Gardening with Native Plants
You’ve likely heard that native plants are important for our native wildlife, including pollinators. You may have heard or read that they’re easier to grow, since they don’t require the coddling that roses or some annuals do. To all this, I say, “Yes; and no”.
First, our native plants are beautiful and diverse. They are part of our life-enriching natural heritage: the delicate beauty of trilliums and Virginia bluebells, the taste of pawpaw fruits and maple syrup, the fragrance of common milkweed, the sound of wind rustling winter-dried beech leaves in the forest. Who would want to deny themselves of such affirming experiences?
Second, making a place for native plants in our home and business landscapes is exceedingly important. Less than five percent of Ohio is publicly-owned: parks, state and national forest, highway rights-of-way and schoolyards. We cannot expect healthy populations of wildlife to be sustained on such tiny and often heavily-impacted scraps of land. We must be willing to share our outdoor spaces with those creatures who were using it first.
So, we are ready to plant some native plants! It’s easy, right? Just scatter the seeds from a meadow-in-a-can and sit back. Not. When seeds and even some potted plants are labeled as “native” that can mean native to the U.S., including Florida or California, not necessarily native to Ohio. So they may not be winter-hardy here, or may be just as exotic in Ohio as a palm tree. Feel free to ask a naturalist at any Cleveland Metroparks nature center about any plant you’re considering.
Further, some native plants may not be straight natives as nature made them. Exclusive or “improved” varieties of native plants are often what one encounters at the garden center. As far as wildlife are concerned, these varieties can be less attractive than even some good-old-fashioned lilacs or lilies-of-the-valley. There is a Monarch Waystation in my community that has double purple coneflowers planted in it. They are very pretty, with tightly bunched heads full of petals. More colorful petals, but at the expense of nectar and pollen (none!). Purchase the straight natives as much as possible.
Gardening results are heavily dependent on planning and preparation. When I bought my first house, I planned to have a vegetable garden, but I purchased a couple tomato plants before I could create a proper bed. So, I tucked the tomatoes into a tiny patch next to the irises the previous owner had planted. Did I notice they wouldn’t get enough sun there? No. I thought the irises looked good, so my tomatoes should thrive. As I struggled to dig a deep enough hole to accommodate the tomatoes’ roots, I realized the soil in that spot was mostly rock-hard clay riddled with tree roots. You can guess I didn’t pick many tomatoes that year!
Planning for native plants is like planning for any type of garden. The soil should have a decent amount of organic matter for best results. One needs to observe how much sun the site receives (full, partial or shade). Choose your plants for the site’s sun, soil and moisture attributes. Once you have a short list of plants you like that will do well in your chosen spot, narrow it further by choosing just one to three species to start out with.
If you start with seeds, take the time to plant them in pots first, so you can learn to recognize what they look like when they come up. Harden them off before planting them in the ground.
Plan to ‘mass’ your plantings--have a cluster of several individuals of the same species growing in the same place, instead of a scatter-shot approach. Not only will it look more finished and cultivated, but butterflies and other pollinators are attracted to mass plantings rather than individual plants. Think of a five-foot swath of yellow coreopsis, rather than a five individual flowers blooming on a single plant highlighting your rock garden.
After a year or two, evaluate your new native plants. Did they do well where they were planted? Does one or another species seem to want to spread to additional locations? This is a good time to think about adding additional native species if you like, or maybe move the plant that didn’t do well (or did too well!) where it was first planted.
Most of all, enjoy the additional life that your new natives bring. There may be a colorful caterpillar you hadn’t seen before lurking in the leaves. Watch a family of goldfinches clinging to springy stems while eating the seeds that top them. Listen to the sound of katydids as night brings a different dimension to the garden.
Isn’t that what gardening is? Nurturing life.
Purple flowering raspberry ID
Debra K Shankland
Naturalist, Watershed Stewardship Center
March 25, 2020