By Lynn Kunstman
Master Gardener 2012
Part One of a four-part series
You may be aware of the nationwide movement to grow native plants in urban, suburban and rural landscapes. Why is choosing and growing native plants in our gardens important? Why should we care? Because, as gardeners, we have a responsibility to care for planetary and local ecosystem health.
Most of us are aware of the list of environmental problems facing our ecosystems and planet: water and soil pollution by pesticides and petrochemical run-off from streets, lawns and roads; seasonal changes in weather and climate; invasive species encroaching into wild lands; increased risks of fire and flood; a disastrous decrease in insects worldwide – particularly pollinators; and a precipitous decline in our North American birds. Monoculture in non-native lawns in America now covers more acreage than all our National Parks combined. Nature has been driven out.
I encourage all of you to invite nature back into your landscape. Traditionally, when planning a garden, we ask, what do we want to do in the garden, and what plants do we enjoy? These are important considerations, but today we need to ask more probing and important questions as well. Before you venture into your local nursery and buy the “eye candy” you see, ask yourself these questions: “Will this plant improve biodiversity and support our local ecosystem?” “How will this plant help save nature in MY yard and neighborhood?”
For instance, if you are looking for a small landscape tree that will be a centerpiece in your front yard, you might be tempted to plant a Crepe Myrtle – a flashy, (human) eye-catching Asian plant import.
They really are lovely. But you need to look beyond just the beauty of that organism to you, and consider what it offers in the way of ECOSYSTEM SERVICES. In other words, does this plant:
- Enrich and stabilize soil;
- Clean and manage water;
- Produce food, for ourselves and wildlife;
- Sequester carbon;
- Moderate weather;
- Provide habitat;
- Support pollinators.
Native plants do all of these things and are uniquely adapted to our local environmental conditions. What is eye candy to you – like the crepe myrtle – may provide none of these services. Our native insects need to feed on native vegetation and our native birds need to feed on native insects.
You might choose instead a native chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), native hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii), or native mountain ash tree (Sorbus sp.), as that specimen tree for your yard. Each of these have beautiful blooms for bees and other pollinators in spring and all produce berries in the fall as winter food for adult birds. Most importantly, each hosts a large number of caterpillar species that are the critical food for nestling and fledgling birds. No caterpillars, no birds. These three, small, yard-sized trees host 240, 80, and 42 species of moth and butterfly respectively. When you choose a NATIVE plant, you are planting a living bird feeder and growing next year’s butterflies.
Use these sites to choose native plants for your garden:
Plant choice always matters! Garden for Life!