Lee Valley & Veritas

Gardening Newsletter
  Volume 12, Issue 6 - June 2017  
Landscaping with Native Plants
"What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered."

 Ralph Waldo Emerson
Native species milkweed not only benefits monarch butterflies but other insects as well.
I grew up in an era when suburban homes consisted of neatly trimmed, weed-free lawns treated with various chemicals to keep them green and dandelion free. Growing native plants, those species of flowers, bushes and trees that existed in an area prior to European settlement, was not desired and was often frowned upon. Native species, however, provide numerous benefits to the garden and the ecosystem as a whole. While gardeners today use some native species in their landscaping projects, non-native flowers, shrubs and trees are still the popular choice.

Habitat Loss and Biodiversity
Once home to extensive forests, meadows, wetlands and other habitats, much of North America's natural environment has been destroyed and replaced with developments such as subdivisions, roads and shopping malls. This process continues to chop the natural habitat into smaller and smaller pieces, negatively impacting the plants and animals that live there. The resulting extirpation of many native species obviously has a huge impact on biodiversity. A recent report (July 8, 2016) by the network Partners in Flight describes how North America's land-bird population has declined by more than a billion birds since 1970!
White spruce seedlingWhite spruce seedling
A white spruce seedling, a native species, planted next to a fallen tree.
Native Plants Do Better
Native species of flowers, shrubs and trees are more adapted to the local environment and growing conditions compared to non-native species. They require less water and are more likely to thrive. I experienced this several years ago when a drought killed a couple of Colorado spruce trees (not native to our area) in our yard. These established trees had been planted years earlier and were growing well. Next to these trees were several white spruce trees that had been planted around the same time and were similar in size. The white spruces, which are native to the area, not only survived the drought but thrived during the extended dry period.

Vital for Other Species
Native flowers, shrubs and trees are also vital to wildlife as they provide them with food, shelter and homes. Wildlife, including insects, depends on native plants. In his book Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens (2007), Douglas W. Tallamy describes how he observed little leaf damage from insects to the exotic species of plants in his yard. Conversely, it was obvious that the native trees in his yard had provided the local insects with much of their food. Tallamy's concern is that areas with many non-native plants will have considerably fewer insects and this, in turn, will have an adverse impact on animals that depend on insects for food.
Native Plants for Wildlife
By learning what plants are native to your area and those that do well in your garden, you can provide insects and other animals with homes and food. Milkweed, for example, is vital to the survival of monarch butterflies. These butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants and the caterpillars feed on the leaves. Unfortunately, there has been a drastic decline in the monarch butterfly population, largely due to the eradication of milkweed plants by herbicides. Planting milkweed can help monarchs to survive, but keep pets away from it as it is toxic to many animals including dogs, cats and horses.
Native trees such as this grove of tamaracks are important to the welfare of wildlife.
Healthy, Native Ecosystems Help Prevent Spread of Exotic Species
Planting native species helps minimize the spread of exotic plants. Invasions of exotic species are reduced not only because the invasive species weren't planted in the first place, but because healthy, native ecosystems are more resistant to the spread of non-native species than disturbed or open areas are.

At some point in the past, someone introduced the non-native pine species Scots pine (also known as Scotch pine) on our property – possibly to grow and sell as Christmas trees. These non-native pine trees have spread in the now-open fields that were farmed in the past, outcompeting native species that haven't yet become established. Fortunately, these invasive pine trees aren't found in the forested areas of the property.
Native maple tree
Native maple tree
The author planted this native maple tree as a seedling.
Wild Spaces and Eco-Corridors
While much of North America's natural habitat has been destroyed, altered or fragmented by humans, there are ways for gardeners to help restore at least part of these areas. Whether you have a tiny yard or a large acreage, planting native species helps the area's fauna. Not only will your plants be healthy and need less water compared to most exotic species, they will help the region's biodiversity!

N. Glenn Perrett

Photographs by Lynn and Glenn Perrett

N. Glenn Perrett and his family live on a 25-acre property that they are allowing to return to a natural state. Glenn has a degree in Environmental Studies and is currently finishing a book entitled
The National Parks of Southern Ontario.
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