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Native Intelligence: Planting an Eco-Friendly Yard

by Avery Mack

Maintaining a grassy yard or ornamental shrubs can be time consuming and less than eco-friendly. That’s why conservation-minded gardeners are turning to lush, native landscaping as an aesthetically pleasing alternative to spartan, water-free xeriscaping.

Native plants not only save water, they enhance local ecosystems by providing food and shelter for birds, bees, butterflies and wildlife. “Indigenous plants build healthy soil and retain and replenish ground water,” says Michael Fleischacker, chair of landscape architecture and environmental sciences at Delaware Valley University, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Accustomed to the climate and nutrients in their habitat, they don’t need the extra fertilizer required by exotic transplants. Natives are also better equipped to fend off harmful insects, reducing the need for pesticides.
“When pests did show up, I used insecticidal soap and neem oil. Both are great eco-friendly remedies,” says Kimberly Button, an Orlando-based freelance journalist and author of The Everything Guide to a Healthy Home: All You Need to Protect Yourself and Your Family from Hidden Household Dangers.

A genuine indigenous plant in the U.S. predates European settlement. These natives grew in the wildlands of the regions where they evolved and adapted over hundreds or thousands of years.

However, what’s wild isn’t necessarily native. These days, the woods and forests are rife with alien species that escaped from non-native gardens or were planted to perform some specific purpose that went awry.
Kudzu, for instance, was imported from Asia and installed along roadways to prevent soil erosion. The perennial vine, which can grow up to a foot per day, has become the plague of the South, rooting out native plants and toppling trees under the sheer weight of its smothering foliage.

In 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a report summarizing numerous studies that concluded that non-native plants disrupt the food web and present a growing problem for “organisms that depend on native plants for food, shelter and places to rear their young.”

Natives vs. Nativars

While the harm caused by many invasive plants that evolved in a foreign habitat is well-documented and profound, the ecological impact of plant variations derived from native species—known as cultivars or nativars—is sometimes more subtle.

Cultivars have been developed to highlight specific traits, like larger blooms or longer bloom times. They may be bred for a stronger scent, or have the scent bred out of them in pursuit of another trait, making them less enticing to pollinators and wildlife.

One drawback to cultivars is what those “improved” traits can affect. “The native serviceberry (Amelanchier) has small, bright red berries birds love to eat,” Fleischacker says. “Because they add color to a winter yard or are used for wreaths and décor, cultivars were bred to produce larger berries. Birds choke on the bigger berry, unable to swallow them.”

A current, multi-year research project at the Mt. Cuba Center’s native botanical gardens in Hockessin, Delaware, is seeking to determine whether certain cultivars are as attractive to insects as their native counterparts.

What’s certain, say the experts: A gardener can’t go wrong with indigenous plants. “Native varieties have longer growing seasons, a decades-long lifespan and tight plant groupings to prevent weed growth,” Fleischacker says. Despite the perception by some that natives are boring, they can be showier than their cultivar cousins and also thrive in their region’s unique conditions.

“I keep my yard as natural as possible to co-exist with my neighbor, the Hiawatha National Forest, and its small animals and birds,” says Monica Cady, co-founder of the Herbal Lodge and a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa tribe in Hessel, Michigan.

Going Native

Transitioning to native landscaping isn’t as daunting as it might seem. Small changes can make a difference, and local plant nurseries can assist. Some may have a staff horticulturalist to help distinguish the natives from the nativars and to steer gardeners clear of invasive, water-guzzling, nutrient-needy non-natives that will spread quickly and overwhelm the landscape.

Going native isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, says Fleischacker. “Consult a local nursery or landscaper about adding natives to the mix. There are plants that love shade or sun, dry areas or damp.”
When planning, look past what’s trendy. “The ecosystem is set up to protect and promote beneficial insects and pollinators,” says Button. What was old can be new again.

Connect with freelance writer Avery Mack at AveryMack@mindspring.com.