“Plant natives.” It seems to be the biggest buzz in the gardening world these days. Why is there so much emphasis on growing native plants in recent years?

The upset in nature’s balance has become very apparent. Ironically, much of this imbalance is rooted in humans’ desire to make the Earth a more beautiful place.

In our shortsighted vision, we often do not see the big picture until a reactive solution is necessary to fix unexpected and undesirable effects.

a bird on a native plant

Obviously, Earth’s balance needs to be restored, and it is possible to help put the Earth’s nature balance back in order by growing native plants.

It’s easy to believe that one person growing a few natives couldn’t possibly make that much difference, but think again. The effect of native plants, or lack of, run much deeper than most would initially think.

Don’t stop at the obvious. Consider how each entity is linked to another and how each is affected by the others presence or absence. Upon closer examination, one will discover a multitude of relationships.

Like a line of dominoes, when one falls the others follow. Likewise, a recipe will only turn out as intended when all the correct ingredients are present and in the proper proportions.

Forget the baking powder in a cake or the yeast in bread and what do you have? No pollen for the wild bees?  No wild bees to pollinate your vegetable garden?  One missing ingredient in nature can have a detrimental effect.

Read on to learn why we should make natives a priority, the potential effects of non-natives, and what you can do to help maintain or restore nature’s delicate balance with natives.

Top 10 Reasons to Grow Native Plants

1) Naturally “green”

Native plants are environmentally friendly. They thrive in local conditions, which means less water and pesticide use. This does not mean they will not benefit from some extra care now and then, especially until they become established. Overall, they will make do with what is provided by Mother Nature.

2) Food

Native plants are a valuable food source for thousands of animals and insects as well as people, which in turn propagates a healthy balance in population of the species down through the food chain.

3) Habitat

Everything relies on shelter from the elements and predators. Scarcity of natives means scarcity of the right type of shelter for wildlife.

4) Weather

Natives can better withstand the adverse weather conditions they are so well adapted to.

Some go into a deep sleep to survive severe cold temperatures in the frigid climates while others, have an extremely rugged root system to endure the high winds of hurricanes in hurricane country each year.

Flora of the hot, dry desert is not designed to survive where it rains 90 percent of the year.

5) Erosion Control

Ever notice a hillside full of tall green grass dotted with wildflowers and wonder how it could look so beautiful with no maintenance?

More than likely, it is abundant with native grasses and flowers with root systems that take advantage of average rainfall.

The roots keep the soil properly aerated to absorb the rain to prevent runoff and erosion. Grasses and flowers naturally coexisting with each other provide the needed nutrients and attract pollinators to perpetuate their ongoing existence.

6) Host plants

Some plants serve mainly as an incubation host for the next generation of particular wildlife. One would think that a plant is a plant and any plant will do, but not so.

The favored host plants by various species may offer protection from the herbivores with a nasty taste, provide needed nutrients for egg development or proper characteristics to hold the eggs intact.

When the population of a certain host plant declines, so does the species that needs it to ensure future survival.

7) Pest and disease resistance

Just as people have a defense system against bacteria and disease, so do plants. The defense system can break down for various reasons but in general, native plants have better resistance to native pests and diseases than non-natives.

8) Water

In addition to water conservation due to the lesser requirement by land-bound native plants, aquatic native plants play an important role in the balance of our waterways.

Overfishing is not the only harmful result that threatens the population of one of the favorite foods enjoyed by people worldwide.

Native aquatics in and near all our bodies of water are a necessity in maintaining a balance that supports the ongoing life of our aquatic inhabitants.

They provide natural water filtration, protective habitats and food for vegetarian aquatic life.

9) Low Maintenance

Natives require very little maintenance, which translates to savings in time, labor and money. Who doesn’t want to spend less money to have a beautiful garden and have more time to enjoy it?

10) Free

Since natives grow best in the conditions they have chosen to call home, they are also equipped with the best reproduction means to ensure their return each year.

They could be annuals that self-seed to make new plants, perennials that grow back each year, or shrubs and trees that go dormant and re-awaken with the seasons.

Assuming their balance has not been severely threatened with invasives, lack of pollinators, etc. you can count on having a free perpetual garden for many years.

