Bar none." And it truly was lush and beautiful. He graciously added, "I know you are a gardener so if you want to come and do any gardening before you move in, you are welcome to do so." I thanked him politely but declined while thinking silently, "If you knew what I plan to do with your beautiful 'best-in-the-neighborhood' lawn, you probably would not sell the house to me."
Homebuyers often change carpets and wallpaper, or redo the exterior house color. Eventually we also redesign outdoor living spaces to suit our individual tastes so that one owner's perfect lawn becomes another's native plant garden. Sometimes it goes the other way. When C. Colston Burrell, noted wildflower author, lived "practically in the shadow of the great skyscrapers of Minneapolis," he wrote, "Before I started gardening, I saw no butterflies here." He designed his quarter-acre yard like a native plant community "that met the needs of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife as well." I saw him after he sold that house to move back East and asked if he had revisited his old Minnesota property since his move. "Yes," Cole replied sadly. "The new owners ripped out the natives and planted turfgrass."
We did the opposite. Within days of moving in we hired a landscaping contractor to bring in his best garden soil mixture and pile it in selected areas on the existing rock-filled glacial soil in our back yard. Plants in these shady raised beds have grown and flourished. Slowly but surely we have rolled back the turfgrass. Now only a small ribbon of it leads from one side of the back yard to the other. The lush grass on the too-steep-to-mow hillside became a forgiving garden, filled with so many plants that weed seeds cannot get enough light to germinate. Our front yard has evolved from "perfect lawn" into multiple gardens filled with sun-loving natives including Purple Coneflowers, tall blue Liatris, bright orange Butterfly Weed, and even a three-stalk clump of Common Milkweed. A garden on the other side of the driveway is filled with tall prairie plants. Nearby, a horizontally branched flowering crab-apple blooms and grows in the midst of another garden of shade-tolerant natives. When we replaced our severely cracked concrete driveway with pavers, neighborhood joggers, bikers, and even drivers stopped by to comment and chat. More often than not, conversation turned to my native plantings.
The best news of all is that throughout the neighborhood, homeowners are gradually digging up their turf, enlarging existing gardens, and creating new ones. My husband believes that his "native plant lady" is influencing attitudes. Folks who unwittingly sprayed weed killer on Thalictrum or Wild Geranium have learned to identify these natives. New paths wind through their wooded spaces, and neighbors delight in knowing the names of woodland wildflowers. When we came here, buckthorn dominated the wooded areas behind each home. It provided privacy, leafed out early, and lost its leaves late, but nothing else flourished under its selfish branches. Now our neighborhood association helps residents destroy this alien and encourages rejuvenation with native trees and shrubs that provide color, flowers, and fruit, and attract birds and wildlife.
I really dig native plants! Their roots run deep and their virtues abound. They are amazing. However, when I wrote Go Native! I was surprised to discover that my passion was far from universal. In fact, in 1999 few gardening books touted native plants as a preferred option for gardeners. Purchasing them was next to impossible. Landscapers and garden center owners turned up their noses at the idea of natives in the garden. "It will look like a weed patch," was the most common observation.
Native-plant enthusiasts in the 1990s ordered from the few mail-order websites that catered to their interests. The only other option was to rescue doomed wildflowers from construction sites. I haunted every site I learned of, and armed with boots, gloves, hat, bug spray, shovel, and the familiar plastic bags I saved from grocery shopping, I would arrive at the crack of dawn. I became such a familiar sight that heavy equipment operators would wave, grin, and yell, "At it again, Carolyn?" Then they would continue bulldozing while I scampered about digging and rescuing as many native wildflowers as my limited time allowed.
This past decade has witnessed a decided change in the way people use natives in private landscapes. Now these great plants enjoy acceptance in the world of gardeners, landscapers, urbanites, and nursery owners. Signs at local garden centers advertise each native plant and provide information about zone hardiness, mature size, and other qualities. Seminars and symposiums inform John Q. Gardener of their value. Magazines feature articles on these hardy plants. Lists of native alternatives for troublesome exotics are readily available, and many more native-plant books have come out since Indiana University Press published Go Native! in 1999. But what many fail to realize is that a large number of the favorite perennials they routinely plant are natives. Allan Armitage has asked, "How many of your neighbors even know that purple coneflower is a native?"
