Good Plant, Bad Plant, Native and Non-Native. Is it That Simple?

Liatris, Lobelia, Pycnanthemum living happily with Perovskia at The Art Institute in Chicago.

Guest Rant by Roy Diblik 

Every planting situation creates diverse opportunities – not just for how it can be planted, but for how each of us can share our thoughts about it with each other. Whether it is a prairie, an urban vegetable or ornamental garden, a school developing outdoor classrooms, a city park being replanted, or a forest preserve: every open space should be planted thoughtfully, but not necessarily the same way for the same reasons.

We want and need diversity in gardens, parks, schools, businesses, villages, cities – and ourselves. There are so many reasons to plant. We plant to benefit the soil, the insects, the birds, the small creatures, the water, the air. We plant to understand art, theatre, dance, music, and all forms of culture. We plant to live healthier lives and to experience involvement, commitment, satisfaction, cheerfulness, gratification, comfort, and the joy of sharing.

We need to arrive at an understanding regarding not just the cultivation of nature, but also the cultivation of ourselves, our own human nature. Each of us must have an affection for the other: the birder for the delphinium collector, the prairie enthusiast for the perennial gardener, the butterfly observer for the daylily hybridizer, the golf course superintendent for the naturalist, the land developer for the farmer. We are realizing that healthy relationships grow when we come to appreciate one another’s loves and passions.

To support what matters to everyone, we cannot simply say a native plant is better than a non-native or a non-native is better than a native. No answer is that simple, no person or planting can be that limiting or that limited. When we come to know plants in a close, sound way, native and non-native plants can live collectively planted in all situations and conditions. Those plantings will be determined individually by each project’s goals and objectives, and diversity is healthy. Picture prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) living with Salvia ‘Wesuwe’ and groupings of bell peppers in a beautiful, sustainable vegetable meadow.

We have to come to know the plants, their infinite relationships to each other from youth to maturity. Not judge and argue with each other concerning what we may not really know enough about.

Veronicastum and Eupatorium sharing a good life with Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster.’

I am watching a prairie garden being planted in the Chicago area knowing it will be another bleached-out prairie. In a few years the garden will be filled with the native thugs: goldenrod (Solidago), asters, Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera). There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these plants – I use them myself. Whether in seed or plug form, however, they establish very rapidly and seed themselves early and heavily within their own community. They will out-compete the other native species planted or seeded with them and then dominate the planting.

In many new plantings that attempt to restore and recreate the native prairie, this is the situation that results – what I call the bleached-out commercial prairie. If the designers had known the plants better, they would have not used this group of natives initially, knowing they could be introduced a few years later and would find a home in the established, diverse planting.

Jerry Wilhelm, who wrote Flora of the Chicago Region, always had the thought of planting a young oak and beginning its life and continuing its life with the plants Oaks have always lived with. These are photos of a young Oak planted first with native Carex, some Podophyllum, Geranium and Phlox. He plants only to the drip line of the tree canopy and keeps adding plants as the canopy gets larger every year or two. He also burns the little area.

As I suggested earlier, we all have our loves and passions. But we have to know the plants. There can be no successful way to create gardens with all the qualities and forms of beauty we want. And we will often emotionally critique other people’s plantings, arguing back and forth about what each of us believes is a better way. Yet here’s what can take place with a knowledge of plants and all of us working together:

Each of us who is passionate about native plants and their benefits to all creatures can collaborate with others to help the park districts, cities, corporate campuses, and even golf courses that recognize they have too much turf and would appreciate thoughtful, successful alternatives. At the same time, we should never scold people for the turf they actually need for play, aesthetic continuity, and sports programs.

Working together, we can get diverse prairie plantings – at least 6 to 14 species per square meter – into park districts, cities, villages, and urban spaces where they are useful. If we cannot cooperate to do this in our public spaces, how will we ever get native plants into residential landscapes? Some people still think the prairie is untidy, harbors pests, or causes damage to their homes. We need to convince them of the health and beauty of the prairie.

We can help municipal agencies learn and work together, teaching proper long-term seeding practices to encourage plant diversity that will in the long run provide more habit for insects, birds, and small animals. We can encourage municipalities to get community residents involved in collecting and sowing the seeds and managing their plantings. We can share with them how beauty is not immediate but arrives and stays in many ways and at different times. We can show them how to pass the process on to the next generation of families and residents. As we accomplish this together, thousands of acres of unused, mowed turf will become prairie, connecting one city to the next and inspiring all their residents. Then, as more and more people see the beauty and activity of a genuine developing prairie, they will find ways to bring the activities into their own gardens, and native plants will have a home in all our neighborhoods.

