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Toward a More Earth-Friendly Garden

March 29, 2011

image One of the great benefits I have reaped from garden blogging is learning how to move toward more earth-friendly gardening practices. From the beginning of my gardening experiences, I have been committed to gardening without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. But only recently have I come to understand how my plant choices can affect ecological systems and environmental balance.

Last year, when Jan Doble at Thanks For Today invited garden bloggers to participate in her sustainable living project, I used the opportunity to educate myself about invasive plants (here). This year, I have been learning to pay more attention to native plants in the garden.

I have always included native plants in my garden, but it wasn’t a very intentional choice. Some of these, like Aruncus dioicus (Goatsbeard), Baptisia australis, Coreopsis verticillata, Geranium maculatum, Heliopsis helianthoides (false sunflower), Liatris, and Rudbeckia, were just plants that I loved; I didn’t even know they were natives when I planted them. Others, like Solidago (goldenrod) were already growing on my property when I created the garden and were incorporated  to reflect my love of wildflowers.

Native plants in my Maine garden (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)
Some of my favorite native plants, clockwise from top left: Rudbeckia, Liatris, Coreopsis verticillata, Liatris and Heliopsis helianthoides, Geranium maculatum ‘Album,’ and Solidago
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This year, I’ve been learning to be more intentional about the use of native plants in my garden. In this regard, I’ve been educated by fellow garden bloggers, especially Adrian Ayres Fisher at Ecological Gardening. The most important influence on my thinking, however, has been Douglas W. Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home. (You can find my review of Tallamy’s book here.) I have found Tallamy’s gradualist approach particularly helpful. His message to gardeners is that you can be part of the solution to habitat destruction and species decline simply by increasing the proportion of native plants in your garden. He recommends two ways to do this gradually. The first is to replace alien plants that die with appropriate native plants. The second is to include a high proportion of native plants when adding new garden areas.

In the coming months, I will have an opportunity to put both of these suggestions into practice. In my Gettysburg, Pennsylvania garden, I will replace a non-native shrub, Pieris japonica, that didn’t survive with a large native perennial, Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum).  In my Maine garden, I am developing a new flower bed at the edge of the woods (for details, see My Not-So-Secret Garden, Planning the Serenity Garden, and The Plan), and I’m making a special effort to include many native plants in the design. If I count only plants that are listed as native to New England, more than a third of the plants in this garden area will be natives. If I count plants native to other parts of the eastern United States, the proportion goes to about half. The beneficial effect of native plants in my Maine garden is further enhanced by the acre of native trees and wildflowers that surround it.

In trying to move toward a more earth-friendly garden, one stumbling block for many gardeners is identifying appropriate native plants. Garden reference books do not always provide this information, and plant catalogs and tags are not always reliable. (Some list plants as simply “North American native,” which is not particularly helpful. It’s a big continent with many different ecosystems!) For gardeners in the United States, I would recommend the following as good sources of information about appropriate native plants for the garden: Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home, which includes a 30-page appendix of native plant recommendations, organized by region of the country; the website for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which includes both a searchable plant database, and a list of recommended native plants for each state of the United States (and also for Canadian provinces); and the searchable plants database of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which uses maps to identify plant native habitats by state.

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36 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2011 10:47 pm

    Excellent post.! Thanks for the references. I also am trying to include more natives. They benefit the environment, but they also benefit us as gardeners, because they are adapted to region and prosper without intensive care. Your collage of native plants demonstrates there is no sacrifice made when choosing native plants. Congratulations on your efforts. I look forward to seeing your Serenity Garden!

    • March 30, 2011 4:37 pm

      Deb, Thanks for adding the point that native plants are often easier to grow because they are the right plant in the right place.

  2. March 30, 2011 4:32 am

    An exciting journey Jean. The gradualist approach makes a lot of sense. I wonder what the equivalent resources would be in the UK, I’ll have to look in to it.

  3. March 30, 2011 11:03 am

    Jean, this is excellent information. I actually ordered a copy of Bringing Nature Home after reading your review but have yet to read it. There are some great links here too that I’m looking forward to exploring. As I’m planning my new gardens all of this information is very helpful as I’m hoping to ‘go native’ as much as possible. As you point out though, it can be difficult to find information on native plants. I also find it hard to find a place that sells native plants. We have one small nursery that mainly specializes in native trees and shrubs. I suspect that if I want more flowers I will need to order seed.

