Native plants — plants that grew here before European colonization — are a must-have for every gardener concerned with preserving biodiversity, beauty, and their own backs and pocketbooks. How is it that one group of plants can achieve so many worthy goals?
Native plants want to grow here — so it’s less work to keep them alive
Unlike most imported annual flowers, perennial herbaceous native plants can thrive in less fertile soil. This is because they evolved to grow in this climate, in the soil that is here. Their own lifecycle maintains healthy soil. As their foliage dies and decomposes over the winter, they contribute to the organic matter for the next year’s blooms and their deep, dense root systems hold the soil in place. This means you won’t have to fertilize intensively each year to ensure you get your colorful blooms, saving you both money and time.
What’s more, because they are perennial they will grow back the following year once they have been established. So there’s no need to rebuy and replant them every year.
Native plants create habitat
Researcher Doug Tallamy, known for his work studying biodiversity and pollinators, says, “We must find ways to design landscapes that enhance rather than degrade the ecosystems around us.” Growing native plants in our gardens does just that. By growing native plants, we give native bees and other insects the food and shelter they need to survive. Tallamy has found that “90 percent of our native insects are specialists that feed on three or fewer families of plants.” As more and more wild lands are developed, our native insects are at risk. But by planting natives in our yards, we help boost the habitat to host a healthy insect population, which in turn helps bird populations. By gardening with native plants, we create much needed habitat for at-risk insects, birds, and animals.
This doesn’t mean you have to rip out your whole lawn and all of your petunias, but consider turning some areas into native plantings. Petunias, though brilliantly colored, make no pollen or nectar. Similarly, lawns are deserts to pollinators. Chemically-treated lawns can even harm birds and our water supply.
Native plants are beautiful
Though we have become familiar with the color provided by impatiens or zinnais, native plantings can be designed in such a way as to bloom brightly throughout the growing season.
Columbine, for example, can provide reds and yellows in the early season, blooming from April to June. Creeping phlox can lend your ground cover blues and lavenders in the spring. The brilliant orange of butterfly weed will zing up any garden in June and July — and attract colorful butterflies to flit about. Ox-eye daisies, coreopsis, rudbeckia and swamp sunflower can provide an extravagance of yellow through September. For lavenders and pinks, you can turn to joe pye weed or wild bleeding heart. There is no shortage of colorful blooms in native plant selections.
For a longer list of colors, heights, and bloom times, check out the planting guide from Penn State Extension.
Establishing Native Plants
The time is now. Spring and early summer are a great time to start establishing herbaceous native perennials. But do not be tempted to dig up native plants growing in the wild. Doing so could harm the existing habitat and it is actually illegal to collect native plants from national parklands. The only time to consider digging up natives is if an area is slated to be developed and the plants will be destroyed by the construction.
Select plants based on where you are planting them. There are a variety of native plants that grow well in shade, partial shade, or direct sun. If you match the plant to the right planting area, once they are established they will need little maintenance to thrive.
Once you have selected the plants, dig a hole to the same depth as the container the plants are in. Gently break up the roots if it is root-bound and place the plant in the hole. Add soil, and water thoroughly.
While getting established, native plants may need a bit of care. In the first growing season, check to make sure they are staying moist. Adding mulch around the plant — but away from the stem — can help the plantings maintain a good moisture level. After the first season, they will need little to no watering.
If you are planting in a deer-prone area, you may do well to keep your plants covered until they are more established. Young plants — even the ones that are known to be deer resistant — may get nibbled or pulled out of the ground by curious deer before they grow a healthy root system.
Native Plants at Wolff’s
Holly Thorpe in our Plant Department orders many native plants every year. Here’s what you can find!
- Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium Lucerne)
- Chrysogonum virgininanum
- Creeping phlox (Phlox spp)
- Dicentra formosa
- Muhlenbergia capillaris
- Native ferns
- Native Heuchera
- Native sedge (Cares spp)