I asked my earliest flower gardens to do one thing: look good. As I circled back around to my roots, I started emphasizing more and more native plants in my garden and thinking in much more multi-dimensional terms about functionality.
But why is there so much talk about ‘native’ plants? And what does native even mean in a gardening context?
Why Does Native Matter?
First, here’s a brief explanation of the reasoning behind gardening with native plants.
As a starting point, the foundation of the food web is vegetation. All other forms of land-based life depend in some way on plants for their livelihood.
Moving one level up in the food web, we come to insect life. I know, I know: the ick factor. I feel it, too. (Just ask my husband, if I find a caterpillar on me!)
But the vast majority of our songbirds depend on caterpillars, the larval stage of butterflies and moths, to raise their young successfully. And a variety of other animals also depend on insects, all of which have a larval stage as part of their life cycle, for a significant part of their diet: frogs and other amphibians, chipmunks and other rodents, skunks, opossums, foxes, and more.
And most caterpillars are specialists; they can’t eat just any leaf.
Some are highly specialized, like monarch butterflies, whose caterpillars can only eat milkweed. Others are a bit more generalized, such as the spicebush swallowtail, which can thrive on spicebush (as you’d expect), but also on sassafras and other members of the laurel family.
Now, if an adult insect lays its eggs on a plant that the baby caterpillars can’t digest, those babies will die. This is currently happening with exotic and invasive swallow-wort and monarch butterflies.
Connecting the dots, without plants that they can eat, insect life is impacted.
Without sufficient insect life, songbirds and other animals suffer.
Because everything is connected, degrade the food web and ultimately, the health of that same ecosystem upon which we ourselves depend for sustaining life is affected negatively.
Native plants support native insects.
What Is Native?
Of course, all of this gives rise to the question of what ‘native’ really means, in reference to plants. Native to your county, your state, your country, your continent, the globe?
You’ll find multiple definitions out there.
Here’s the one I go with: Native plants are those which have occurred naturally in their given ecoregion since before Europeans arrived in North America.
The time part of that definition is self-explanatory. And you can see a list of all the ecoregions in the United States here.
Basically, native plants have established relationships with each other and with the animal life with whom they share their ecoregion. Embracing these relationships in our gardens is a powerful way that we, as homeowners, can contribute to ecosystem health.
And if you choose well from among the native palette (you still don’t want to put a plant that’s adapted to a sunny, dry site in a moist, semi-shaded one, for example), you’ve got yourself the makings of a very easy-care garden. Which is good for the time- or maintenance-challenged gardener!
In the interests of not overloading you with information, I’m going to stop here for now.
But a subsequent post will explore the questions: Is native versus exotic a strictly black-and-white, either-or issue? Or is there some room in a garden that supports wildlife for a few exotics? And if so, how many?
I’ll also be sharing a couple of great resources with you in that post.
Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you!
What do you think is the most compelling reason to garden with native plants (or not to, for that matter)?