It’s early April where I live in Quebec, and we’re just getting through the period of dégel or thaw, when the mounts of snow and ice melt and the sun is beginning to come out. It’s Spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and for many people who have balcony hangers or a yard or a piece of ground, it’s time to think about planting seeds and plugs.
The purpose of this post is to convince those of my friends and family and colleagues who like to plant things to plant native plants. I’ll talk about why and how to do that in the post below. Even if you don’t normally tend a garden, take a few minutes to read through and see if you change your mind.
First, it’s important for me to be clear in my terms. I’m going to assume you know what a plant is and what planting them means, so I’ll go to three important definitions instead.
- Native plants are species that have an established role in the local ecosystem. Usually this is because the plant has grown wild in the area for thousands or millions of years.
- Introduced plants are ones that come from other ecosystems and don’t grow locally. They’ve been brought to the region by people, either for agriculture or for decoration or just by mistake. Usually introduced plants fit badly into the local ecosystem; none of the other species have evolved to eat or build with or grow under or wrap around or otherwise work with them.
- Invasive plants are introduced plants that do harm to the local ecosystem. Usually, this is because without an established role in the local ecosystem, they go into runaway growth, choking out the native species.
It’s not always easy to know which species are native to an area or not, and what the ecosystem boundaries are. I have some links to resources for this below, but a good rule of thumb is that plants from other continents are usually introduced. If you live in North America, a species from Australia or Asia or Europe or the Middle East or Africa is introduced.
Why plant native
Here are the main reasons to plant native.
- Build the ecosystem. When you raise an introduced species, you just raise that plant. But growing native plants grows the whole local ecosystem. Native plants are part of the food web — the intricate set of connections between the thousands of different species that occupy an ecosystem. Because they have evolved together, insects, birds, mammals, and other creatures depend on those plants for a number of ecosystem services — food, building material, shelter, and other biochemical support. Although some introduced plants can fill some of these roles some of the time, no introduced plant can integrate as well with the rest of the ecosystem as a native plant.
- Support pollinators. A special case of ecosystem integration! Pollinators are bees, butterflies, and a few other species that provide pollination services for plants. These services are a vital link in the food web, and are also important for our food crops. Many species of pollinator flourish when they have native species to feed on or live in.
- Support biodiversity. Our planet is in the throes of a biodiversity crisis. Species are disappearing from the planet at a rate 10 to 100 times faster than usual. By planting native plants, you can provide crucial support to species that are under pressure or threat. Complex, interconnected ecosystems show more resilience to the threat of extinction for any species in the ecosystem.
- Stop invasive species. This is more of a benefit of not planting introduced species. Introduced species can escape into the wild, where they have fewer predators than in their native ecosystem, and where some species are able to run rampant, choking out wildlife. Even when the plant species itself isn’t invasive, it may carry micro-organisms like the chestnut blight that all but eliminated North America’s chestnut population, or insects like the super-destructive Japanese beetle. Using local native species means you won’t be accidentally letting loose an alien species into your local ecosystem.
- Fight climate change. When it comes to sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, you’d think that plants are interchangeable. But healthy, integrated ecosystems seem to be better at helping with changing climate conditions than those with a monoculture of invasives. And those healthy ecosystems are better able to adapt to climactic changes.
- Eat native plants. I find this part really interesting. Many native plants have edible seeds, fruit, leaves or berries that you can incorporate into your diet. Foods grown industrially half a globe away will keep you alive, but there’s something special about eating blueberries that come out of the ground from right here, and always have come out of the ground right here. When you eat native plants, you become an integral part of the food web.
- Grow place attachment. Working with, looking at, living among and eating native plants gives you a very different perspective on the place you live. Instead of thinking of your town as a dot on a map, in a rectangular state or province, you shift to thinking of your connection to an ecological region. Place attachment is a feeling of belonging in the place you are. By participating in restoration ecology, you literally set down roots in the place you live, knowing it in a way that few other people do.
- Lower effort and less intervention. One big advantage of planting native plants is that they take less work and expense because they belong where you’re planting them. You will need much less soil treatment, fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide to maintain a garden with native plants than you do with plants more adapted to other regions. And lower intervention means less pollution and healthier water, soil and air for all of us.
