The Master Gardeners
There are many paths to follow in the world of gardening. Some lead to orderly beauty or a unique collection of plants. Others may lead to too much work at great expense. I often think of choosing native plants for the garden as the path of least resistance. On the way to creating a native plant garden, you will discover plants with great beauty and unique characteristics. But you will also find that, once established, native plants need little attention from you other than admiration and some occasional weeding or pruning.
You can purchase native plants in sizes to fit any budget, or start them from seed. And you do not need costly soil amendments to get them started. Native plants are already adapted to our soils. It is important to provide them with the necessary amount of sun and water. Knowledgeable staff at a nursery that specializes in native plants can give you that information.
Adapted to the vagaries of our climate, natives exist in happy coexistence with the fungi and microorganisms in the soil, surrounding wildlife and, most importantly, native insects and other pollinators such as birds, butterflies, and moths. It’s important to consider the finely tuned relationship of native plants to the other inhabitants of an ecosystem. They support wildlife as sources of food and shelter. This may mean that caterpillars appear on shrubs in your garden. But before you hurry to purchase a spray the minute you see a few holes in leaves, keep in mind that those same caterpillars provide food for nesting birds and their young. According to Douglas Tallamy, a professor in the University of Delaware’s Department of Entomology andWildlife Ecology and author of Bringing Nature Home, it can take 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise a group of young chickadees. So the benefit of supporting native birds by planting natives eventually comes full circle to fewer caterpillars on your shrubs.
While native pollinators may not be attracted to plants from another part of the country, they may be critical to the survival of a native plant to which they have adapted over hundreds or thousands of years. Some pollinators are dependent on a limited or singular plant choice for laying eggs or feeding. The monarch butterfly is a case in point. Without milkweed as a host plant for its eggs and larvae, it will not survive. Native plants are adapted to conditions in which they not only survive but thrive. For you, the gardener, this means they are less likely to develop diseases, be damaged by insects, or require costly products and arduous labor as remedies.
I want a native plant garden. I also want culinary herbs, which are mostly native to the Mediterranean. So I don’t advocate being a native-plant purist if that’s not your style. But by simply making a gradual shift to a palette of plants that support beneficial diversity in the landscape, you can achieve a garden that is easier to maintain, requires less precious water, and supports the complexweb of an entire ecosystem.
Laurie McGrath has been a Certified Master Gardener for 20 years and is a founding member of the Santa Fe Native Plant Project (SNaPP). She recently embarked on a complete renovation of her yard to create a native plant and permaculture garden.