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Your Guide to Gardening with Native PlantsMay 7th, 2018 by
Have you ever ripped out landscaping and started from scratch? If you haven’t, I’ll go ahead and spoil the surprise for you: it’s not a lot of fun. (Well, aside from the time my husband used the winch on his truck to remove a tree stump. That was pretty entertaining.) My husband and I are in the beginning stages of getting rid of the jumble of overgrown plants and poorly placed ornamental trees left behind by the previous owners of our home, and our yard currently looks pretty bare.
Even though I know it won’t look awful forever and that I just need to be patient and follow our plan, I’m still tempted to haul off and fill the front planting beds with native shrubs and annuals that I know will thrive in our Georgia clay soil.
In the gardening world, native plants are enjoying their 15 minutes of fame. Plants that thrive where you put them and don’t require fertilizer, pesticides, or extra watering? Who wouldn’t want that?
Native plants are wonderful for many reasons—don’t get me wrong. But you might not want to fill your entire garden with them. Why not? Keep reading to find out!
Gardening with Native Plants
Before we talk about the pros and cons of a native plant garden, let’s clarify what a native plant actually is. This definition can get surprisingly complicated, but generally speaking, a native plant is a plant that grows in a certain area without special care and that was not introduced to the area by humans.
In other words, the kudzu that grows so wildly in the southeast US is not a native plant; the delicate trillium and wild ginger that line the shaded trails of the Smoky Mountains are native plants.
Whether or not gardening is your forte, native plants are a fun adventure. They’re simple to grow, even for novice gardeners, and they’re usually easy to find at reasonable prices in most garden supply centers.
Pros of Native Plants
Native plants have plenty of things going for them. They tend to be hardy, so if your goal is a yard that looks nice without the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides, plants that grow naturally in your part of the country are a great choice.
Other advantages of native plants:
1. They provide food and shelter to insects and critters in the area.
Pollinators such as bees and butterflies are especially reliant on native plants to keep their populations healthy and numerous (and we are, in turn, reliant on healthy pollinators for our food supply). It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
2. They help keep your water bill in check.
If you’ve wondered how to save water while still maintaining an attractive yard, native plants may be your answer. Because they’re adapted to the area’s climate, native plant species typically do not require supplemental watering, which means that you won’t see your utility bills skyrocket during the growing season.
3. They don’t require pesticide use.
Synthetic pesticides are made of some pretty nasty chemicals—certainly not anything you’d want to use liberally in your garden, especially if your household includes kids or pets. Because native plants have adapted to live happily alongside the bugs and animals that call your yard home, you won’t need to rely on harsh chemicals to keep your plants healthy.
In fact, native plant gardens typically reach a nice level of plant and critter symbiosis. Because native plants are so attractive to birds and other small animals, you’ll likely find that the insects you might otherwise be concerned about are eaten before you see many of them!
4. You’ll get more for your money with native plants.
Filling in planting beds can get pricey quickly, but choosing native plants makes sticking to your budget a little easier. Select native perennials that will bloom or leaf out each spring—no need to repurchase.
5. Native plants help reduce your carbon footprint.
Native plants don’t need to be imported from another country (or even another part of the US), which reduces their impact on the environment.
Cons of Native Plants
The downsides of native plants are entirely subjective (and shouldn’t necessarily make you stay away from all native plants), but they are worth keeping in mind. I don’t know about you, but I like knowing what I’m getting into when I jump into a new project.
1. Native plants can look a bit wild and messy.
If you don’t mind the look of an untamed, natural garden, this probably isn’t a negative—and that’s great! But do give some thought to any neighborhood restrictions or HOA covenants that may dictate the look of your landscaping.
2. Critters drawn to native plants can cause damage.
While you’re certainly being a good steward of the environment by planting native species to house and feed important insects and animals, you may not want those critters to hang out close to your home.
Plant shrubs, bushes, and trees a few feet from your home’s foundation, and don’t forget to keep them pruned away from the house. When tree limbs start reaching over the roof, contact a local tree service company to have the limbs removed.