Native species are perfectly programmed to attract and nurture butterflies, desirable insects, birds, and wildlife. That is the main reason I am so passionate about having these incredible achievers in suburban gardens. But I freely admit that some of the species are not as well behaved as many would like. In fact, some may even be classified as overachievers. Native plants were growing here when European settlers first arrived, so they easily win the title of survivor. These are the plants that do not need extra water, extra fertilizer, or extra pampering to thrive. In some difficult sites, survival is actually accomplished by propagation. Some natives seem to increase exponentially either by running, wantonly seeding, or suckering. What is great for survival may frustrate gardeners seeking low maintenance. This may be why neatnik gardeners insist natives are weedy and refuse to even consider them.
Hybridizers are constantly working to produce gardenworthy cultivars and hybrids with more compact plant sizes, larger and more colorful flowers, longer bloom periods, less necessity to deadhead, intense fall leaf color, heavier fruiting, or better disease resistance. And they are trying to calm that exuberant rambunctiousness in favor of more "civilized" behavior without losing a native's ability to survive.
What is a cultivar anyway? The word simply means a "cultivated variety" with distinguishing traits. A new cultivar may come from a seedling that was open pollinated by bees, or from a seedling intentionally pollinated by a human attempting to achieve some specific purpose in the resulting offspring. The International Code of Nomenclature describes a cultivar as "an assemblage of plants that (a) has been selected for a particular character or combination of characters. (b) is distinct, uniform, and stable in these characters, and (c) when propagated by appropriate means, retains those characters."
A hybrid, on the other hand, results when a "breeder selects two plants that produce identical offspring when self-pollinated and cross-pollinates them to produce a seed that combines desirable characteristics of 'traits' from both parents." However you define it, cultivars and hybrids are not identical to the species, but may possess more gardenworthy traits.
So what about using cultivars and hybrids? Purists will frown and fuss and complain, "What? Cultivars? Hybrids? I want a book about native plants." But remember—this is a gardening book, not a book about authentic prairie or woodland restoration. It is a book to encourage urban and suburban homeowners to incorporate native perennials into their flower gardens, choose native shrubs for foundation plantings, and plant native trees.
Even though I am passionate about using the true native species as my first choice, I have never been a purist. I have always mixed natives, cultivars, and even well behaved exotics in my gardens. Why not? My ancestors were not Native Americans, but even though they are not natives most of them became responsible citizens. As the descendant of immigrants, I do not believe all non-natives are bad. I just make sure I recognize and avoid any exotic species that become invasive thugs in the environment.
I unabashedly include many interesting cultivars in my repertoire. I agree with Allan Armitage's premise: in Armitage's Native Plants for North American Gardens, he asserts that if gardeners who refuse to plant native species would begin with a few native cultivars they might overcome their initial resistance. "Cultivars are the gardeners' candy store," he continues. "If you like purple coneflower, a dozen choices now await you." He questions, "Should cultivars be called native? I don't know—should rap be called music? It is simply a matter of opinion." Armitage believes that "garden-improved cultivars, both selections and hybrids, will only help mainstream gardeners further embrace the world of native plants." With cultivars continually being added to the commercial inventory, the choices in the candy store have become irresistible. Just remember to include some of the "meat and potatoes" species in your gardens too.
What you choose to plant in your landscape makes a difference. A few years ago, an article in Wildflower detailed the disappearance of Celandine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) in parts of Canada due to habitat disturbance. This plant germinates easily and seeds readily, as any midwestern gardener can attest. Celandine or Wood Poppy puts on a spectacular spring floral display and then blooms on and off all summer long, repeatedly surprising observers with yet another glistening golden gem. Incorporating it into private landscapes in areas where it is at risk provides insurance against extirpation.
Habitat destruction is the primary cause for the decline of the striking Royal Catchfly (Silene regia) in the wild. Now considered a threatened species in the Midwest, it too can successfully germinate and grow in conventional perennial borders. Hummingbirds frolic above these tall, bright red flowers. Mass plantings bring universal admiration. Give Royal Catchfly the sunny location it needs, and it will multiply. And just imagine how thrilled your hummers will be!
