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Native Plants

Dianne Westlake

By definition, Native Plants are those plants that were living here prior to the appearance of Europeans in North America. Evolving over thousands of years, adapting to the specific environment in which they grow, their development has been affected by soil conditions, climate and rainfall patterns. These plants depend on the creatures that exist in the environment for pollination while providing nectar and shelter. Nutrients are provided as organisms break down dead plant material.

The majority of plants available in garden centres and nurseries are non-natives but these days many gardeners looking for alternatives to the highly bred members of the plant world.

With so many ‘alien’ or non-native plants available, why is it a good idea to use native plants? By developing a garden filled with native plants, less care is required because gardens are based on natural principles. We provide an environment where the plants essentially take care of themselves. This type of garden provides a home for native plants that are more often becoming rare in the wild as well as a habitat for birds and butterflies. Leaving dead plant material proves mulch that improves water conservation while eliminating the need for chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

With thousands of plants native to Ontario, we are able to choose from a range of plants suitable for a shady woodland, a sunny meadow, or a calming pond. This variety of plants will help to increase the level of biodiversity in the garden.

Where do we start? Have a look in local fields or ravines. What attracts your eye? Note what is taking root naturally but be aware that some plants that grow in the wild are not native. Some of these plants were imported, escaped the backyard garden and set up colonies. They are common and grow in wild places. In this area, Queen’s Anne’s Lace is found in meadows and along roads but is not native and certainly we are aware of purple loosestrife in our wetlands.

Good field guides, for example, Peterson’s or Audubon’s will help you make good choices. You could try the Public Library or your local bookstore. Other ways to learn more is to visit botanical gardens and arboretums. Attend some meetings of local Native Plant or Conservation Societies. Search on the Internet.

One of our best resources in Peterborough is the Ecology Park. Check with the knowledgeable staff for suggestions and to purchase quality native plants.

When planning a garden using native plants it is important to work with nature. Use plants that would grow in nature in our area. Remember to recycle nutrients by composting and to retain moisture in the soil with mulching. Group plants with the similar needs and use a wide variety of plants.

One of your first steps when planning a native garden might be to decide just how local you want your plants to be. There are two schools of thought on this issue. A purist would probably feel that a plant isn't truly native unless it is from the local genotype of a species, meaning from stock found within 150 or so kilometres of your garden. A specific species may grow wild in a large area but a specific plant from your own area will probably be better adapted to local climate and soils and more resistant to local insect pests.

However, a non-purist can argue that a native species of more distant origin, such as a plant you buy by mail from a distant nursery, still offers more benefits ecologically than an exotic shrub or flower that requires high maintenance and provides little value to wildlife. No matter your position, be sure to purchase from a reputable nursery to ensure that your native plants have not been ripped off from nature. Some wildflower populations have been sharply reduced due to unethical collecting from the wild. At your nursery, ask if plants sold as natives are propagated specimens.

Make an inventory of your site conditions. These will govern the kind of plants that will be successful. Whether you have a dry sunny location or a moist shady location, there are native plants that will thrive. Be realistic. You might want a bog garden but if you do not have a naturally damp area, you might be setting yourself up for failure even if you have the best intentions.

Draw a map of your yard plotting existing trees, shrubs, flowerbeds, and structures. This will help you determine what to add. Note light and soil conditions in any areas where you plant to plant and ensure that you have adequate drainage.

Choose a wide range of native plants: evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs, flowers, and grasses. Make sure the mature size of your choices fit with the scale of your garden. Think vertically as well as horizontally by using plants with varying heights. Plan for colour: choose plants so that you have flowers or interesting foliage from spring through fall. Select plants that will attract birds and butterflies. Remember that red attracts hummingbirds if that is desirable and that flowers with multiple flowerets, like Joe Pye Weed attracts butterflies.

Native plants may be planted in wither formal or informal arrangement. When planting, it is usually recommended to space the plants about a foot apart. It takes a year or two before they "fill in". Don’t forget to use a layer of mulch to conserve water, reduce weed growth and moderate soil temperatures

With a some research and planning you are on your way to having a native plant garden that is so well suited for your yard it will practically take care of itself – leaving you that much more time to sit and enjoy the seasons.