Growing Native Gardens and Why They Matter

The original post for this content was posted by Marissa Spatley at the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. This content is re-posted with the proper permissions.

Few things get me as excited as conservation landscaping. It wasn’t always this way, but as I learned more and more about the importance of native plants in the environment, I became to appreciate and value them.

There is something about natives that fascinates me. I get excited about what value they offer. The landscaping plants of my parents: English ivy, Japanese barberry, and dwarf spruce trees and Bradford pear trees from China can be thought of as statues in a garden. Meaning, as Doug Tallamy puts it, they offer very little/no benefits to the ecosystem. Not to air quality, insect life, bird communities, or soil health, and can be detrimental to other plants as they invade and take over.

But to think of the plants native to the Chesapeake Bay region, you can see the big, interconnected picture take shape. Plants like milkweed (Asclepias spp) and white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) are the sole host plants for native butterflies, monarch (Danaus plexippus) and Baltimore checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton), respectively. This means without this plant, those butterflies can’t reproduce! That’s how interconnected they are.

Joe-Pye weeds (Eutrochium spp), bee balm (Monarda spp), and mountain mints (Pycnanthemum spp), to name a small few, are incredible sources of nectar and pollen for all sorts of insects, birds and small mammals. Many of these plants produce hardy seeds which sustain overwintering birds. Native trees, like oaks (Quercus spp) can host over 500 different species of butterfly and moth larva on their leaves and bark alone!

My wife and I are working diligently at our home to re-naturalize our yard. We’re planting tall, sun loving natives with showy flowers in our sunny front yard and, slowly but surely, replacing a carpet of English ivy with native ferns and perennial ground covers.

And as the Alliance struggles to get more freedoms with our rented office property, we’re converting garden beds of spirea and liriope with native grasses, shrubs and flowering perennials. In fact, the photos used throughout this post are from our front garden, year 2 after planting.

Whether you have the opportunity to add some native plants on your property or you can help a friend, business or volunteer organization with their’s, being involved in the planting and care of the garden makes you appreciate their beauty and ecological significance all the more.

One of the biggest stigmas of native gardens in the public’s eye is that they are ugly. Weed patches, if you will. While native gardens have many benefits, like less watering and fertilizing, they’re still a garden that require care and upkeep to keep them shapely and beautiful to the public.

Let’s think of them as a ‘garden with benefits’. They can offer beauty, style, flare and at the same time become a driving force for the local ecosystem. The local ecosystem in which you are also living.

If you’d like to learn more about conservation landscaping, I’d recommend:

Special thank you to Blue Water Baltimore who helped with the phase I design of the garden and providing the plants through their Herring Run Nursery.

All the photos from Year 2 of the Alliance’s conservation landscape adverture is available on flickr: