Go native

Kay Hinkle
Adams County Master Gardener

What is a native plant? Simply the most durable, best option for planting what naturally grows where you live. We have introduced many new cultivars into our environment to add variety to our landscape, and there is no doubt that the variety is wonderful. However, some of these exotic choices require a special brand of care. Many choices at local nurseries have been imported into our environment over time and are not necessarily suited here in Zone 6.

By comparison, plants that are native to the Mid-Atlantic States, or more preferably, specific to Zone 6, tend to thrive here in the garden because they belong here. A recent trend toward planting natives has produced amazing landscapes that happen almost effortlessly. Choosing plants that are native to our geographic location makes good gardening sense.

The Pennsylvania Native Plant Society website is a helpful online link that lists hundreds of choices by category (trees, shrubs, perennials, and shade/sun) that are native to our state. By choosing a native plant, we can ensure the longevity of plants that grew here long before gardeners and homeowners designed landscapes with plants native to another place. Of the more than 2,000 native plants in the United States today, more than a quarter of them are in danger of extinction. www.plantnative.com provides ideas on native choices as well. Choosing to plant native plants at your house is a win-win situation. Because natives tend to adjust to familiar conditions, you will save time and effort coaxing them to flourish and most likely yield a showier result. Natives are often the better investment.

A good example of a Pennsylvania native that flourishes in a native environment is the wild columbine. By comparison, we see a variety of colors and sizes in cultivated gardens. Each year these hybrids most often come back, if conditions are right, in a variety of different colors from those we planted. These columbines are lovely but unpredictable. The wild columbine is smaller and always a true red with yellow on the lower part of the blossom. The wild columbine stays true to its original color and blooms in Northern Pennsylvania in conditions that are challenging most years. They can be seen growing from rock ledges along the road and in more fertile conditions as well. They are very adaptable to their native conditions. I have included a photo taken this year of the wild columbine growing along the Pine Creek Valley Rail Trail in Tioga County. If you want consistency in your columbine color and red is good for your color pallet, look for the wild columbine in mail order catalogs.

I recently had the opportunity to visit a lovely Ohio landscape that was a wonderful example of a nearly perfect native landscape. Robert Corey, an 83-year-old gardener who has collected and cultivated natives since his retirement 20 years ago, spends each day of the growing season gardening, greeting visitors, and finding ways to put some color into the lives of others. This spring, he cut 36,000 daffodil blooms and, with the help of local volunteers, delivered over a thousand vases to shut-ins and hospital residents nearby his Ohio gardens.

Mr. Corey has covered his wooded hillsides with a collection of bulbs interspersed with many plants native to Ohio that include Virginia bluebells, quite a collection of trilliums, and Jack-in-the-Pulpits. I visited when the redbud trees were in full bloom and the dogwoods just ready to take their turn. Brightly blooming wood poppies nodded across the hills; they re-seed themselves each year and pop up everywhere. May apples also had sprung up everywhere. Mr. Corey recommended its fruit as "really good eating."

His secret to prolific blooms year after year is a thorough soaking with a liquid high nitrogen natural fertilizer before the first plants break through and each six weeks afterward until the first frost. Mr. Corey walks his 4 acres with a backpack sprayer. To combat deer damage, he sprays regularly with an organic repellant. The last of the daffodils were fading that day, but Mr. Corey was still glowing with the memory of all who showed up to gather flowers and deliver bouquets to patients nearby.

The reason for planting native is because, as the old adage says, "they bloom where they are planted." An avid gardener may choose to plant a broad array, and all natives may not be appealing. However, a mainstay of natives interspersed with other varied choices will allow for a consistently simple garden technique as well as a consistent result. Try it.

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