Thursday, May 07, 2009

The 'why' and 'how' of gardening with native plants

The 'why' and 'how' of gardening with native plants

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As the green of spring replaces the gray and brown of winter in the Illinois landscape I imagine that even people who don’t consider themselves gardeners feel the itch to plant something. For me the impulse is to transform a little bit more lawn into garden, using plants that are native to east central Illinois.

Why garden with native plants?

Aesthetics are part of it. I anticipate with great pleasure the colors of prairie flowers in summer—the bright yellow of black-eyed susan, the subdued lavender of our native bee balm, the vibrant orange of butterfly milkweed, the plant that also guarantees I’ll have monarch butterflies in my yard. Interspersed with these, I see in my mind’s eye the slender, flowing leaves of my favorite native grass, prairie dropseed, as well as sturdier stands of little bluestem.

I’m also prompted to landscape with native plants by the value I place on conservation. I know that my new prairie garden will require the use of no pesticides or fertilizer, and that once it is established, I won’t even have to water it. Nor will I have to spend time mowing it.

Of course, I could achieve these goals of conservation by using perennial plants that originate elsewhere in the world. But it is only by landscaping with plants native to our region that I can accomplish an even more important purpose, which is to help sustain populations of native insects. [Photos: an adult pearl crescent butterfly and a monarch butterfly caterpillar both spent time on my butterfly milkweed last summer.]

“Insects,” you say, “why would anyone want to help insects—aren’t they the enemy?”

Well, yes and no.

The ones that eat your garden vegetables don’t make for very good neighbors. But other insects, the ones that are adapted to feeding on native plants and trees (which are, in turn, adapted to tolerate them) are worth our attention for their own sake, and they are the key to sustaining diverse populations of birds and other wildlife.

Indeed, remaking urban and suburban landscapes with native plants is crucial if we are to slow the continuing wave of animal extinctions that began with the arrival of Europeans in North America.

In basic terms, the land we set aside from development is not itself sufficient to maintain a healthy level of biodiversity. We can compensate for that to a degree, however, by increasing the value of urban and suburban landscapes for wildlife. That starts with native plants, which are the food for native insects, which are, ultimately, the food for so many other creatures up the food chain.

If you’re interested in learning more about the ecological importance of landscaping with native plants, let me recommend the book “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” by Douglas W. Tallamy, who is an entomologist at the University of Delaware.

If you’re ready to start landscaping with native plants, let me recommend two local resources. The first is a book published by University of Illinois Extension, called “Native Plants in the Home Landscape for the Upper Midwest.” This book describes a wide variety of native wildflowers, grasses, trees, and shrubs that work well in home landscapes, and it provides specific plans for installing them in gardens that look great, too.

The second local resource you should be aware of is a conservation group, Grand Prairie Friends. Each Spring they grow and sell native plants to raise funds for efforts to conserve land and promote biodiversity in our area. This year’s Grand Prairie Friends Native Prairie Plant and Woodland Wildflower sale will take place from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 9th, at Lincoln Square Village in Urbana.

There you can get advice from members of the group about how and what to plant, and you can buy a wide variety of native plants at very reasonable prices.