By Cindy Gilberg
It seems that everyone is jumping on the “green” bandwagon which includes native plants in the landscape. But how many have looked at this concept beyond the now common catch phrases and buzz words? There are some excellent reasons for gardeners to delve into this group of plants that offer viable alternatives to conventional landscapes.
Gardening can be a rewarding activity but not if one is frustrated with plants that need too much care and nurturing. Our native plants evolved here and are well-adapted to our varied and sometimes difficult climate and soil types. Missouri and surrounding regions offer a rich palette of plants that are resilient and reliable. Many of these are perfect candidates for our gardens.
Assess your site as to sunlight, soil type and soil moisture. When plants are properly chosen for specific sites, the need for irrigation, fertilizer and pesticide use is greatly reduced and eventually eliminated altogether. This provides a landscape that not only promotes a healthier, more sustainable system for the environment (and your health) but one that is a low maintenance landscape. Once established, these types of plantings offer the additional benefits of being both time and money-saving solutions.
Converting landscapes to include more native plants is quite beneficial to wildlife. This becomes more critical every year as more natural habitat is destroyed and replaced with development. Plan to include a diversity of herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees. This ensures that food and shelter for wildlife are available year-round. You may want to choose many species that attract birds, for example, however you will soon discover that other forms of wildlife, such as butterflies, will also come to visit.
One additional reason for using native plants in the landscape is to create a sense of place. This is a more subtle, almost subconscious, concept. Including native plants to our region helps our landscapes and gardens blend seamlessly with the surrounding natural landscape. A design such as this will automatically bring to mind “Missouri” versus a landscape that emulates English gardens, the pine forests of Georgia or the drier, short-grass prairies of western Kansas. I grew up here so when I see a Missouri landscape it is a comfortable feeling of being home, somewhat like that old sweater or a favorite food from childhood.
OK, so now what? How does one go about starting or converting their property to include native plants. Consider the words “native” vs “natural/naturalistic” and their application in landscape design. Native refers to plants that are indigenous to the region vs. the use of plants from other regions or parts of the world. Naturalistic landscape designs are those that can use both native and/or non-native plants in broad, informal “sweeps”. This style typically uses large numbers of grasses blended in with the other plants. Personally, I recommend grasses as an integral part of any design.
Keep in mind that it is your choice as a gardener whether you want a 100% native landscape or a blend of native and non-native plants. If you choose to include or keep many of the non-native plants available, be sure to use only the well-behaved, non-invasive species. Another choice to consider is whether you use native plants that are from your specific locale or that are from a wider regional area. The closer the origin or provenance of the species, the better adapted it is to your specific site. For example, plants or seeds from Pennsylvania or Ohio may not be as well adapted to our hot summers as those grown in mid-Missouri.
A final point to consider is whether or not to use the species or include also cultivars of those species. An example here would be Echinacea ‘Magnus’ vs. Echinacea purpurea. The answer to the above questions and choices ultimately comes from the gardener and what they want their landscape to be.
Native plants can be used in every design style, from formal, conventional gardens to loose, naturalistic gardens. Many have begun to design areas of their property in which native plants are introduced and planted to recreate original habitats such as a prairie, savannah or woodland. Any of these approaches are not only viable but quite attractive in their own way.
Cindy Gilberg, horticulturist and Missouri native, founded and ran the garden center at Gilberg Perennial Farms with her husband Doug for 28 years, also teaching classes and workshops on gardening and garden design. She now focuses on garden design, consulting and teaching, and also works part-time in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, emphasizing the use of native plants in home landscaping.