How do I know what plants are native?

So you’ve decided to garden with native plants. Great! But… which plants, exactly, should you put in your yard? What is native?

The concept of nativeness encompasses two aspects: space, and time. First, where was the plant in question found before humans started moving it to new places? Many resources will answer this question by noting whether a certain plant species was historically found in a particular state. But this is a somewhat arbitrary criteria. Plants don’t know or care about the political constructs we call states. And large states may contain many diverse ecosystems. A species might naturally occur in the forests of northern California, but that doesn’t make it a suitable choice for a yard in the arid southern part of the state.

This is why some resources list native plants by county. But even this doesn’t really have anything to do with the way plants naturally distribute themselves. A plant that has historically lived just over the county line might be a better fit for a site than a plant found in a distant corner of the same county.

For this reason, some native gardeners skip native-by-county and native-by-state lists entirely, and instead look at distance. Any reputable dealer of native plants will be able to tell you where they got the original seed from. (And it should be seed. Reputable dealers do not sell plants taken from the wild; they propagate seeds in their nurseries and sell those plants.) If that naturally-occurring source of seed is within, say, 50 miles of the intended planting site, then the species is native. If the seed is being collected from further away, it is not native, and won’t be considered for that particular garden.

The other aspect of nativeness is time. When we say that a species was found somewhere historically, what do we mean? Kentucky bluegrass, which originally evolved in Europe, could be found across the eastern United States 100 years ago. Does that make it native? What about plants that lived in the northern states prior to the last ice age, got wiped out by the glaciers, and haven’t come back on their own yet? Are they native?

Most people say that if a species was found in a place just before the time that Europeans got there, then it is historically native. But as climate change continues to alter ecosystems, we may want to update our definition of historically native to mean “species that were found in that place when the local climate was similar to what it will be again in the near future”.

Many native gardeners are not purists – that is, they will plant a non-native species in their yards because the species has especially beautiful flowers, or produces delicious fruit, or simply is a personal favorite of the gardener. There is nothing wrong with this. But if we are serious about native gardening, we should at least be aware when a species we are planting is one of these special exceptions. To do so, we first must decide how we are defining what is or is not native in our own yards.

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How do I know what plants are native?

What’s new in natural yards? May 2018

A recently-published study (authored in part by That Blogger’s former thesis advisor) examines how Wisconsinites think about their urban trees.

A 16-page survey sent to homeowners in and around Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, and Wausau asked people a variety of questions about trees. One set of questions regarded benefits and problems related to trees. Under the header of benefits, survey respondents most strongly valued trees for their ability to make a place look nice, provide shade and cooling, improve air quality, and generally enhance the livability of a neighborhood.

But about half of the homeowners said they were “strongly concerned” about the risk of trees or branches falling and damaging things. People within city limits (as opposed to those living in the suburbs) and people with smaller lots tended to be more worried about this risk, possibly because a falling tree or branch on their property was more likely to hit something. People who saw trees as dangerous, the study found, valued trees less overall.

The survey also asked who homeowners trusted for help and advice related to trees. The results showed that respondents trusted tree professionals more than any other source of information. Averaged across the four cities, 62% of people said they would trust a landscaping company or tree service, while only 14% said they would trust the staff of a non-profit organization. This is surprising and worrying, as such professionals have a financial incentive to suggest whatever service is most profitable for them, rather than the service that is best for the tree and its neighbors (human and otherwise).

The survey’s demographic questions turned up some interesting findings. Women rated trees more highly than men did, and millennials valued trees more than baby boomers, though these younger folks tended to have fewer trees on their own properties, likely because their lots were smaller than those of their more senior neighbors. Older homeowners, in contrast, expressed more concern about trees “growing too big, making a mess, or blocking scenic views”.

Finally, most people who answered the survey thought that their neighbors valued trees and took good care of trees. But, as with many domains of life, people rated themselves even more highly on questions about recognizing the importance of trees and properly caring for trees.

The relatively-brief, highly-readable report can be found here.

What’s new in natural yards? May 2018

How can you establish a natural yard faster?

As explained in the last two posts, natural yards take a long time to establish, and attempts to speed up the process often backfire. There are, however, a few ways to help nature happen a little more quickly.

Inexperienced gardeners – natural and otherwise – often think that the short route to a well-established yard is to bring home the biggest plants they can fit in their cars, and put those plants in the ground.