    • March 30, 2011 4:41 pm

      Janet, See Jill’s link below to the postcodes plant database of the Natural History Museum of London. This is a wonderful resource for UK gardeners.

      Marguerite, The Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Wild About Gardening website includes lists of native plant suppliers, organized by province.

  4. March 30, 2011 11:04 am

    I find it amusing that one of the plants I try to get rid of – Joe Pye weed – is one that you will be planting. Of course it’s nowhere near native in Denmark, and it does seem to have invasive potential, so desperately pull up every bit of it I can find.

    (Goldenrods are non-native to Denmark as well, but they’ve already spread into the landscape and consequently I think it’s all right to leave them in the garden. Okay, it’s mostly because I love goldenrods…)

    • March 30, 2011 4:51 pm

      Soren, The problem of invasive plants is one that gardeners have played a big part in creating. Joe Pye Weed and Goldenrod have both been marketed and hybridized extensively for European markets. Meanwhile, in North America where they are native, it can be hard to find a nursery that sells them! It just goes to show that a plant that is appropriate for one place can be a big headache when it is imported into a different ecosystem. I was surprised in looking up some info about native plants in Europe to find that some species of native Convolvulus are endangered there by habitat loss. Meanwhile a close cousin, Convolvulus arvensis, is classified as a noxious weed in many parts of the United States, where it is considered a scourge by farmers.

      • March 31, 2011 12:21 am

        I love Convolvulus and wasn’t actually aware that it was in any way endangered. To me it has always been a beautiful weed, and actually one that I want to have in my garden.

        Now I definitely need to get some and give it free reign along all the hedges of the garden!

  5. March 30, 2011 11:09 am

    Great post Jean! You will just have to come back down to our native plant nursery again. It will be great when we can get back out in our gardens. Beautiful collage of your native blooms.

    • March 30, 2011 4:53 pm

      Thanks, Carol. The lavender Liatris in the top row of the collage is the one I bought from Nasami when we were there last year.

  6. March 30, 2011 3:01 pm

    Hi Jean, your 2nd link isn’t working…I’m not sure where you wanted it to go but know you’d want to fix it;-)
    I am into this whole native plant thing, as well…and was also thrilled to know so many of my favorites are natives! It’s been just over a year since I’ve ‘consciously’ been adding natives and plan to do so for a long time. I love the Lady Bird Johnson WIldflower Ctr. website, that is so helpful; as is the USDA info. I’ve got those both on my blog sidebar and have often referred to them both for info.
    It is nice to know this can all be done gradually and in stages and there is no need for a ‘deadline’. I’m glad you did a writeup on Tallamy’s book because I have been thinking about purchasing it for a while now. That is on my list and I’m sure it’s going to be treasured.
    Thank you so much for participating in my event again this year, Jean…and for linking your post to it. I’ll be excited to see all of the new natives that you’ll be adding.

    • March 30, 2011 4:56 pm

      Jan, Thanks for the heads-up on the broken link; I did fix it. I’m planning to add those two wonderful resources to my sidebar, too (just haven’t gotten to it yet :-~). Thank you again for providing the nudge I needed to get educated about these issues.

  7. March 30, 2011 3:31 pm

    Jean, I just wanted to suggest a website for Janet and other UK gardeners interested in finding native British plants. It’s the “postcode plants database” http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/life/plants-fungi/postcode-plants/ run by the Natural History Museum in London. For those who don’t know, UK postcodes describe areas considerably smaller than a US zip code, so this is pretty specific information about what is native!

    • March 30, 2011 4:57 pm

      Jill, Thanks so much for providing this link!

  8. March 31, 2011 7:38 am

    It is great for other gardeners to see how and why you have moved towards native plants and what steps you have taken along the way. I also think visiting gardens that focus on native plants of their area is a good way to learn. Garden in the Woods of the NE Wildflower Society in Framingham, MA, would be excellent for your Maine garden. The Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware would give you wonderful ideas for your Pennsylvania garden. Also a good local nursery specializing in native plants is invaluable :).

    • April 3, 2011 9:42 am

      Carolyn, Thank you so much for these suggestions of gardens to visit. I wasn’t aware of either of these, even though both are easily accessible to me. They are now on my list of gardens to visit — and I will post about them when I do.