10-year-old seeded prairie, seeded every November to continue adding diversity. Each seeding is nurtured by the previous plants established.  This is the thoughtful, smart practice of Tom Vanderpoel who very sadly passed away two years ago.

With knowledge of plants, vegetables don’t have to be separated into their own areas. They can live well with native and non-native perennials, annuals, shrubs, and trees. With knowledge of plants, perennial gardens will be cared for in a way that responds to every plant’s healthy ability to grow with and into other groups of plants, without requiring constant mulching, dividing, and replacement. When planted thoughtfully, annuals can strengthen and enliven plantings of perennials and shrubs. Annuals can become components of a process and complement the quiet, durable plants that make up the majority of the long-term plantings.

In each planting situation I have mentioned native plants. It is hard to understand why people would not appreciate the value of using native plants in every style of planting. At the same time, assuming all plantings should consist of only native plants seems short-sighted and limiting to the possibilities for expanding the use and joy of natives. I think we can all agree that we are a community of many, living together, working together, and trying to understand how to do it better and smarter. We have to be, for many reasons.

Whatever your personal passions, beliefs, hopes, and necessary dreams, I urge you to leave opportunities for others who may have different thoughts, but who also want to live in beauty, be healthy, and plant the earth in smart ways. We can all probe deeper and pursue truths together, raising the level of beauty, managing time and money effectively, and living enthusiastically with others.

Copyright The Prairie Garden. Used with permission. 
Roy Diblik, co-founder of Northwind Perennial Farm, is a recognized perennial plant expert, grower, designer, speaker and author.


  1. I agree with what 95% of Roy says: about knowing the plants better, designing spaces with plant communities in mind, using annuals to mimic natural succession and dynamic processes, reducing turf we don’t need, getting people over the idea wild-ish gardens are messy and welcome pests, that we need to get people connected to nature deeply and fast and that gardens are one way to do that in the urban environment where most of us live. However, native plants do tend to be superior when it comes to supporting wildlife, particularly the base of the food chain (bugs and insects).

    100% native plant gardens ARE functionally and aesthetically realistic if we choose to go that way, especially if we know the plants as Roy so wisely advocates; unfortunately, knowing the plants is something most average gardens do not have in their tool belt (esp since the same species can act differently based on ecoregion and even varying sites within an ecoregion). A 100% native plant garden is no more an “ideology” than one mixed with exotics, and it is certainly not limiting or short-sighted unless we are gardening for just one species. Diversity of plants (aka plant origin) does not automatically guarantee increased ecological function — it may do the opposite; if a plant has no damaged leaves or is attracting only generalist bee species or bee species imported from another continent, we have to more carefully weigh these realities with the garden’s many ecological and aesthetic goals.

  2. I agree with most of this post.–Thanks! I plant lots of natives, but I’m no purist. In the town I live in, I guest-imate 90% of the town gardeners give little thought to native plants. Also, those who are given native plants (the people I know personally), throw or give them away because they don’t make the gardening statement they’re looking for. However, I’m not here to criticize other people’s gardens. If they are simply gardening, I think it’s a good thing. I currently plant with pollinators and wildlife in mind, and I try to buy or grow natives myself.