In a sense, this works. By following this strategy, the homeowner may be able to enjoy trees as tall as a person, fully leafed-out shrubs, and blooming flowers on day one of their gardening efforts. But what happens after that?

It comes as no surprise that plants don’t like to be moved. Plants have spent millions of years evolving to make the best of whatever spot they germinate in. They have no evolutionary experience of moving to a new spot and getting resettled. Plus, transplants typically have spent the first part of their lives being coddled in a greenhouse, and don’t appreciate being relocated to an outdoor spot, where they suddenly have to put up with wind, irregular watering, less-than-perfect soil, and all the other challenges associated with life as a plant.

The older and bigger a plant is when it gets relocated, the more trouble it has dealing with the unexpected event and all its related challenges.

Experienced gardeners have noticed that if they plant two trees – one older and larger, one younger and smaller – at the same time, by a few years later, the tree that was initially smaller will have grown bigger than its partner. This is because the originally-larger tree struggles more to re-establish itself, and so takes longer to resume investing its energy in growth. The smaller transplant, in contrast, will settle into its new home more easily, and will soon return to vigorously putting on height, width, and foliage.

It’s also worth noting that smaller plants are generally cheaper. Given a limited budget, there is a certain satisfaction in bringing home one sizable tree and planting it in the yard. But buying three smaller trees – or several dozen flower seedlings – will result in a complete, healthy planting, as opposed to the gardener being left with one lonely tree surrounded by lawn.

For those gardeners equipped with patience and foresight, seeds may be an even better choice than small plants. Given that seeds can be installed in the yard by the simple expedient of throwing them on the ground, and given that seeds will turn themselves into plants that provide a host of benefits and then go on to create more of themselves, it is astonishing how inexpensive seeds are. Reputable dealers will sell their product in terms of pure live seed – that is, if you want one ounce of seed, and the dealer knows that this species has a germination rate of 50%, they will sell you two ounces for the price of one. This way, you know you are always getting your money’s worth.

By taking our time, we can establish our yards more easily, more cheaply, and more quickly. Gardening is an endeavor in which slow and steady does, indeed, win the race.

How can you establish a natural yard faster?

What are some common natural gardening mistakes?

When natural gardeners are asked about their biggest gardening mistake, one answer is heard over and over: trying to do everything at once.

Their enthusiasm is commendable. After all, natural yards are beautiful and peaceful, they provide habitat for wildlife, they take less work in the long run, they are good for the environment, and they benefit our health in countless ways. Who wouldn’t want one right now?

One of the biggest obstacles to establishing a natural yard, however, is the amount of work they require upfront. The aspiring natural gardener has to learn about native plants and the site conditions they prefer, survey their own site conditions, make a garden plan, eliminate existing non-natives, bring in the new plantings, discourage the invasives that try to move back in, and many other tasks. In many natural yards, all of this work is done personally and by hand, rather than by hiring other people or fossil-fuel-powered machines to help with the labor.

Thus, for any but the tiniest of yards, the gardener can quickly become overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done all at the same time. Aspects of the planting begin to fail. (In a natural yard, it’s accepted that some things will fail, but trying to rush through the establishment phase tends to lead to more failure than necessary.) The gardener has run out of money, resources, and energy to do the project over again. Pretty soon, they’re left with a big mess.

For this reason, experienced natural gardeners advise newcomers to make an overall plan, then tackle one aspect at a time. It’s generally wise to start with trees and shrubs, which take the longest to become established, and add smaller plants later. Or, the beginning gardener could begin with the areas closest to the house, and work outwards. As each piece of the plan becomes self-sustaining, the gardener becomes free to devote their energy to the next stage of the process.

Another mistake worth mentioning is declaring failure too soon. As mentioned in the previous post, new plantings may take several years to start looking good. Seeds may not germinate in the first year. Seeds that do germinate may look like weeds. Transplants may appear to have not survived their relocation.

All of these are normal parts of the establishment process. Seeds will germinate when they are ready, seedlings will mature into beautiful plants, and transplants will jettison their leaves, focus on getting their roots settled, and grow back the next year. By patiently waiting out these awkward stages, a gardener can avoid unnecessary rework.

Part of the joy of having a natural yard is the satisfaction of learning about native plants through hands-on experience. It’s not necessary to be an expert on natural gardening before beginning to establish plantings in our own yards. But by arming ourselves with a little awareness of others’ mistakes, we can increase our own chances of speedy success.

What are some common natural gardening mistakes?