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Why "Go Native!"?

I am often asked, why is it so important to re-introduce native plants into our landscaping and our properties. What’s wrong with a pretty daylily? I’ve prepared a presentation, entitled “Native Landscaping 101” and I’ve given it to a few groups in the county. I love giving it. I find that every time I do, I’m more excited and passionate about getting the word out, because at every one, I’m asked “why are native plants better than my pretty ornamentals?”. Even after I explain why, there seems to be reluctance to make a change, a reluctance to give up what we think we love….those Crimson King Maples, Bradford Pears, Burning Bushes, Chinese Maiden Grasses, Japanese Maples, lilacs, spireas….the list goes on and on. I decided to sit down this morning and explain, and hopefully it will influence you to think twice before purchasing any new plants for your property this spring.

First, for those of you that don’t know me, my education and work experience for over 35 years has been in the landscaping business. I studied Landscape Management and Design at Purdue and immediately went to work in the industry. I was always conservation minded, loving the great out-of-doors, spending time in my childhood hiking, canoeing, and horseback riding. It seems now that I was born a tree-hugger, loving the beautiful deciduous trees in our woodlands here in Indiana. I went to Purdue to study Forestry, but quickly changed gears. I have an “artsy” side and loved to draw and create. What a great combination for me….designing with trees! Landscape architecture sounded so romantic! And I did love my profession, for many years. When I started landscaping my own home over 30 years ago, I did some research. I don’t know why, but I was determined to use mostly native plants on my property. It just seemed “right”. I did use some daylilies, and hostas….the usual pretty, easy plants. I loved the way that I could divide them, move them around and get some free plants! But the trees that I planted were all natives….ash, maple, oak, river birch, tulip trees. And a Washington Hawthorn that the birds absolutely loved! I chose natural, feathery junipers over pruned boxwoods. Was I just a lazy gardener? No, I didn’t think so. My house wasn’t formal in architecture, like most aren’t. No symmetry was demanded. I liked finding plants that wanted to be a certain size, that didn’t have to be pruned constantly to stay in an area, ruining their natural shape and removing blooms and fruit when excessively pruned. My landscaping looks natural, kind of like my curly hair! (Which I fought in my youth, of course!) But natural is good for us all, and now, after working in conservation for over three years, I’ve learned that my instincts were correct and that there are SO many reasons why we need to use more native plants, more than I ever knew!

I have a new hero; his name is Doug Tallamy. He has started a new movement in the country called Homegrown National Park. ( He is an entomologist, not a horticulturalist. He loves bugs first. Most of us don’t love bugs, we spend a lot of time complaining about them and plotting their demise. But…here’s the big but. We need them! To survive as a species, we need them…to pollinate our food and feed the wildlife. Native insects are vital to the food web, and native plants are vital to native insects! Pretty simple, really. I could start throwing out statistics right now, there are a million of them, but I will state just one for an example. An oak tree is a host for 557 different species of insects and is considered a “keystone” plant. A non-native Norway Maple, commonly used in our landscaping, host zero insects. None. By using only non-native trees and shrubs, we have created a food desert in our suburbs. There is less and less habitat for native insects, and the birds that depend on them to feed their young. And here is where I will quote Doug…” It’s not the presence of non-native plants that destroy food webs, it’s the absence of native plants”. Just using 25% native plants in your yard/property can help sustain native insect populations. And here are some more reasons to “Go Native” …. native plants have deep root systems, so they need less water thus lowering water and sewer bills. It’s not necessary to fertilize them, they are more resistant to pests, needing less pesticides so no chemical bills and healthier living areas. And as I mentioned before, maybe a lot less pruning if you choose the right plant for the right place.

So, have I convinced you to give native plants a try? I have compiled a list of natives that are found in most garden centers and even those dang box stores. I call it “Naturally Natives”. Download it, print it out, and take it with you this spring when you shop. And the reason that I have been inspired to write this windy blog…. we are having a native plant sale! Check it out! Click here for order form. Orders can be placed until March 31st. For $150, you can try 10 different species of native perennials and grasses (there are 5 of each species in each kit for a total of 50 plants). There are 4 different kits for different soil types and exposures. This will help you figure out which ones can work for you. The birds and the bees will thank you, and so do I!!! Go Native!!!

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