  3. A Master Naturalist Minute
    Native Plants and Backyard Ecology, A Beginning
    The temperature hovers between the low twenties, the high teens; white covers the ground, mounds on the platform feeder, sketches the shrubs and trees. A male Carolina wren’s teakettle teakettle trills in the civil twilight. The blue hour notes, loud and musical, belies the bird’s diminutive size. Only the male sings. This small bird, an indicator species of the Carolinian Zone, has a vertically upwards tail, a distinctive white eye-stripe, and a rusty red color. He’s waiting for the mealworms I toss every morning from a red bucket. Phishing, the soft rustling sound created as I swirl,  then scatter the dried worms, is a non verbal interaction we’ve shared for three winters. In the beginning, I planted his preferred habitat—woodland trees and their associate shrubs. He and his mate came for the insects that have coevolved with the indigenous native plants, as well as larvae and spiders. They mash larger bugs like Katydids into small, manageable fragments. No native plants, no insects, and no birds. Approximately five to six percent of the wren’s diet will come from seeds and vegetable matter—bayberry, sweet gum, and sumac fruits; the latter a volunteer in my backyard.
    “Carolinian birds are those species that have the heart of their range lying within the southeastern United States.” The Carolinian Canada Coalition also states and lists in their book, Natural Treasures Of Carolinian Canada, “In Canada, only about thirty species have true Carolinian affinities, including the Acadian Flycatcher, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Northern Mockingbird, Yellow-breasted Chat, Louisiana Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warbler, White-eyed Vireo and Orchard Oriole.”
    I’ve seen five of the above birds in my Niagara County backyard since adding the Carolinian plants.
    When we look at our landscapes with ecology as our lens, rather than horticultural designs that focus on form, color and texture, we create opportunities to interact with nature, and opportunities to protect wildlife with its naturally evolving habitat—complete ecosystem communities where biodiversity flourishes.
    A rare ecological community exists along Lakes Erie and Ontario, the Niagara River, north, ending at London, Hamilton, Saint Catherines, and metro Toronto, an imaginary line. The Carolinian Zone is home to over 1,600 native plant species—a bit less than half of 3,992 plant species recorded on the New York Flora Atlas website. Using the term Carolinian identifies a shared ecosystem with Canada, a radius of local indigenous plants not constrained by the waters’ physical boundaries.
    Gerry Waldron’s book, Trees of the Carolinian Forest: A Guide to Species, Their Ecology and Uses, notes, “Whether the species is rare and at the limit of its distribution or common, they are a resource worthy of conservation. A natural [plant] community is the vegetation of an area, defined by its dominant species, the ones that occupy the most space. Natural communities have suffered the greatest and native plants have been most neglected in our urban landscapes. Parks, gardens, and formal open spaces were subjected to an international [horticultural] standard or design that denied a sense of place, ignored [a region’s] ecosystem. We could use the [backyard] urban landscape much as we would a botanical garden, as a place to preserve genetic resources.”
    If we did this as a routine gardening practice, we’d create natural landscapes that function as wildlife corridors, connecting backyards with open spaces. We’d sustain plant communities.
    E.O. Wilson poetically wrote in The Diversity of Life, “[Biodiversity] has eaten the storms, folded them into its genes—and created the world that created us. It holds the world steady.” 
    “Biodiversity,” per Waldron, “is a stew of natural communities, species, and genes that defines and sustains life on our planet. We’re losing biodiversity because we destroy their home, their habitat. We pollute. Global warming threatens. Exotic species have bullied their way into our natural communities, displacing natives. While wildlife can use exotic plants, [including nativars], for food and shelter, these sources can’t be considered critical to their survival in the same way as native plants.”
    Exotics are processed food; one lives, but unhealthily.
    “The trees of our woodlands are essential to all the associated vegetation and wildlife that depend on them. When we plant [locally sourced] native species indigenous to our region, we create habitat for our beleaguered wildlife; we bolster the complete ecosystem.”
    We also clearly identify, foster, and preserve our unique sense of place.
    tags: #AMasterNaturalistMinute, #CarolinianZone #backyardecology #nativeplants #nativeplantcommunities #ecologicalrestoration #birds
    Under the byline, A Master Naturalist Minute, future posts will spotlight resources—books, trees and shrubs, the plant associations and wildlife—within our Carolinian Forest Zone—what thrives in our urban, suburban, and rural backyards.
    Michelle Vanstrom
    Cornell/NYS Master Naturalist and Pollinator Conservation Association Board Member

  4. This reads like the longer diplomatic version of Plant Lovers Matter.

    Yes we have to know the plants and we have to know how they behave in specific sites and conditions. Not all goldenrod and aster are created equally thuggish leading to the bleached-out prairie. Removing one specie of goldenrod or one specie of aster can lead to many species of aster and goldenrod.

  5. This is an excellent article and really touches on the difficulty for some, including myself, to be able to bring these (annuals, perennials, and even vegetables) together into a beautiful garden and landscape without looking like something that is just thrown together. We try our best to do beautiful landscaping layouts for our clients and reading this article is inspiring enough to use more and more native plants in our landscaping!

    Thank you for reposting this!
    Edinburg LandscapingPros


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