As a gardener, picking which plants to use in your creations is a difficult and borderline offensive affair, in some ways similar to choosing a favorite relative or pet.
To make matters worse, the typical plant store is a recipe in overstimulation and under-labeling that can make it difficult to tell where a plant even comes from.
In general, the majority of readily available plants are foreign introductions that are easy to grow on a large, industrial scale. While these exotic plants entice the eye and nose, they can be detrimental to local wildlife that haven’t developed the capacity to fully exploit them.
In some instances introduced plants can actually poison beneficial wildlife as well.
For all but the most hermetically sealed greenhouse, every landscape has the potential to help or harm the natural world around it.
It is the modern gardener’s responsibility to consider the effects that your landscapes have on their surrounding ecosystems. Gardening to please both human tastes and those of local wildlife is a constant balancing act, however there is a golden rule when it comes to getting the best of both worlds. Whenever and wherever you can, choose plants native to the region when designing and maintaining your growing spaces.
These aren’t merely the ramblings of a jaded woodsman. Science has found clear indications that native plants are the superior choice when it comes to ecosystem resilience.
The fruits and flowers of native plants are vastly preferred by wildlife compared to those of exotics, and in some cases pollinators or other beneficial animals completely ignore foreign plants.
Once the plants in an area are less than 70 percent locally native, they can no longer support enough insects to feed the young of insectivorous birds such as chickadees.
The diversity of plants in an area also seems to make a difference. Recent studies have discovered that low floral plant diversity can slow the development of bumble bees, and in grasslands an ecosystem’s energy efficiency increases at all feeding levels as the amount of plant diversity rises.
Even better, long-term research has shown that if networks of small, diverse native plantings are connected to natural and undisturbed areas, the amount of wildlife species present in those areas increases by about 15 percent. By planting a diversity of plants native to the area, you can easily repair and enhance a wide variety of struggling beneficial wildlife.
Because native plants have spent the last several hundred million years growing in the area, they are finely-tuned to surviving in our unique climate and rarely require babying past their first year.
Many are also attractive additions to a garden or landscape. This area has an abundance of tough yet classy groundcovers such as green and gold, coral bells, foam flower, creeping and woodland phlox, and geraniums.
Some tried and true native wildflowers are cardinal flower (use the blue variety if you experience heavy deer pressure), golden Alexander, coneflower, culver’s root, beardtongue, goatsbeard, tickseed, goldenrod, joe pye weed, mountain mint, and rattlesnake master.
A few of my favorite native shrubs around here are oakleaf hydrangea, witch alder, summersweet, sweet shrub, red and yellow twig dogwoods, arrowwood and mapleleaf viburnum, beautyberry, inkberry holly, mountain laurel, rhododendron and New Jersey tea.
For small understory trees, you can’t go wrong with redbud, dogwood, pawpaw, serviceberry, spicebush and azalea. Among our many important native trees, maple, black cherry, sourwood, tulip poplar, hemlock, and oak are all enviable statement pieces in my eyes. Don’t only take my word for it – experiment with all of these interesting native plants and more, and you will be impressed with the amount of wildlife they bring into your space.
Brannen Basham is a writer and horticulturalist. Together with his wife, Jill Jacobs, he owns Spriggly’s Beescaping, focused on nature education and habitat restoration. He recently published his first book, “A Guide to the Wonderful World Around Us: Notes on Nature.” For more information visit www.sprigglys.com.