Well-Dressed Garden: Go ahead – go native

Marty Ross
Universal Uclick

A surprising number of the common flowers in our gardens are exotic imports. Increasing the proportion of native plants will put your garden at the forefront of a modern movement.

Growing interest in naturalistic gardens, with their rich interplay of color and texture, has boosted awareness of the beauty and importance of native plants in both the design and ecology of gardens. You don’t have to plant exclusively natives to capture the look, but native plants are an obvious choice. They evolved to thrive in the various local conditions around the country, so they’re easier to take care of than beautiful but marginally hardy or finicky exotics. Native plants support pollinators, provide habitat for birds and bugs, and require fewer resources to maintain than most non-natives. Make room for natives among traditional favorite flowers, and you will be delighted by the life they bring to your garden.

The easiest way to get native plants into your garden is to fill any empty spot with them. You don’t have to get rid of your big mop-head hydrangeas, peonies or other hardy non-natives — just allow native plants to share space with them. Native flowers such as butterfly milkweed, coneflowers, penstemon and phlox, among others, look great and thrive planted side-by-side with existing perennials and shrubs in flower beds. They are also good for the environment.

“These are all solid native plants that provide benefits for nature,” says Peggy Anne Montgomery, a spokeswoman for American Beauties Native Plants. American Beauties is a branding program that works with growers to help increase the availability and diversity of native plants in garden shops. “We finally have the wind in our sails, and it’s because of the whole thing with bees,” Montgomery says.

Not so many years ago, all insects were considered pests. Gardeners wanted to limit them, control them or eradicate them. Now gardeners are encouraging pollinators — and bees are among the most important of these — with native plants that provide nectar and shelter through the seasons. Gardens with native plants support an astonishing variety of good bugs, says Neil Diboll, owner of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin. Good bugs help keep the population of bad bugs in check, limiting pest problems among ornamental and edible plants. Instead of reaching for pesticides, “now we’re planting preservation gardens,” says Diboll, who, for almost 40 years, has been a champion of native plants.

Native plants are appropriate in gardens of every size and style, in urban, suburban and rural settings. They’re pretty in pots on patios and look terrific in balcony and rooftop gardens. Native plants are the refreshingly stylish and modern element in municipal flowerbeds, offering a drive-by lesson in grace and diversity. At botanic gardens and nature centers, displays of native plants give home gardeners a lot of new ideas to take home with them.

The appeal is broad. Professional garden designers and landscape architects are specifying native plants in their designs to enliven traditional landscapes with a fresh look. In corporate landscapes, plantings of natives instead of traditional swaths of identical annual flowers look modern and up to date and show that businesses are good ecological stewards, because natives naturally do not require insecticides, herbicides or pesticides to thrive.

The selection of native plants at garden shops has grown, but natives themselves are really nothing new. “Most of our plants are from the mid-Pleistocene,” Diboll says. So-called “new natives” are actually what the professionals call nativars, combining the words native and cultivar (or cultivated variety). These are native plants that have been selected for larger flowers, for example, or a longer bloom period. Nativars may be more compact than the original natives from which they are derived, or they might be hardier, or have more spectacular fall color. They represent what some professionals consider the best of both natives and hybrids.

Nativars are controversial because they’re usually propagated by cuttings or divisions, so they don’t pass along the genetic diversity of a truly native seed-grown population. Diboll offers only native species grown from open-pollinated seed. American Beauties includes nativars in its selections, but the company evaluates these choices carefully, Montgomery says, and labels them appropriately. In her own garden in Pennsylvania, natives, nativars and many non-native plants all grow happily together.

Even a few natives will make a difference in a garden. Jason Delaney, a garden designer in St. Louis, is a daffodil collector (daffodils are Old World plants) who recommends natives to clients and grows them at home, too. A diverse garden “attracts not only myriad beneficial insects, but also small birds and mammals,” he says. “Even tiny urban gardens can successfully support an array of wildlife.” Native plants help make them feel right at home.