Simply put, native plants are those that have existed in an area for a long enough time to have evolved in harmony with the soil, climate, and other plants and animals surrounding them.
Native plants offer many benefits to the landscape, wildlife, and to us -- they attract beneficial insects and pollinators and also provide seeds and berries to wildlife; native plants' root systems are much longer than non-native counterparts and are therefore able to help stabilize soil, retain more water, and bring nutrients out of the soil. Also, native plants are adapted to the existing soil conditions as well as climate and after establishment, should not require watering or fertilization to see success.
Now that we know the what and the why, let's get to some myth-busting and uncover the truth about native plants. Below are a few myths, or reasons, we hear as to why people often choose not to plant natives.
Myth #1: Native plants look unkempt and unattractive (aka "weedy"). Sure, some native plants can look more unkempt than others but this is true of non-native plants as well if they are not properly maintained. Native plants are beautiful! They offer so many colors, textures, and bloom times throughout the year. The trick is to find the natives that you like and then before purchasing them, do your homework -- find out how tall they get or if they tend to spread uncontrollably, how long they bloom, when they bloom, the color of the bloom, etc. If space is limited, start with plants that stay on the shorter side. And understand that all plants need some sort of maintenance in terms of pruning/trimming, especially when they are planted as landscape plants.
It is also okay to mix native and non-native (not invasive, there's a big difference!) plants in your landscape. Some very attractive and successful gardens include combinations of more traditional landscape plants mixed in with natives. Experts say 75% natives and 25% non-natives is an ideal ratio. And of course, I do concur. However, in my opinion, 75% non-natives and 25% natives is better than 100% non-natives. Baby-steps are better than no steps at all -- over time we can shoot for the stars!
Myth #2: It is too hard to find native plants for purchase. Yes, maybe this was once the case, but sources of native plants are now more common. If you live in and around Lucas County, there are several agencies and organizations that either sell native plants at various times of the year or put out lists as planting season begins of where to get them. The Toledo Zoo, Wood County Parks District, Oak Openings Green Ribbon Initiative, and the Lucas SWCD have native plant sales annually. You can also find a comprehensive list of these and other sources of native plants here. There are also plant exchanges you can join to get free plants!
Myth #3: Native plants are too hard to maintain. Keep in mind, all plants need some form of maintenance but once established, native plants require much less than non-native plants simply for the fact that they are built for growing in our climate and conditions. It is also important to remember that new native plants should be watered regularly until they are fully established. But once established and growing, they rarely need watering, if ever. Also, certain plants benefit from dead-heading or dividing just as many non-native plants do.
Also, no fertilization is required for native plants to be successful; though mulching does help keep them healthy. Bottom line, if maintenance is a concern, do your homework and learn about the plants you are considering to make sure they are right for the size and conditions of your intended planting site.
Myth #4: The insects that native plants bring to your yard are bad. Repeat after me… INSECTS ARE GOOD! I know some of us may have been raised to think of insects as big, bad, creepy-crawly, biting, chill-inducing, bug-eyed, house-eating, critters. But, the truth of the matter is, without them, Earth as we know it would not exist. Insects are a food source for countless animals. Insects also help decompose materials and return them to the soil as part of the natural cycle of life. Insects are often pollinators; it is believed that one in every three bites of food we take is as a result of pollination! Simply put, insects are cool and you want them in your yard! If bee allergies are a concern, obviously choose your planting sites wisely to reduce the risk of stings.
Myth #5: To make a difference, I have to plant a whole field of native plants/flowers. While a whole field planted in natives is amazing, so is a few natives sprinkled in your existing landscape or transitioning a portion of lawn into a small, native prairie -- every native plant that is added back to the landscape has a purpose and a benefit to all living creatures and the environment!
If this has inspired you to plant native this spring, fantastic! If you still have questions about native plants, please contact our office at (419) 893-1966.
“We have allowed alien plants to replace natives all over the country. Our native animals and plants cannot adapt to this gross and completely unnatural manipulation of their environment in time to negate the consequences. Their only hope for a sustainable future is for us to intervene to right the wrongs that we have perpetrated.”
Author: Penny Bollin
Urban Conservation Technician
Lucas SWCD staff