Plug any holes or breaches in your siding or roofing and repair rips in window and door screens to prevent mice and other small rodents from making their way indoors. Consider hanging bat boxes to give the neighborhood bats an alternative to your attic as a daytime hidey-hole. (They’ll help keep your mosquito population in check, too!)
3. Native gardens aren’t completely maintenance-free.
While it’s true that a yard full of native plants won’t need supplemental watering or pesticides to stay healthy, you will have to do some occasional pruning to keep bushes and shrubs from taking over.
Native plants typically grow well (and quickly), so your landscaping can start to look unruly in a relatively short period of time. To keep things in check, your best bet is to set up a maintenance schedule with a local lawn care company.
Tips for Landscaping with Native Plants
Landscaping with native plants gives you lots of options for designing a yard you love. For the best, most successful experience, hire a professional landscaper who is both comfortable working with and well versed in the plants that are native to your area.
Also give some thought to the purpose you want your garden to serve:
- Do you want to create a special space, such as a butterfly sanctuary or a landing spot for bees and other pollinators?
- Are you lacking a green thumb and wanting to create an outdoor oasis that will thrive without much intervention?
- Are you passionate about environmental conservation and want to have a gorgeous yard without relying on supplemental watering or harsh pesticides?
Depending on your landscaping goals, you may find that a mix of native and non-native plants works best. Or maybe you decide to embrace the au naturel look and go all in. Either way, your yard will look beautiful.
Before you make any purchases at your local garden supply store, however, take a look at these important tips:
1. Know your yard backward and forward.
Native plants thrive where they’re planted—as long as they’re planted in the right spot. Flowers that need moist, well-drained soil will not do well if they’re planted in a rocky, dry bed. Likewise, plants that flourish in cool, damp, shady areas won’t flourish if they receive eight hours of direct sunlight each day.
2. Don’t assume your soil is in good shape.
If your lawn is full of weeds, those weeds won’t suddenly disappear because you planted some flowers. And if they’re left unchecked, weeds can choke out the very plants you’re trying to cultivate. Pull weeds by hand, or try solarizing your planting beds to avoid using chemical herbicides and weed killers.
Spend time prepping your planting beds several months before you plan to plant anything, especially if your home was built relatively recently. Newly constructed homes are often surrounded by yards made up of clay-based and rocky soil—not good for any plant, native or otherwise—so you may need to beef up the nutrient balance with compost, aged manure, or other amendments.
3. Draw up a seating chart.
Well, figuratively speaking. What I’m getting at here is that you need to have a plan for where you’ll put all of your plants. If you work with a landscaper, he or she will create this plan for you—that’s one of the big advantages of hiring a pro.
If you decide to DIY your native plant garden, spend some time thinking about where each plant will be happiest and how you want the garden to look as it ages.
- Be mindful of planting instructions to avoid overcrowding.
- If you like the natural, slightly wild look, avoid planting in straight lines.
- For a more reserved, formal garden, choose native hedges and other similar plants, and be sure to keep them nicely trimmed and shaped.
4. Don’t toss your gardening tools (not yet, at least).
Filling your garden with native plants doesn’t mean that you’re off the hook when it comes to yard maintenance. Unless you hire a lawn maintenance company, here are some tasks you’ll need to keep on your radar:
- Keep an eye on weeds, removing them promptly before they take over.
- Prune shrubs, bushes, and trees to prevent them from getting too leggy.
- Deadhead flowering plants to keep them healthy and blooming.
The Bottom Line
Native plants are beautiful, and they do wonderful things for the environment, but they aren’t a cure-all for your gardening woes. Unless you hire a lawn maintenance company or a professional landscaper, you’ll still need to spend some time in your yard pruning and weeding.
As a whole, however, the benefits of native plants outweigh the downsides. But keep in mind that you don’t have to take an all-or-nothing approach. Your home’s landscaping should be an expression of your style, so plant what you love!
Yardwork is not one of my favorite weekend activities, so my landscaping plan includes a mix of native and non-native plants to keep things as easy to maintain as possible. Even if you choose just a few native plants to add to your yard, you’ll use less water, do your part to keep your area’s pollinator species healthy, and help maintain the country’s biodiversity!