Gardening with native plants

Gardening with native plants conjures up images which can make the idea seem well beyond the capabilities of the average gardener. First of all it is difficult to know what truly is native because so much of the greenery which surrounds us is non-native but appears to be so at home here. Then there is the problem of sourcing the plants because most of what you find in the average garden centre are introduced species which we have just gotten into the habit of growing. It does not have to be this way.

Gardening with native plants can mean incorporating just one native plant in the garden or can be the purist approach of only gardening with plants which were indigenous (native) to the site before agriculture and urbanization stripped the land. Somewhere in between these extremes lies a realistic compromise which is beautiful, educational and, most importantly, it is the right thing to do for the sake of the environment.

Native plants are defined as plants which existed in the landscape prior to European settlement. Native plants are good for the environment because they can support 10 to 50 times more local animal, insect and bird species than do exotic or introduced plants. Native plants and animals have evolved not only to survive the climatic conditions of the area but have developed a dependency upon one another. You will be much more successful in attracting migrating birds when you have native shrubs such as High bush Cranberry or Serviceberry in your yard than if you limit your plant selection to introduced species such as European Cranberry and Lilacs.

There has recently been a resurgence in interest in the plants from our own woodlands, fields, and wetlands. Native plant nurseries are popping up everywhere and many of the established nurseries and garden centres are now including native plants in their stock. Gradually, native plants are being re-discovered as very suitable components in the Canadian garden. Once you start including native plants in the garden, the beauty, familiarity and ease of maintenance will make you want to include more.

The following list includes a few plants that would be an excellent introduction to native plants.

Native Plants to Try
Sunny Sites
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Joe-pye-weed (Eupatorium maculatum)
Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)
Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra)

Partially Shady Sites
Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)
Meadowrue (Thalictrum polyganum)
Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)

Trees & Shrubs
Alternate-leaf dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)
New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
Red Oak (Quercus rubra)
White Pine (Pinus strobus)

Native plants and wildflowers are often thought to be the same thing but are actually quite different. Wildflowers are plants which grow without human intervention. This includes non-desirable weeds such as Queen Anne’s Lace, desirable introduced plants such as Buttercup or California Poppy as well as native plants that are growing wild. Wildflower seed packages tend to contain a collection of some native and mostly non-native flowering plants. The focus with these packages is to provide the buyer with an instant show of miscellaneous colour. These can be very attractive in the short term but are by no means a way of creating a permanent and stable plant community. By including native plants in the garden, gardeners are playing a vital role in restoring pieces of nature and creating suitable habitats for a more diverse community of plants and wildlife.