  9. March 31, 2011 1:03 pm

    Hi Jean,

    Thanks very much for the mention and link.

    I also frequently use the Ladybird Johnson and USDA website and love Tallamy’s book; though I don’t find his plant lists specific enough to the Midwest. ; )

    I’d like to give a shout-out to forest preserve nature centers and their staff, who frequently offer programs and workshops about local native plants and ecosystems. One excellent way to learn about native plants is to volunteer with a conservation group–always full of citizen scientists who really know their stuff.

    Also, for those who live in rural areas, the USDA National Conservation Resource Service has personnel all over the country who are eager to help you establish conservation plantings.

    Jean, I have learned from you too–not just about gardening in different zones, but about blogging. Also, I admire your meticulous garden planning and preparation, since I do things so much by “feel.”

    • April 3, 2011 9:52 am

      Adrian, I think the closer you get to Tallamy’s home base (the mid-Atlantic region), the longer and more precise his plant lists are. Thanks for the suggestions about volunteering with conservation groups and about getting in touch with National Conservation Resource Service personnel. (I just went and took a look at the web site for their state program in Maine, and I will definitely go back and explore it more fully.)

  10. March 31, 2011 1:21 pm

    Hi Jean, As always, I enjoyed your thoughtful and informative post. I do have mixed feelings about what “native” plant really means, though, since so many mainstays in our gardens were not native if you go back long enough. But of course it’s a good idea to choose plants that are a good fit with soil and climate, and using natives is a guaranteed way to do that. Non-native plants are not necessarily invasive, and I wouldn’t want to do without tulips and hyacinths to name just a very few that I don’t believe are native to either North America or Northern Europe. On the other hand, true natives often just look the most beautiful in their own habitat. To me, one good example of that is the hellebore, which can outshine even tulips in the spring.

    • April 3, 2011 10:01 am

      Barbara, I have long shared your concerns about the definitions of native plants. InNorth America, I think there is often an inverted Eurocentric view that assumes that a native plant is any plant that was already there when the Europeans arrived. This is why I like Tallamy’s entomological approach so much. His definition of a native is a plant that has co-evolved with insect herbivores in the ecosystem. Being “alien,” then, isn’t a question of when a plant arrived but of its role in the ecosystem. Like you, I have many plants in my garden that are not natives and that I love for their beauty. I don’t intend to give them up (unless some of them turn out to be problem invasives), but I do want to be more intentional about balancing them with increasing proportions of native plants that can contribute to ecosystem preservation.

  11. March 31, 2011 10:17 pm

    Excellent post Jean! I wish I had been more aware of native plants when I had my previous two gardens. Knowing what I know now regarding our regional natives, I would have happily included them in those gardens, instead of the numerous exotics that flailed, and subsequently failed to thrive. The best reason of all is they would have been adapted to growing here. Although natives can be more expensive initially, I’m finding them to be more dependable than some of the exotic species. You raise an important point though, you don’t need rip out your existing plants, just introduce a few to increase the diversity of pollen and nectar resources in the garden.

  12. April 2, 2011 12:26 am

    Jean – thanks for the great resource links & books. Who would have thought 5-10 years ago, we’d be talking about sustainability, native & invasive plants and composting? (I was just trying not to kill the handful of plants I had!)

    I also found that local-region universities are a great resource for ‘natives’ information as well. After Googling “Illinois Natives” recently, my old Alma Mater, the University of Illinois had an excellent link for Midwest information: http://urbanext.illinois.edu/hortanswers/default.cfm

    • April 3, 2011 10:10 am

      Clare, Thanks for reminding us about the adaptability of native plants. What I find distinctive about Tallamy’s approach is that he is not so much focused on pollen and nectar sources but on the leaves of plants as food for insect herbivores.

      Shyrlene, Thanks for the great suggestion about state universities as excellent resources. Part of the mission of land grant universities is agricultural and horticultural research. The University of Maine published a list of both invasive plants to avoid and good native plant substitutes, and I imagine similar resources are available from other state universities.

  13. April 2, 2011 5:32 pm

    I liked your observation about how you incorporated plants that you’d always enjoyed, plants that ended up being native selections. Out here in California we’re fortunate to have a collection of natives that show up on many people’s lists of favorite plants–poppies and lupines among them. As a gardener gets curiouser and curiouser they’ll find hundreds of other wonderful local options, whether they’re in Maine, Pennsylvania, California or anywhere else.

