Adding native plants to your garden

Native plants have several characteristics that make them appealing as garden and landscape plants.

Like many gardeners this is the time of year I sit back and think about my gardening successes and failures of the past season. With only a handful of what I would consider hot days, and the wettest summer I can remember gardening was challenging. To make my gardening life easier I have decided to plant more native plants in my landscape beds.

As defined by Wikipedia, native plants are plants endemic (indigenous) or naturalized to a given area in geologic time. This includes plants that have developed, occur naturally or existed for many years in an area such as trees, flowers and grasses.

According to Michigan Native Plant Producers Association native plants have several characteristics that make them appealing as garden and landscape plants:

  • They are naturally adapted to the soils and weather conditions of the area, so they need little care once they’ve become established.
  • If planted in the proper location, they do not need fertilization, irrigation or winter protection.
  • When used in place of lawn, they decrease the time and expense required for repeated mowing.
  • They provide food and cover for wildlife.
  • They attract butterflies, dragonflies, birds and a host of other creatures that provide movement and interest to a garden.
  • Landscapes containing native plants can help offset the dramatic loss of habitat resulting from rapid development.
  • They improve the quality of the environment by slowing stormwater runoff, preventing erosion and enriching the soil.
  • The deep roots of native plants provide a path for water to seep into the ground, thereby preventing runoff from speeding overland, taking soil with it.
  • The use of native plants in landscapes can reduce the air and noise pollution created by mowers and other yard equipment.
  • They reduce the water pollution caused by fertilizers and pesticides.
  • They counteract the loss of natural areas by invasions of alien plants that have escaped from traditional gardens.

Michigan State University Extension recommends reading the many books and websites that are devoted to native plants and native gardening. I recommend starting with Michigan State University’s Native Plants and Ecosystem Services.

Like many of you, I also enjoy many non-native species in my flower gardens and landscape beds. I am certainly not prepared to eliminate all non-natives. Nor am I in favor of only eating native fruits and vegetables, whether grown in my own garden or purchased at a local farmers market or grocery store.

Keeping all of this in mind there is a compelling case to incorporate more natives into your gardening plan. The MSU Native Plant and Ecosystem suggests “Reincorporating native species into our landscape can support the native biodiversity that remains. Starting to incorporate native plants in small areas can lead to a patchwork of habitat that supports native biodiversity. In this way even adding a few native plants in a suburban yard can be part of restoring imperiled organisms and habitats.” Scientific studies have shown both native plants and non-native plants can attract wildlife, but some non-native plants provide lower quality food and habitat than natives.

I have many native species in my landscape. These plants generally require lower maintenance and I enjoy the wildlife they attract. Some of my very favorite trees and shrubs are Michigan natives: the Smooth Serviceberry Amelanchier laevis, Redbud Cercis Canadensis and Ninebark Physocarpus opulifolius.

Using more natives in home landscapes can be a win-win for gardeners, wildlife and the ecosystem.  For these reasons, I encourage you to  consider adding more natives to your landscape.