Our home is surrounded by living things.? Yours probably is too.? Grass, trees, flowers, birds, insects, all that stuff.
But we want more than that.? We don’t want our house to be an island in a boring expanse of sterile lawn.? And we don’t want our garden to just be a place to stick some pretty things that happen also to be alive.? And we don’t want to have to keep those things alive with endless watering, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides.
In short, we want our yard to be part of a healthy, functioning ecosystem.
That’s why we started this blog.? And that’s why we’re cutting down on the amount of our yard that’s covered by turf grass.? And most importantly, that’s why we’re prioritizing native plants in our yard and garden.
What’s the Big Deal About Native Plants?
Take a trip to your local garden center or [ugh] big box home improvement store, and you’ll find plenty of flowering plants, shrubs, and trees.? And most people will just choose what’s available and looks nice.? But most of the plants that are for sale are exotics, meaning they did not evolve in our region and the conditions that predominate here.? Native plants, on the other hand, did.
There are two main arguments for prioritizing native plants over exotics in our yards: resources and ecosystems.
Saving Resources With Native Plants
On the resource front, many of the most frequently purchased flowers and shrubs require regular soil amendments like synthetic fertilizers.? And since they didn’t evolve in our climate, in many cases they require frequent watering to make it through our hot summers.? These resources cost us time and money.? And the fertilizers and pesticides many of us dump on our lawns and gardens run off our property where they wreak havoc on our waterways.
Natives, on the other hand, tend not to require those things.? They evolved in our local soils so when placed properly at most they might need some occasional added organic matter (i.e. compost).? And while they’ll need some watering to get established during their first growing season, well-sited plants need much less watering than exotics?in many cases none at all*.
* I say well-sited, since just because a plant is native to New Jersey doesn’t mean it will thrive in all conditions.? You can’t put a wetlands plant in a dry sunny spot in the middle of your yard and expect it to thrive?you still have to pay attention to things like soil moisture, light levels, sandiness, etc.
And in case you’re worried about looks (we’re talking about gardens after all), when placed in a garden setting, native species thrive and can compete with any exotic out there on a strictly ornamental basis.
Native Plants and the Ecosystem
There’s another problem with exotics.? Most contribute little, if anything, to the ecosystem.
We all learned about ecosystems and the food web in science class.? You remember: Every living thing depends on the sun’s energy.? It’s plants that provide that crucial first step, turning that energy into food.? Then the plants are consumed by insects, which are consumed by birds, and so forth.
But most exotics are an ecological dead end.? The insects that live in North America simply won’t eat them.? That might sound like a positive to all but the staunchest tree hugger.? But if our gardens are about beauty, what about the moths and butterflies that call North America home?? And what about songbirds?? Nearly all terrestrial bird species feed their young on an exclusive diet of insects.? No bugs, no birds.
To give you just one famous example of the importance of natives, consider everyone’s favorite garden insect, the butterfly.? You can go into Home Depot next spring and buy yourself a nonnative butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), and the tag on it will probably boast about how great it is at attracting butterflies.? And its true that butterflies and moths will feed on its nectar, so you might see a handful and pat yourself on the back for contributing.? But those butterflies and moths evolved alongside specific native host plants.? Monarchs, for instance, will only lay their eggs on native milkweed species (genus Asclepias), and monarch caterpillars will only eat those plants.? Butterfly bushes might provide a meal for an adult, but planting them instead of native host plants actively hurts butterfly populations. In an endless sea of typical suburban yards, there’s no place for monarchs. And that doesn’t even get into the fact that butterfly bushes are generally considered invasive, meaning they can easily escape our yards and out-compete native plant communities in our neighbors’ yards, parks, and natural areas.
Habitat loss is the main driver of the widespread declines of many wildlife and songbird species.? And we may never get back the large, undeveloped and uninterrupted tracts that some animals need to thrive (think of the endless deciduous forests that once covered the East Coast, or the thousands of square miles of contiguous prairies of the Midwest).
But while there’s no getting around the damage our development patterns cause, we can make space in our yards for native habitats.? And if our neighbors do it, and our towns do it in our parks, we can give the sterile, dead-end suburban landscape a chance at becoming an ecosystem again.