Easier, Cheaper, Smarter Gardening with Native Plants

We hear a lot these days about the benefits of using “natives” in our gardens, but what exactly does this mean and why should we bother?

Native plants are species that existed in our area before human activities dominated the natural landscape. Over the past several hundred years, people have imported or bred plants to suit their cultural, aesthetic, and environmental needs. A few of these plant species have escaped from cultivated gardens or were introduced intentionally into natural areas. The problem lies in the fact that these exotic invasives can take over, out-competing native plants. As the native species dwindle, animals and insects dependent upon them for food and shelter are threatened.

One step you can take toward habitat restoration is to use native plants in your own landscape, creating a haven for birds, beneficial insects, and other animals. Gardening with natives offers benefits to both the environment and your wallet, as native plants tend to be easy to grow, have relatively few pest and disease problems, and require little supplemental watering and fertilizing. This means your gardening dollars go further when you spend them on plants that are more likely to thrive, and you’ll spend less time coddling your garden plants and more time enjoying their beauty.

At our Crow’s Nest Preserve (Warwick Township, Chester County) Natural Lands Trust has established a native garden around the historic barn that serves as our preserve center. The barnyard garden is low-maintenance with slightly-raised beds around the perimeter of the barnyard interrupted by seating areas. The design concept was to make the garden beds look like abandoned watering troughs that have filled in with wildflowers. The intent of the garden is to demonstrate the horticultural use of native perennials, attract wildlife to the visitor center, and give visitors a sample of what kinds of plants they might see as they explore the rest of the 600-acre preserve. Most of the beds are in full sun; the thriving plants are rarely watered since many of them are native to sunny meadows.

Some favorites from Crow’s Nest include:

– Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a bushy deer-resistant perennial prized for its bright orange flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

– Rough-leaved goldenrod (Solidago rugosa), a sun-loving plant that puts out showy yellow blooms in September. Despite a common misperception, hay fever isn’t caused by goldenrod (it gets blamed for the allergies caused by ragweed). We planted a compact cultivar called ‘Fireworks.’

– Blazing star (Liatris spicata), another full-sun perennial whose spiky purple flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

– Beebalm (Mondarda fistulosa), a deer resistant plant that attracts birds, bees, and butterflies. The plant’s leaves have a minty smell and the flowers are edible.

– Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), a deciduous shrub that boast showy fragrant spring blooms and red autumn foliage. Content in full sun to part shade, this plant also attracts songbirds.



As the trend toward planting with natives grows, more and more nurseries are stocking native species. If you can’t find what you are looking for locally, mail order and internet sources are another option. (Natural Lands Trust offers a list of popular native plants and local suppliers; you can download it at www.natlands.org/publications or call 610-353-5587, ext 243.)

When planning your native plant garden, keep in mind some design basics. Using plants with varying textures and shapes is more appealing to the eye. In terms of color, while creating a garden of similar-hued blooms can be striking, it is also attractive to contrast colors. Rather than planting just one or two of each species, try massing groups of plants for more impact. Planting odd numbers creates the most naturalistic appearance. A pathway of stepping stones through the garden will allow for better access to plants and prevents soil compaction that can impact root growth. And, of course, remember practical considerations such as sun and soil conditions.

If you are starting a new garden, sketch the view of its area (or trace over a photograph of it) from the perspective from which you will be enjoying it. Photocopy this drawing and on the copies add your vision overtop the existing conditions. Don’t be afraid to experiment in your design! Gardening is more of an art than a science, and plants can always be moved to another location if you aren’t satisfied with the initial results.

But you don’t have to start from scratch to enjoy the benefits of native plants. Try incorporating a few clumps of eye-catching Echinacea in a cutting garden, or add minty-scented Monarda to an herb garden. A serviceberry shrub (Amelanchier canadensis) or a winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) will provide hours of bird watching when planted where it can be viewed from a window. Replacing a section of lawn turf with native grasses will cut down on mowing, watering, and fertilizing. However, once you start gardening with carefree natives, you won’t want to stop!

Natural Lands Trust is the region’s largest land conservation organization, preserving open space throughout eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. Find further details about nature preserves open to the public (including Crow’s Nest Preserve), upcoming events, ways to support Natural Lands Trust, and more at www.natlands.org. Also available online is a downloadable Native Alternative Plant Guide in the “Publications” section of the website.

Delaware County News Network
Tuesday, May 1, 2012 – By Kirsten Werner  – Natural Lands Trust

Downloadable Info:

Native Plant Alternative to Invasives Chart

NativePlants Guide

Native Plant Guides for Butterflies

How You Can Attract Song Birgs

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