We know how important the South American rainforest is for future medical discoveries. The same may be true of North American native plants. Echinacea, an herbal remedy derived from Purple Coneflower, is sold to boost the immune system. Yew (Taxus canadensis) provides Taxol, one of the most powerful drugs available for treating cancer. Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) and Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) are two other natives with promising cancer-fighting abilities.
But how much difference can one person make? Consider the survival of the Franklin tree. It was doomed to extinction when John Bartram collected seeds in 1765 from the few remaining trees along the banks of the Altamaha River in Georgia. He propagated and planted them in 1728 near Philadelphia in the first botanical garden in America. Bartram named this beautiful tree in honor of his friend and fellow Philadelphian, Benjamin Franklin, and now gardeners can purchase Franklin trees for their suburban landscapes.
A century ago, powerful industrialists coveted the Indiana Dunes on the shore of Lake Michigan as their rightful place to expand. A few individuals who recognized the stark beauty and the unusual flora and fauna of the area fought to preserve it, and eventually prevailed. There are times when concerned citizens need to explain that a particular development plan might endanger a rare species.
Why do I feel so passionate about using native plants? Several years ago during a break at a native-plant conference, I visited with the featured speaker, native-plant author and photographer Andy Wasowski. He and I commiserated about the all-too-prevalent "anywhere USA" and agreed that regardless of where one travels, most urban areas look the same "from sea to shining sea." The only place where the change in environment is readily apparent is in the undeveloped spaces between cities and towns. When we choose plants that are native to our area, we create a sense of place. In addition, we help to restore lost ecosystems that human development has destroyed.
Milkweed is the only larval food source Monarch caterpillars will eat, but these plants are becoming ever more scarce in our environment. You may not want to incorporate Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) into your perennial border as I have, but what about adding soft pink Swamp or Marsh Milkweed (A. incarnata) or bright orange Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa)? Monarch larvae will feed on these too. Our vanishing milkweed plants need help and so do our Monarchs. Gardeners can make a difference.
Are there butterflies in my yard? Absolutely. All summer I observe Monarchs flocking to my milkweed plants and my grandchildren hunt for their caterpillars. Beautiful Black and Tiger Swallowtails gather nectar; Painted Ladies, Mourning Cloaks, Buckeye butterflies, and many that I do not recognize enjoy life here. I watch the antics of goldfinches, cardinals, robins, Black-capped Chickadees, nuthatches, and even a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers. Hummingbirds and Sphinx Moths zing about like tiny helicopters. The small, wooded conservation area behind the house is filled with native wildflowers instead of the resident buckthorn that plagued this entire neighborhood a decade ago. Deer wander through, rabbits hop about, a red fox occasionally ambles along the mulch path that snakes through the woods, squirrels tear up and down the trees hopping from branch to branch, an owl hoots in the night, and songbirds constantly flit about, singing, nesting, and raising their young in full sight of our deck.
Native plants are incredible wildlife magnets. As Cole Burrell wisely said, "Through proper design and planting, we can give a home to creatures that are often shut out of our cities and suburbs." Plant even a few natives and "they" will come. Guaranteed! I hope that by the time you read the last page of this book, you too will feel passionate about gardening with natives.CHAPTER 2
What Is Necessary for Success?
This book is full of specific details about hundreds of native plants. Yet several general considerations pertain to all of them. Success is determined by choosing a site for each plant with proper light, moisture, soil type, and pH. Each plant description includes a segment entitled Plant Requirements. Most are brief and not overly complex. You may wonder, "What is average, well-drained garden soil?" so let's begin with soil.
Soil is usually sand, silt, clay, or a combination, often referred to as loam. Sandy soil has the largest particles. It is impossible to make a ball out of moistened sandy soil that will hold its shape. Water drains quickly so this type of soil often loses nutrients. Moisture-loving plants need additional water in sandy sites.
Clay has the smallest particles so although it hangs onto nutrients and retains water, it has poor drainage. Plants that enjoy wet or consistently moist sites often thrive in clay soil, but those that require well-drained soil do not. Their roots will rot. All plants need a certain amount of air around their roots. Clay is considered heavy soil and can dry rock hard in drought. Make a ball out of clay soil and it will remain a ball. Some potters make permanent figures or containers with clay soil. I have a small statue of a woman that my son purchased in Haiti. It is as hard as if it had been fired, but was dried naturally in the hot sun.