Planning for Natives

Planning for Natives

  • By Susan K. Hall
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  • February 2016-Vol.2 No.2
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Native plants can be added to any existing garden bed that meets their horticultural requirements.  Simple enough, right?  And just adding some natives will certainly increase the amount of nectar and pollen on offer for insects in your garden. But what if you’d like to start a new garden?   A wonderful option for those who have space to start a new garden is to recreate a functioning ecosystem by using groups of different plants that occur together in nature.  Such groupings will do more to support wildlife than just sticking in some natives amongst the exotics.  Ecologists have a term for these groups of plants — “plant communities” — usually defined as groups of plants “sharing a common environment that interact with each other, animal populations, and the physical environment.” Pa. Dept. Natural Heritage/Plant Communities.

Native plant communities provide food and shelter for a wider range of insects and animals than a traditional garden.  For example, if you want more butterflies in your garden, you need appropriate places for them to lay their eggs; in other words, you need plants that provide their larvae food.  You might assume that the non-native butterfly bush (buddleia) would be a natural choice for a butterfly garden, but it only provides nectar for adult butterflies.  Don’t focus on just one life stage; butterflies, like all insects, need shelter, food for the larvae, and a place to hibernate during winter.  Additionally, butterfly bush is an invasive plant. This alone makes native plants a better choice. It is true that this sort of gardening is very knowledge-intensive, but by creating a complete ecosystem you will have more success attracting all sorts of wildlife to your yard.


Mt. Cuba Center Gardens, Hockessin, Delaware Photo Courtesy of mwms

Mt. Cuba Center Gardens, Hockessin, Delaware. Photo Courtesy of mwms1916.

Another advantage of using a plan that follows the patterns found in nature is that you can be assured that all the plants have similar growing conditions.  A soil test is very helpful in determining what sort of plant community your site can support.  Plants that thrive together in acidic soil adjacent to a bog won’t grow in alkaline soil in a dry meadow even if the sunlight levels are the same at both sites.  Also, to some degree, you can make changes to increase or decrease the amount of light your new garden bed receives, but changing the structure and acidity of the soil can only be done very slowly over a period of many years. It’s best to choose plants based on what you have.  And while every new planting will need watering during its first year or two, when your natives become established, you’ll only have to water during exceptional dry spells.  Native plants growing under good conditions are also very good at out-competing any weeds that try to grow.

Mt. Cuba Center, Hockessin, Delaware.

Mt. Cuba Center, Hockessin, Delaware.

Yes, this sort of gardening requires knowledge beyond the usual horticultural requirements.  For very specific lists of natural plant community types in our area, I strongly recommend Timothy P. Spira’s book, Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont.  Not only does he list those plants that commonly occur in the various types of terrains in our area, he also provides detailed descriptions of individual plants and which forms of wildlife use them for either food or egg-laying.

The next article in this series will deal with sources for native plants.  The mainstream nurseries usually carry some native species, but for those of us who want to go beyond coneflowers and other basics, the search becomes more challenging.  If you have a favorite source, either a commercial nursery or garden club plant sale, please let me know.  These lovely plants are out there, we just have to pool our knowledge to find them.



Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont (Spira, Timothy, UNC Press, 2011)

Photos from the Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware, one of the best native wildflower gardens in the US.


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