Gardening comes down to an expression of love: a love of plants, a love for a particular place, a love of the planet, a love for the process of nurturing growth. As gardeners, we make decisions and choices about how to express that love, and as long as we’re not doing harm (to ourselves, to others or to the Earth), “shoulds” don’t enter into it. The garden is a place of personal, creative expression: some of us may choose to explore the world of native plants exclusively; others may stick to favourite exotics; still others may decide to combine the two, with wildflowers and cultivated varieties in a bountiful mix.
Many gardeners who opt for only native plants started out with non-native specimens. So be forewarned: tentative experimentation with natives often leads to obsession. Not because of any “shoulds,” but out of love.
Native plants are becoming increasingly popular, not simply because they’re beautiful, but for environmental reasons as well. If you match specimens to the conditions in your garden (woodland ones for shade, meadow and prairie types for sun, wetland plants in moist areas), you won’t need to do much supplementary watering, thus conserving this precious resource. Natives don’t require any synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizers either, a big advantage in this era of cosmetic-pesticide restrictions. And these plants attract wildlife to your garden, creating habitat for birds, butterflies and other pollinators. Finally, native specimens tend to require less maintenance than exotic ornamentals.
As gardeners, we’ve been taught by decades of good marketing to expect big, colourful blooms from our plants—the bigger, the better. The bestsellers of the horticultural trade tend to be the showiest, most exuberantly flowering species; they’ve been bred for precisely these qualities. But while there are native plants that certainly qualify as flashy beauties, generally their charms are subtler.
This is particularly true in the woodland garden in summer. Most woodland natives bloom in spring, putting on a splashy show, but by summer, their appeal lies mainly in the different foliage textures and array of green hues; consider adding ferns for more summer interest.
Native meadow and prairie plants, on the other hand, tend to be low-key in spring but offer lots of summer colour. Many of these enthusiastic bloomers have flowers that last for weeks, so you can have a continuous display for the whole season. Keep in mind that native meadow and prairie plants tend to be tall, so site accordingly.
Coddling versus carefree
Many native plants require little in the way of maintenance, just supplementary watering in times of drought, and regular weeding and deadheading. Site specimens with similar needs together, much the way they’re grouped in xeriscape gardens, for example, with heavy feeders or moisture-loving types together, and light feeders or drought-tolerant species in a different area.