Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Why Native Plants?

A recent post in the Orlando Sentinel by Tom MacCubbin posed a great, thought-provoking question.

Why only plant natives?

In my own garden and landscape, I find that I am somewhat undecided on this question. Here's my response to Mr. MacCubbin's question.

While I’m not sure I advocate planting solely native plants, they are without a doubt worthy of consideration, as is the idea of solely planting them. When chosen correctly for a site, native plants offer not just their loveliness, but they appeal to birds, insects, and other wildlife that have developed simultaneously with them over the course of thousands of years. Introduced plants may fulfill a similar role, but the often invasive quality of these plants, along with their short high-maintenance lives can outweigh their benefits and attractions when compared to those offered by native plants.

An increase in birds, insects - or even fish - most likely would mean a decrease in mosquitoes or other pesky creatures for humans. Native plants suitable for a site often require less water after the first year (like any new perennial, natives need a good dose of watering to get settled initially), which in these drought-ridden times is ideal. Likewise, a native plant can be perfect for a spot that receives a deluge of water during storms or showers but is otherwise dry. This kind of hardiness lessens the amount of water that enters storm water drains, and the penetrating root systems often associated with native plants helps hold soil in place to lessen erosion.

Native plants well chosen for a site do not require additional fertilizers or pesticides. The soil they are placed in is suitable for them nutritionally from the start, and they often do well even in highly disturbed sites. Well-adapted already to their location, they are quite capable of fending off disease and pests that would be daunting to an introduced species.

Clearly, a number of introduced or non-native plants could fill some of these same roles. However, given the issues of invasive plants, i.e. garlic mustard, kudzu, etc., to name just a few, native plants feel like an easy and obvious choice. Less watering, whether at home or for a municipality seems ideal. Reduced use of fertilizers and pesticides is cost-effective and good for our environment that includes humans as well as birds, bees, and other critters. Plants able to withstand tough conditions of a roadway median (hot, parched, and sunny) that bloom throughout the season with less maintenance allowing city crews to focus their attention elsewhere also seems like a no-brainer. And certainly the idea (not broached here, but one worth considering, I think) of replacing grass (short-rooted, super-thirsty, must-be-mowed stuff) with beds of well-planned out native plantings is also logical.

When considering a new bed or any plant for the garden, it is imperative that the site characteristics, (sun, shade, wet, dry, clay, or loam soil) be taken into consideration, along with the gardener’s other objectives, such as no mowing, attracting birds and/or butterflies, or encouraging season-long blooms. The wrong plant, whether native or not, will not do well, and disappointment is sure to run high.

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