Warmer weather has finally arrived in Southwestern Ontario. My garden is bursting with life now and lots of plants are starting to show off their beautiful blooms. 2 years ago I put in gardens that ran along the front of my house, and I have been slowly filling them up and getting to a point where I am pretty satisfied with what is in them and how they look. So this year I have some major expansion plans in the works for my outdoor paradise! I have already put in a row of fruit trees along the driveway and a large herb garden off my back porch. Currently I am working on a butterfly garden on the western side of my house, in a rather secluded location in the backyard far removed from kid and dog traffic. And finally, I am preparing to put in a native perennial border that runs the length of the neighbours fence out front. So with all this work, and inspiration from putting in some of my favourite native plants, I am hoping to get back into the swing of publishing a weekly post that spotlights one of these flowers. To start things off I thought I would write a post about gardening with native plants in general, rather than a focus on one particular plant.
It seems that native plant gardening is catching on, and actually becoming a trend in gardening. Some of our large nurseries and even grocery chains with temporary garden centers are starting to carry native plant inventory. Trends, or fads, are not uncommon in the gardening world. I remember when hostas hit the main scene in the late 90s/early 2000s and seemed to start a craze. Nowadays I think you would be hard pressed to find a home garden without at least a few hostas tucked into the landscape (including mine!). So with one of the latest trends being native plants, I am hopeful it is less of a trend and more of a movement – and one that is here to stay.
Gardening with native plants, although seeming to catch on like wildfire, is not something that is new to me. Some of my earliest memories are traipsing through vacant lots and unowned forests with my mom looking for native plants to dig up, or going wildflowering as she used to call it. Times have changed, and it is now frowned upon to say the least, and often times illegal, to dig up native plants in their natural habitats. This is a good thing, as many native plants are now endangered and they may not transplant well. An individual might have good intentions but could kill the plant, leaving even fewer specimens out in nature. Thankfully, as I mentioned, it is getting easier to find native plants and visiting a garden center that specializes in them, or is even exclusive about carrying them, can really kick start you on the journey. And I am so grateful that many of these garden centers here in Ontario are offering on-line ordering with curbside pick-up or even delivery during the pandemic.
So why is gardening with native plants recommended, and how is it better than gardening with traditional ornamental species?
First, native plants are suited to the environment that you are living in. They have evolved over thousands of years to survive in your particular climate. You do not have to worry if they are suitable to your gardening zone and if they will come back year after year. And since they have evolved to the level of rainfall that your particular area gets and the type of soil that predominates, they will be less dependent on watering and fertilizing. Now, I will point out that this does not mean you can take any native plant and stick it anywhere you want and it will thrive. You do need to be mindful of where these plants are naturally found and then choose plants that thrive in similar sites as what your garden has to offer. For example, choosing a native plant that normally grows at the side of a pond or stream will not likely do well if you have a garden that naturally runs on the dry side. But if you make appropriate selections, there will be a lot less maintenance that needs to be done in the long run.
Secondly, and the reason closest to my heart, is that native plants support the native population of pollinators and other wildlife. These plants have co-evolved with the insect, bird and mammal species that depend on them and will provide food and shelter to many animal species. A garden full of native plants will act like a magnet, and your garden will seem to hum, or buzz, with life. I have been thrilled at all the amazing critters that I have found hanging around my yard, and I am proud to be able to offer a safe haven to them!
Last on my list, but extremely important to the health of our ecosystems, is that by gardening with native plants you will be avoiding adding invasive species. In a natural ecosystem there are checks and balances in place that keep populations at the right level. But a plant (or animal) that is introduced into the ecosystem may not have these controls in place and can quickly get out of hand. Many of us here in Ontario are familiar with Purple loosestrife chocking out our marshes or the invasive Phragmite perennial grasses taking over our roadsides. It is, however, a little known fact that many of the popular plants sold at garden centers are actually considered by many to be invasive species. Plants like periwinkle, lily-of-the-valley and goutweed to name a few, have been popping up in natural landscapes and once they get a toe-hold have been taking over large areas, strangling out native species and decreasing the biodiversity.
But here is a controversial point when it comes to gardening with native plants. Does it need to be all or nothing? There are some who advocate that a garden should only contain native species. Others will only opt to plant the ornamental specimens found at mainstream garden centers as they tend to be showy and tidier and fit into some preconceived mold of what a home garden should look like. But I would argue that it is possible to have both. I plan to have mostly native plants, but I have incorporated a few non-native species that I feel a strong connection with. For example, I have a few lilac bushes because the smell of blooming lilacs makes me smile and lightens my mood no matter what is going on in my world. And roses, which remind me of hours spent exploring a rose-garden tucked away next to my grandparents apartment building in the concrete jungle of downtown Toronto. Lets be honest, I am motivated to spend hundreds of back-breaking hours tending to and expanding my gardens because, quite simply, it brings me joy. Most of that joy will come from the benefits of growing native plants, but I think it is okay to include non-invasive non-native plants and cultivars if it will add to the gardening experience.