  14. April 2, 2011 6:07 pm

    Great idea! We had a talk all about this at our horticultural club last year. Your photos are lovely. I especially like the one of your white liatris!

  15. April 3, 2011 12:09 am

    Thank you Jean! Very helpful post! I will certainly use the sources which you provided. I love the collage with your flowers. Charming…

  16. April 3, 2011 10:42 am

    James, I agree; native plants are not something we have to “settle for.” In Herbaceous Perennial Plants, Allan Armitage is always pointing out the irony of various plants native to the United States that are considered highly desirable garden plants in Europe but that have been largely ignored by American gardeners and nurseries.

    Diane, Thanks for suggesting horticultural clubs and lectures as another great resource.

    Tatyana, I’m pleased that you found this helpful. In addition to the resources that I noted, others have now contributed the following:
    – Visiting native plant gardens and nurseries
    – Volunteering with conservation organizations
    – Local and state staff an programs of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service
    – Programs and lectures sponsored by local horticultural clubs, Master Gardener groups, and others
    – State universities and university extensions

  17. April 3, 2011 4:54 pm

    Jean, I plant native (ish) plants primarily because they do well with little care and they attract area butterflies. In the urban jungle here I’m not sure there is much I can plant that will harm the ecosystem of sewer systems and sidewalks, though I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. What really gets me, and I think I’ve said this before to you in the context of this discussion, is that places like Walmart sell things in areas where they are in “do not plant, extremely invasive.” It seems our Government does take the time to print out lists that are buried on some website, but then they do nothing to advertise this fact or put some teeth behind the ‘do not plant’ list. The other day I was in Kmart and they were selling wisteria… which in NYC was fine, but here it can eat an entire house, car and small family in a single season, while killing whatever is underneath it. What average Kmart shopper is going to know not to buy that pretty purple plant?

    • April 7, 2011 9:36 pm

      Jess, As you know, I agree with you totally about the problem of unethical plant retailers — whether they be big box stores or local nurseries. I think the local nurseries may be an easier problem to tackle because they have local owners who are often on site and who presumably could be educated. But the only person to talk to at a big box store is a department manager who probably has little or no control over the inventory. And the business model of the big box stores makes them particularly unresponsive to local and regional issues. I really think the only solution is government policy with some teeth in it, probably at the state level. I’m really impressed with what the state of Vermont is doing (http://www.vtinvasiveplants.org/invaders.php). They have readily accessible lists of both “quarantined” and “watch list” plants. Those of us in states that don’t have such clear and clearly communicated policies could lobby our state governments to adopt something like this.

  18. April 3, 2011 8:19 pm

    We are very fortunate to be able to interact and communicate and help plants grow, and experience the role of every ecosystem within the growth of one plant, let alone many.

  19. April 4, 2011 1:07 am

    Hi Jean!

    Thank you for being my mentor in this new world of blotanical! :)

    I love natives as wel, although our natoives here in Australia are much different to yours. They suit the climate, bring in the good bugs and the birds.

    • April 7, 2011 9:38 pm

      Kai, Thanks for visiting.

      Mrs. Bok, Welcome to Blotanical, and thanks for visiting my blog. The wonderful thing about native plants is that they are different in different parts of the world. I love reading blogs from other regions and learning about the plants that are native there.

  20. April 4, 2011 10:44 am

    Jean,

    Great post! Love the photos, particularly the white liatris and coreopsis. It’s wonderful to see gardeners embracing natives and green gardening. Happy Earth Day to you . . .

    Thomas

  21. Lula (onbotanicalphotography.blogspot.com) permalink
    April 4, 2011 1:58 pm

    It is so important to be aware of sustainable practices that I really appreciate your post. I am reading “The one-straw revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka, it’s a classic, that readings always help to refresh. Thanks, Lula

    • April 7, 2011 9:40 pm

      Thomas, Happy Earth Day to you as well. I find this emphasis on sustainability among gardeners a very hopeful sign.

      Lula, I’m not familiar with Fukuoka’s book, but it sounds like one I should add to my reading list. Thanks for the recommendation.

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