Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Fuss over Native Plants

Native plants are the best things since sliced bread, in fact, they predate bread, modern wheat, and human settlement on this Continent. You may wonder, "What is the fuss?" You may wonder why the garden here at Harold's End (Hastings, King Harold, 1066, get it? No, me neither...) is well over 75% native plants. Many of the plants now growing in my garden are the same plants that were growing on this spot in 1066, when the Normans invaded England. You may even be wondering, as I am, what native plants have to do with the Norman invasion of 1066.
The greatest benefit to native plants, to me, is their spiritual value. I believe in a God that is at his very core in love with his creation, constantly breathing life into to it, and working with us to restore it to its former glory. From particle physics to the emergent properties of cellular organization, you are mind-bogglingly and fantastically created. Life is a miracle. So are plants, native and not native. However, God in his infinite wisdom, organized communities of species that live and work together. They are not super-organisms, but healthy natural communities are similarly complex, similarly mind-boggling and fantastic. And they are almost entirely extinct. You have probably never seen a healthy natural community in all its biologically diverse splendor. If God has revealed his eternal qualities, his goodness and glory, in his creation, then this revelation, this Holy Word, has been almost entirely destroyed.
Natural communities are not threatened by one evil force that we can define, design a solution, and solve. Instead they die by a thousand cuts. Poorly planed development, poorly enforced endangered species regulations, changes to the scale in time and place of natural processes like flooding, fire, frost, and grazing. Invasive exotic species of fungi, insect, fish, mussels, and plants crowd out natives, or kill them outright.
Aldo Leopold once said, "Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a good shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree—and there will be one.If his back be strong and his shovel sharp, there may eventually be ten thousand." The same is true of any native plant. If your back is good, you can restore a natural community in your own backyard. (And if your back is poor, like mine, it just takes a little longer.)
Some other benefits of native plants over non-native plants:
  • Gardening is good for the soul.
  • Native plants are not invasive exotic plants and will not harm the ecosystem.
  • Native plants are usually sold by a local small business. Restoring you natural community is part of restoring your local economy, and vice versa.
  • Native plants attract more local wildlife. (Like they were designed for each other.)
  • Native bees do not sting. European bees do. Native plants attract native bees. European plants attract European bees.
  • A diverse native garden attracts butterflies not seen at less diverse, less native gardens.
  • Networks of native gardens can provide important rest areas for birds, reptiles, amphibians, and butterflies that migrate hundreds of yards or thousands of miles through or over your property.
  • Once established, a native garden needs less weeding and little to no watering.
  • A native garden needs no fertilizer.
  • Native plants are host to native enemies to garden pests. Not only do you not need to spray chemicals on native plants. The native thrips and hoverflies will clean aphids and other pests off your non-native garden plants.
  • Many (not all) native plants are easier to grow than many non-native plants.

So why would anyone even consider buying non-native plants? Well, there are a few minor inconveniences.
  • Garden vegetables and herbs do not generally grow on native plants.
  • Native plants do not dominate the shelves at Mal-Wart or most large greenhouses and nurseries. You need to search them out. (Michiganders can find local sources here.)
  • Many native plants are perennials. They come back year and after year, but take a few years to establish. Year 1 sleep, year 2 creep, year 3 leap as the perennial saying goes. (Because I lack patience, I plant marigolds and petunias with my perennials in new beds to brighten things up a bit that first year.)

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