The Native Plant Garden at
The Adams County Agriculture and Natural Resources Center

Audrey Hillman
Adam's County Master Gardener

Its been a long time coming, and countless hours in the planning. The installation of the native plant garden surrounding The Adams County Agriculture and Natural Resources Center will begin this spring with the planting of the trees and shrubs, hopefully to be followed soon after by the perennials.

The planning began with the decision to make the garden one of native plants, followed by a lengthy and lively discussion of the definition of a native plant. What exactly is a native plant? The answer can be complicated depending on whose view you prescribe to. Some believe that there is no such thing as a native plant, that all plants are native where they grow.

While that is a bit extreme most people agree that a native plant is one that grew in North America before the arrival of European settlers. The definition can then be narrowed down all the way from your section of the continent (we live in the Eastern Oak region) right down to your own backyard. The Site Committee chose to keep the plants native to our own physiographic region, the Piedmont.

It is the area between the Blue Ridge Summit and the Coastal Plain. These are plants that have been found in the wild in Pennsylvania, though not necessarily only Pennsylvania. The factors that determine a plantís distribution are associated with the physical and biological needs of that plant allowing it to grow, reproduce, and disperse in a given area. We wanted to create a garden with a regional identity where people could see their own native plants growing and perhaps be inspired to add these very garden worthy plants to their own gardens.

Planting and caring for native plants is no different from any other plant. Their requirements for prospering are as individual as any other plant. All of the conditions of the site such as sun, shade, soil, heat, cold, wind, and moisture must be taken into account. They also have the same needs to help them become established, and the time needed to do that is the same as for any plant.

It is a false assumption to think that you can plant them and forget them. One of the strong points for many native plants is that they are drought tolerant or resistant once established. The key words here are "once established". With the prospect of a dry summer with water restrictions many people are looking for drought tolerant plants, but do realize they need support until they mature. Once established you will be pleased to find they require little watering unless, of course, they are plants that naturally grow in moist to wet areas. They also require less fertilization. They are resistant to most pests and diseases, making them "low maintenance" plants if you site them well.

In our garden we have a mix of sun and shade, though not the dappled shade that mature trees provide. The soil has been worked and amended with compost and sand to provide the best conditions we can for them to thrive. We are also lucky enough to be able to irrigate these new arrivals with a microdrip system zoned so that those plants requiring more moisture will be grown together.

The same applies to those needing less water. This is one of the principles behind xeriscaping your garden to conserve water. In nature plants with the same cultural requirements are often found growing together in what is known as a plant community. Often their beauty is enhanced by their association with each other. That is not to say that you have to create a naturalistic style garden to grow natives. Many people prefer a more defined English style border garden. These plants can do that as well, and still be planted as a community.

They will intermingle with each other along the margins to give your garden the cohesiveness you desire without having any one plant take over the whole area. In our garden we have not included plants that spread by stolons, or rhizomes. These are stems that run horizontally either above ground rooting as they go, or underground. Because our soil has been so carefully worked it is very light and fluffy. These plants would undoubtedly take advantage of the opportunity to spread to areas occupied by other less aggressive plants.

Because our garden surrounds a public building we wanted to be sure that every area of the garden provided visual interest throughout the growing season. We have mingled plants of various textures and bloom times into each microclimate the garden provides thereby assuring interest from spring, summer, and fall flowers, fall colors, berries and seed heads, and evergreens to provide winter color and structure.

Another factor influencing our decision to do native plants was the support they offer to wildlife. A community is not just the plants themselves, but the wildlife that depend on those plants for food, shelter, and a place to raise their young. The plants in turn have evolved to depend on the wildlife for things like pollination and seed dispersal. Our garden will contain plants that will provide nectar for birds, bees, and butterflies.

Other plants provide leaves for butterfly larvae. Many of the shrubs provide berries and seeds high in protein and fat necessary for over-wintering birds as well as those migrating. As you can see there are many reasons for including native plants in your garden. They will add so much, even if you plant just a few. You probably already have plants that are native, both to this area as well other regions.

Many of the plants native to the prairies do exceptionally well for us. I have many prairie natives in my own personal garden. So as you drive by the Agricultural and Natural Resources Center this summer take a couple of minutes to stop in to see and enjoy the Native Plant Garden and the Master Gardener Trial Garden. After all, we plant them for you!

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