Here are a list of steps to take, in rough order of level of commitment.
- Don’t plant any new invasives. If you do nothing else, please don’t plant any new invasive species in your garden or around your home. Unfortunately, many nurseries still sell invasive species, even though we know they’re a problem. Often, these plants will be marketed as insect-resistant (because native insects have not evolved beside them and don’t know what to do with the plant), or fast-growing (often with clones, rhizomes, or runners). If you’re unsure, check your state or province’s list of invasive species, or look on Wikipedia for list of some of the worst offenders.
- Plant some native plants. This is the fun part! Just planting one or two native plants can help your local food web. See the links below for some good sources for seeds or even plugs; you can also just go to your local nursery and ask the people there for some help in finding native plants. If you’re trying to convince yourself or your household that this is a good idea, you should consider native plants that are “pollinator-friendly”. They’re going to have nice flowers, typically, and also attract butterflies and bees. It’s a good way to get started.
- Remove old invasives. A next level up is to remove the harmful invasive plants from your garden. This can be hard in a few senses. First, because they are often very difficult to remove completely. Second, because it sucks to tear out parts of your garden. It’s tempting to think that you can keep the invasive species under control; this is probably self-delusion. Whether their seeds are carried by birds, or the wind, or they extend rhizomes out into the world, these species are highly adapted escape artists. Taking them out of your garden protects the wildlife nearby.
- Plant only native plants. If you enjoy your native plants for one or two years, you might want to go all-in and choose only native plants for future plantings. There are some good parts to this step; you can start experimenting with plants that work well together, and really configure an interoperating ecosystem in your garden. If you have a vegetable garden, this step may be aspirational, but you might be surprised how many food plants are actually native to your region.
- Replace introduced plants with native plants. Taking out non-invasive introduced plants to replace them with native plants is a big step. To be fair, even if they’re not invasive, introduced species are taking up soil, water and sunlight resources in your garden, and not providing much ecosystem services in return. Re-allocating those resources to a native species that’s integrated into the local food web seems pretty reasonable, but it also seems hard to take out a plant that you’ve been caring for for a while. In our garden, we’re trimming back some of the introduced bushes and trees, so there’s space to plant natives without necessarily taking out the older plants.
Here are some books and resources that have been important to me as I have been looking into planting native plants.
- Nature’s Best Hope. This book, by Douglas Tallamy, lays out in detail why native plants are important and what you can do about it. Make your yard part of Homegrown National Park.
- EPA Maps of Ecoregions. The US Environmental Protection Agency has great, detailed maps of North American ecoregions. These can be really helpful in figuring out where your garden fits in the world.
- Éspace pour la vie. The Montreal Botanical Gardens have a great sub-site for native plants for the region. I’ve found it really valuable for thinking about what to plant.
- Native Plant Trust. This is a great resource for finding native plants for gardens in the Northeast US/Southeast Canada. I used it for planning out my garden areas.
- Aiglon Indigo. This is a native-plant-focused nursery in Quebec. They deliver to most of the St. Lawrence Valley. However, they are primarily oriented towards professional landscapers, so many species aren’t available for retail purchase. I’ve found their seed catalogue really affordable and useful.
- Northern Wildflowers. Another great seed catalogue; some of the species that I was looking for were here and not at AI.
- Native Plants, Healthy Planet. I’ve really enjoyed this podcast. It’s put out by a nursery in New Jersey, in the US, and there’s a lot of local focus on organisations and state regulations, but it’s also a great place for discussion of issues around native plants. They even helped me find native plants for urban Montreal in one episode.
Here are some resources I find interesting but haven’t used myself, mostly because they’re targeted for US states or regions I’m not in.
- Garden for Wildlife. This is a great program from the National Wildlife Foundation for US residents. You can buy seeds for a starter native plant garden for your own ecoregion.
- In the Zone. A partnership between Loblaws and WWF to provide more native plants in southern Canadian commercial garden centres. It looks interesting, but I haven’t found a good nursery near us.
- Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Centre. This is the go-to resource for gardeners in the US who want to find native plants.
One of the main things I want to convey is that, if you feel overwhelmed by the biodiversity crisis or climate change, putting a plant in the ground can give you a feeling of agency that will help you move forward. I hope it works for you like it does for me.