Why Grow Natives?

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener

First let’s define native. According to the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), native plants are one which occurred within the state before settlement by Europeans. As we become more global, our native species of plants are becoming less present in our landscapes, and unfortunately in our natural habitat. As plants from other parts of the world come into our landscapes, things happen. For instance, barberry and burning bush – now found in our forests – are reducing the herbaceous material that typically grows in forested areas. No natural predators, no natural controls.

Why is this a problem? Here is an interesting fact: "In 2000, 5% of PA native plant species had been eliminated and another 25% were in danger of being eliminated." (DCNR.state.pa.us) Research shows that the decreased native plants have a direct effect on our native insects, amphibians, birds, and wildlife. We should be concerned because as our native insects decrease, so does are food supply. We need insects to pollinate our vegetable plants, like cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and beans.

More interesting facts: "Americans manage 30 million acres of lawn. We purchase 100 million tons of fertilizer per year and 80 million pounds of pesticides (10 times the rate per acre of pesticides used by farmers). We spend $750 million on grass seed. Grass clippings consume 25 – 40% of landfill space during the growing season. Before settlers, 95% of the watershed was forested, now less than 60% is forested." (Acb.onlin.org)

Growth is expected, but the way we manage growth can be controlled. We can increase plant diversity and connect plant corridors with our neighbors. We can reduce turf grass by planting shrubs, trees and perennials. We can increase insect diversity, reduce pesticide usage by planting plants that attract these insects. Increasing pollination for our vegetable crops by introducing native perennials into our landscapes will attract these beneficial insects.

Imagine being an insect, amphibian or mammal in today’s world. All in the name of growth, you have been limited to small, forested areas. Remember, our area has been reduced by 35% and counting. Traveling from one forested area to another, we can see housing, streets, cars, grass, and water that are polluted with pesticides– lots and lots of open space. Survival rate for native insects, amphibians or mammals? Probably not so good.

Now, what if we take that same environment and connect yards with shrubs, trees and perennials. What if we reduce the turf? Suddenly, the animals, birds and insects have corridors that connect them from one forested area to another. Not only have we created more diversity in plant and animal life; we have provided more food as well as safe routes for travel. We have allowed these critters to visit our vegetables to pollinate, allowed for activity in our yards we never would have seen, and we’ve cleaned up our water because we are using less pesticides as we allow for natural predators to prey on pests.

As a horticulturist, I get questions every day that go something like this: what can I spray to fix "xyz" problem? We as a society want quick and easy answers, and expect immediate results. Quickly, we get frustrated because the amount of pesticides available to us as homeowners is reduced each year, or so it seems. Why has this happened? We are the most abusive users of pesticides. We don’t read the label, or if the label says to use ¼ tsp per gal, we use ½ tsp, because more must be better.

Farmers and professional pesticide applicators are regulated. They have to take a test to apply pesticides. They have to continue their training of pesticide usage to keep their license. Homeowners, are not. We can use pesticides that we get at Lowe’s, Home Depot, Wal-mart as we wish. We don’t always abide by label direction and can abuse our right to use pesticides without punishment.

Problems in our landscapes are often a result of bad planting, the wrong plant selection, or plant maintenance and have nothing to do with insect or disease issues; or the insect or disease issue is a secondary infestation resulting from bad plant management. Therefore, education is imperative so we can understand when to use pesticides, and what is the best management of our plants in our landscapes. If we concentrate more on native plants that are acclimated to our weather, soils, and natural insects, we will reduce the need for "fixes".

As homeowners, we must look at our surroundings as a piece of the natural world. What was there before houses, streets and cars? What can I do to make my environment friendlier? Consider this: if we reduce our lawn, we reduce the amount of fertilizer we’re applying. If we reduce fertilizer use, we reduce pollution of local creeks and streams, possible contamination of ground water, air and noise pollution from gas powered equipment. Think about it: if we’re not mowing, we’re saving on gas. We are reducing our costs of fertilizers that potentially run into our water supply. We’ve increased biodiversity – the variety and variation of plants, animals, fungi, microbes and their relationship to each other, we’ve created a cleaner environment. We’ve reduced pollution of local creeks and streams and possible contamination of ground water.

It’s really quite simple. Each and every one of us can help our environment to become healthier and happier. All we have to do is:

  1. Avoid fragmentation of forests by connecting your land to your neighbor through planting trees, shrubs and perennials.
  2. Replace trees and shrubs with native plants and reduce turfgrass areas. This will allow our native critters to live happily, resulting in less pesticide usage and better pollination for our foods.
  3. By your plants from someone that knows plants. Not all non-native plants are bad, not all cultivated or selected plants are bad. Many are good. Many have benefits to our environment, but ask a professional.

Without diverse plant communities of native plants, the result will be lack of food, unclean water and air, and a world of introduced insects with no natural control. Is this a world we want in our future?

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