Reasons to Use Native Plants

A Prairie Garden Journal 2004

At my house, the reason, “Because I say so,” never has carried much weight. So I’ve also had to do the hard work of coming up with and present actual good reasons why my wife or children should do something that I thought was a good thing to do. I’ve noticed the same is true whenever I talk to someone about why they should use native plants in their landscape. “Because I say so,” just doesn’t seem to convince hardly anyone. So following are several actual logical and good reasons to “go native” .

For starters, native plants are easier to grow in Wyobraska landscapes because they are well adapted to our soils and climate. I hear many homeowners complain that they don’t have a green thumb—meaning that they don’t feel like they can grow landscape plants successfully. In most cases the problem has nothing to do with the homeowner’s thumb and everything to do with the homeowner’s choice of plants. Spireas, barberries, euonymous, and hybrid tea roses can all be found prominently displayed even in Wyobraska garden centers each spring. These non-native plants are colorful and almost irresistible in the garden center, but in most cases their appearance quickly goes down hill when planted out in a landscape setting. After six months to a year in the landscape these plants often look so bedraggled that the homeowner pulls them out and starts over.

In most cases just the opposite experience is true with native plants. For a variety of reasons many native plants don’t look all that attractive while growing in a container in the garden center. Some native plants don’t like the regular watering that they tend to get in a nursery, others don’t like the rich soil mix and all of the fertilizer that they get there, some natives don’t like being crowded into a garden center plant display. But put them out in a Wyobraska landscape and their appearance often improves over time because they are now in soil, climate, and spacing circumstances that they like. And all of a sudden the surprised homeowner begins to think that they just might have a green thumb after all.

“Low maintenance” is the buzz word when it comes to landscaping, and one key to low maintenance landscapes in Wyobraska is using native plants. Because they like to grow in our soils and climate, native plants are almost always healthy and vigorous—meaning that problems with insects or diseases are virtually non-existent. If you are using native plants in a “traditional” landscape design, you may want to perform an occasional pruning in order to give the plants a little more uniform appearance than their natural growth provides. A little selective pruning is normally all that is required to turn a “wild” native plant into a “civilized” traditional landscape plant.

Of course, the other maintenance advantage of many native plants is that most require much less water than most non-native landscape plants. At a time when concerns about ongoing drought are still very much in the news, their low water use is a major reason why native plants are getting some long overdue attention.

A third reason to use native plants in Wyobraska landscapes is that they look like they belong here. Most non-native landscape plants look about as out of place in a Wyobraska landscape as a banker in a three piece suit at a rodeo. The more I tour and study landscapes, the more I notice that the best landscapes always seem to be connected to the natural landscape of the region. These landscapes seem to be “built out of the same materials” as the natural landscape of the region, but with enhance aesthetics and functionality. The building materials of our regional landscape are the juniper and pine trees which cover the ridges and canyons, the deciduous understory shrubs such as three leaf sumac, chokecherry, and mountain mahogany which grow in large clumps among the juniper and pine, and which occasionally escape out into the adjacent grasslands, and the grasses and wildflowers of the expansive shortgrass prairies which dominate the region’s ecosystems.

The fourth, and best, reason to use native plants in your landscape is that they make for colorful and attractive landscapes. The majority of non-native landscape plants are shrubs with either a spring bloom or with some unusual summer foliage color like red or yellow. I traditional landscapes, these shrubs are generally combined with evergreen shrubs—presumably for their winter interest. The result is a very static or unchanging landscape appearance. Contrast that with the ornamental grasses and flowering perennials which are a major source of both color and change in a Wyobraska landscape. The dramatic growth of grasses from ground level in the spring after they have been cut back to four or six or even ten feet tall occurs within only a three to four month period. Likewise the perennialflowers grow from one to two to four or six feet tall, flower, and then many remain effective in the landscape even after they flower into our through the winter.

Add to this summertime drama the added interest of native shrubs like shrub roses, serviceberries, and viburnums all with good flowering plus great fall color, and the courser native trees like bur oak, catalpa, Kentucky coffeetree, rocky mountain juniper, and ponderosa pine, and you have a landscape style that is the visual equal of any region of the country.

Next week I’ll list and describe some of my favorite native plants, and in two weeks I’ll suggest some well-adapted non-native plants come from other regions of the world with similar soil and climate as Wyobraska, and which, not too surprisingly, fit right in to our Wyobraska landscapes.

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