The overriding message is so simple, yet so genius: let nature be your guide! Of course, places like the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve and your own local horticultural societies are great places to start with questions, and to learn about the down-and-dirty of native species gardening for your area.
Ok, so, you do your homework, you take your forest walks, you connect with the local horticultural groups, and you make your wish list. Now what?
To understand the next step, I asked Miles about some of the common mistakes made when gardening with native trees and plants.
The answer: lack of planning.
Miles identifies that one of the biggest mistakes gardeners make – especially with trees – is failing to plan for the mature plant size. The eager gardener will bring home that lovely native tree, and plant it right next to the house. (Just as bad, they might plant it too low in the ground, or choke it slowly with a mulch volcano…shudder.)
Let’s say our eager gardener plants a Yellow poplar sapling a couple meters away from the house. Yellow poplars reach an average mature size of a whopping 24-37 meters in height, and up to a meter in diameter. The result? Both the tree and the house are structurally compromised, which ends with the removal of a perfectly good tree.
Native plant species are just as susceptible to the hardships of misplanting as any other plant species. Miles tells us that another critical error the eager gardener makes is planting native species in the heat of late spring or early summer, and then failing to provide adequate water.
The solution? Plant now! Autumn is an ideal time for planting native tree species (and many other plant species), because the trees aren’t working hard to get those leaves and flowers out, or fighting rising temperatures and water demands. Planting in Autumn allows trees and plants time to settle, root, and acclimate, so that they’re raring to grow come spring time.
You can ensure that the native trees and plants you bring home for your garden have the best chance for success by paying attention to a few key points:
1) Stay local.
Yes, that old "Buy Local" slogan. But we’re not talking politics here… we’re talking about the "germplasm." Germplasm refers to the genetic lineage of a particular species – in our case, a plant.
Seed-grown native plants are typically grown from seeds harvested in your local/regional woods. Miles explains that finding specimens which are grown from the local germplasm will ensure that your tree or plant is more naturally acclimated to the nuances of your locality than another plant of the same species would be from hundreds of miles away.
2) Be nosy.
Perhaps better said, do your homework, and ask questions! When you venture out to buy your native plants, ask questions to determine where the plants are coming from: "Are these plants wild harvested, or seed raised?"
Stealing plants from the forest (wild harvesting) cancels out the potential benefits of native species gardening. Buy from a reputable grower, get to know your local grower, and seek out local horticultural societies for recommendations. The source of native plants varies widely by the individual, so it’s up to you, eager gardener, to ask questions and get the dirt.
3) Go slow.
Miles’ parting words of wisdom about gardening with native plant species: "Go slowly and integrate. It’s OK to incorporate."
While there are purists out there who wish to be exclusive native-species-snobs, the rest of us will do best to stick with what it is that attracts us to gardening in the first place: a love for lots and lots of plants.
Take your time in selecting native trees and plants that are appropriate to your garden site and tastes. Don’t go digging up your roses to plant those native ferns – integrate them. Be an equal-opportunity gardener!
Ultimately, Miles reminds us that gardens are important not only for their contributions to the local environment, but for their ability to provide us with a sense of place. Gardens which incorporate locally native trees and plants help to cultivate and sustain that sense of place which is unique to each region, and to every backyard garden.
Arnott, A. Miles. Interview by Jade L. Blackwater, 15 October 2006.
Little, Elbert L. Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Eastern Region (The). New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.
Native Plants & Resources. Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, 2006. Text accessed online: 15 October 2006. Source page URL: http://www.bhwp.org/native/index.htm .
Photo by Jade L. Blackwater, © 2006.