To Green Your Garden, Go Native!
How 'green' is your garden? Well now may be the time to ensure that it is truly sustainable. You can order seeds of wildflowers native to your region that will give you low-maintenance blooms next spring and all summer long. Not only will they thrive — they'll support native birds, insects and other pollinators that depend on familiar, home-grown species for a healthy ecosystem.
So advise many conservationists, including biologists in the National Wildlife Refuge System, the premier system of public lands and waters set aside to conserve America's wildlife and plants. National Wildlife Refuges strive to use native plantings or seeds on refuge land or plants unable to escape cultivation.
"Native species evolved in the local environment and have developed complex interrelationships with other area plant species as well as fine tuning to local climate and soil conditions,” says Kathleen Blair, a plain-talking Ph.D. ecologist at Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. Exotic plant species — non-natives, including many commercially available garden flowers — haven't. That means, she says, "If you plant non-native or exotic species, a whole lot of other local species cannot use them.”
It's possible that going native might help save a local ecosystem, or at least parts of one. That's what motivates Pauline Drobney, a land management research demonstration biologist at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa, where the staff is working to restore the globally threatened tallgrass prairie savannah. Each year, says Drobney, staff and volunteers plant up to 250 species of native plants on the refuge.
Does planting native mean sacrificing flash and drama? No way, says Drobney, who won over a skeptical neighbor by showing him the butterfly milkweed and blazing star in her yard. "It was just knock-your-socks-off color,” she says.
Getting it right matters. Some non-natives or exotics have become ecological nightmares, escaping backyards to rampage across entire regions, choking out native species as they spread. Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria, native to Europe) is a prime example. "It's a nightmare of a plant. It's now clogging up the wetlands of the East Coast,” says Blair.
Beyond that, planting an appropriate species will improve your odds of success. Some wildflowers are highly site-specific in terms of rainfall, elevation and soil type.
Native plants can generally be started either in seed trays at home in the winter or sown directly in the garden in spring. If you are directly sowing your seeds or putting ready-grown seedlings into a new bed, be sure the soil is bare (nothing growing in it) and free of weeds — native plant seeds cannot compete easily against weeds. While the seeds of some native plants may cost more and may be harder to find, they require less watering, fertilizer and pesticides, and are not as prone to damage from diseases and insects.
Here are just a few examples of some native wildflower favorites by region:
Great Plains/Prairie: blazing star, cream gentian, fall sunflower, prairie phlox, prairie violet, heath aster, bird's foot violet. ("Not only does it bloom profusely, but it's the host food for the rare regal fritillary butterfly,” says Drobney about the bird's foot violet.)
Southwest: lupin, beard-tongue (or penstemon; a real hummingbird favorite)
Chesapeake Bay watershed: butterfly weed, Joe-Pye weed (also known as trumpet weed), eastern or willow bluestar
Southeast: bee balm, black-eyed Susan
Pacific Northwest: broad-leaf lupine, spreading phlox
Upper Plains: rigid goldenrod, wild lily
Northeast: blue flag iris, New England aster
Drobney says Master Gardeners, who can be found through the USDA Extension Service, are tremendous sources of information on native plants and home gardening.
For reliable information on plants native to your region, consult your local native plant society. Almost every state has one. Find yours through either the New England Wild Flower Society (search "native plant societies”) or the Michigan Botanical Club.
Other good sources include:
Visit a Refuge
Many refuges offer exceptional native wildflower viewing, given adequate rainfall. Here is a sampling of a few:
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas: The refuge Web site lists local wildflowers by color, where to spot them on the refuge and what time of year. Among the easiest to find in the spring and summer are dayflower, prairie bluet, lazy daisy and Indian blanket. Contact 361-286-3559.
Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Delaware: Spring wildflowers you can spot are bloodroot, Jack-in-the-pulpit, May apple and purple violets. Black-eyed Susan, showy aster, blazing star, marsh mallow and swamp rose mallow can be found throughout the summer and into the fall. Contact 302-653-6872.
Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Washington: In the spring, look for common camas (or Indian hyacinth), a native western bluish-purple flower, blanketing some of the wet meadows at the base of Mt. Adams. Contact 509-546-8300.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida: From late spring into the fall, coreopsis (tickseed) and gaillardia (blanket flower) burst into color along the roadside and open areas. Woody, fragrant tarflower can be found in the scrub and pine flatland areas. Contact 321-861-0668.
Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, Indiana: Stop by in late summer early fall and look for butterfly weed, swamp milkweed, goldenrod, blue mistflower, tall ironweed and Joe-Pye weed. Contact 812-522-4352.
San Diego National Wildlife Refuge, California: The best time to visit is in March when the San Diego sunflower and chocolate lily bloom. Contact 619-409-5900.