Bringing nature home

A growing number of people believe that we should only be planting and using native species in our gardens. All non-native plants should be considered aliens and are to be avoided. Follow that premise, and you will build a much better viewing garden and a habitat for wildlife.

I recently had the opportunity to read a book by Douglas Tallamy titled Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (updated and expanded). I found a chapter called “Making It Happen” particularly interesting. In this chapter, Tallamy explains how it takes a paradigm shift to go from today’s garden to one filled with natives.

So, what will it cost, you might ask. Well, it doesn’t mean that you have to adopt a slash-and-burn policy toward your beautiful garden filled with aliens. You can follow the rules of attrition. As aliens die, you should replace them with natives that come closest to what you want, considering habit, size, texture, and fall and flower color. Or you can redesign small patches at a time. Even better would be to create brand new plantings. We all know how to create a three-dimension garden by planting tall plants in the back, short in the front, etc. But remember that you are building to create habitat, not only a pretty garden. One of the things you will need is mulch. The perfect mulch is leaf litter. It not only acts as a sponge, preventing runoff, but it slowly releases moisture to a garden. It’s free fertilizer, free weed control, and free soil amendments. Many wildflowers, such as trout lily and pink and yellow lady slipper, will only grow in soil with lots of humus, making leaf litter a perfect addition to soil where you want them to grow.

Garden design can also help to fight global warming. Hacking away at forest to plant large lawns is a poor way to reduce carbon dioxide. Trees are carbon sinks, using carbon from the atmosphere to build their tissue, and they keep that carbon locked up until they die. Then add the costs of mowing, and the benefit of rethinking the lawn mentality becomes even more obvious.

Choose trees wisely. It is best to plant species that grow in your area. Some native trees are hard to transplant but are easy to grow from seed. Use plant diversity-creating vertical structures, such as trees, shrubs, and understory plants. It’s a good way to start. Then supply as many natives as you can, such as viburnums, red and black chokeberries, and native azaleas.

There’s no getting around the fact that removing invasive species is hard, hands-on work. Often natives will grow up where you remove non-natives. Since squirrels and blue jays like to bury seeds, sometimes all you have to do is clear a patch of bare soil where you want native species such as beech, oak, and hickory to germinate. Of course, you will have to weed out the invasives as they appear. Mulching will minimize germination by alien species. At home, we have decided to allow a section of about a half acre of lawn to go unmown and return to meadow. A recent visitor to the Arboretum told me that she did this and had several very desirable trees grow. I can’t wait to see what grows in that area at my house.

As a new garden season approaches, do you find yourself unsure of what you should plant? In Appendix One, you will find suggestions for native landscaping plants by region. Our region starts on page 294. I found this to be a very informative book and a great resource for anyone who is planning a garden or is just interested in native species. Several copies are available for purchase in the Arboretum’s Sweet Bay gift shop. Come on out for a walk and pick up your copy!

by Diana Beall

Administrative Assistant

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