Everyone wants to do their part to help the Earth, but it is hard to imagine planting only natives.

As strong as our desire is to help the Earth, our desire to grow the next exciting hybrid or the beautiful flower seen on vacation in another part of the country, is also significant.

Is it necessary to stick to only natives to be successful in restoring balance in nature? No, but it is important to understand the potential consequences and use appropriate caution or preventive measures.

The Effects of Non-Native Plants

Invasive

Probably the biggest problem with a non-native is that it can quickly become invasive. Grown alongside a native, it can often rob important nutrients, moisture, and light.

Eventually the native plant can be choked out entirely, leaving some local wildlife without their habitat or food.

Increased herbicide use

When invasives get out of control, the most logical solution is to knock them out with herbicides. Herbicides do not always work to get rid of the invasive entirely and may need to be used every year just to keep the invasive from spreading further. In the meantime, the soil becomes saturated with chemicals creating other problems for nature.

Also, most herbicides are not selective about what they kill so can easily eradicate valuable natives in the process.

Threatened and endangered

In extreme situations, natives can become endangered as they struggle to compete with the invasives. The worldwide Endangered Plants list includes nearly 6,000 plants.

Spread of invasives

Invasives are not limited to taking over the land where they are planted and potentially eliminating natives. Birds and wind can spread them for miles, often magnifying the problem to grazing land and farm crops.

Seeds can also hitchhike on the fur or feet of animals and, amazingly, boats and other motorized vehicles, or even a hiker’s boots and clothing.

Privacy and land ownership rights

Invasives are becoming such a problem that many states (or select counties within the states) have passed laws that allow government agencies to spray your property without permission.

Laws vary of course, but you may be surprised to learn that a warning may not be required before spraying your property.

If it appears that you are not controlling the “weeds,” they will first impose a fine and then do it for you. Subsequently, they will also send you a hefty bill for the labor and materials used.

Increased pesticide and fungicide use

Growing in different conditions than in their own native land, plants can be more susceptible to pests and disease.

While natural or organic means may be available to combat the problem, the average person will turn to the most familiar, convenient, and readily available method: chemicals.

Cost

The financial cost of controlling non-natives that have become invasive is staggering.

Health

The chemicals saturating our environment, food and water are safe? How can anyone be so naïve to believe this? The cost of health care as well as loss of loved ones due to disease is also staggering.

Wasteful

From seed to consumer, non-natives require more resources to grow, deliver, and maintain.

Noise pollution

Non-natives usually require more grooming to maintain with noisy equipment.

What Can Be Done?

another native plant with a bird on it

1) Plant natives! Even if you do not plan to plant exclusively natives, consider planting at least one native plant for every non-native you add to the garden. To learn about natives to your area, click here*.

2) Protect the native plants that are already established in your garden or on your land. While milkweed might not be the prettiest plant to look at, it is important to the survival of the monarch butterfly whose populations are declining.

3) Learn about natives you might already have. Do not dig them up to replace with other plants. Instead, find creative ways to use them in the design of your garden and plant complimenting natives around them.

Always do your homework. Before introducing something new to your garden, learn everything about it. What is the climate of its native land?

Will it need supplemental water or fertilizers to survive? How much maintenance will be needed to keep it happy and healthy?

What is the potential of it becoming invasive? Does it spread by seed or roots (some plants can spread for miles by roots underground)?

Will it stay confined by growing in a container? Will it benefit any local wildlife? What pests or diseases is it susceptible to?

4) Plant endangered species whenever possible to help restore the population.

5) If something new shows up wild in your garden, do not assume it is a native! It could be a non-native invasive that traveled from elsewhere. If you don’t recognize it, get it identified at your county extension or online, and treat it appropriately.

6) Have a plan. The beautiful non-native flower you had to add to your garden has gotten out of control, despite doing your homework.

How will you fix the problem before all your other plants suffer? Don’t wait until it happens. Know beforehand and be ready.

7) Save seeds from your natives. Share some with your gardening friends and store some for the future.

8) Encourage other gardeners to introduce more plants that are native.

9) Spread the word. Educate others of the importance of native plants.

10) If you enjoy being actively involved in a good cause, consider joining an advocacy group preventing the destruction of native habitats by urban developers.