So You Think You Can Plant: The Native Gardening Routine

When it comes to plant shopping, competition is stiff. Thousands of varieties vie for your attention, wooing you with color, texture, hardiness—whatever it takes to please the judge, aka, you. These plants have to be both visually pleasing and succeed in your space, be it a sun-drenched yard, shady garden, or sheltered porch container. It’s a tall order for any seed, especially when you’re not sure if you should bother going native.

To shed some light on the benefits of native plants, we chatted with three of the area’s foremost experts: Liam Heneghan, PhD, an environmental science professor at DePaul University, Andrew Hipp, PhD, plant systematist for The Morton Arboretum, and Gerould Wilhelm, PhD, co-author of Plants of the Chicago Region. Let’s dig in.

Meet the Contestants: Introducing the Chicago Area’s Plants

How many native plant names can you rattle off? Many of us would be hard-pressed to identify even a dozen, let alone 150 dozen. But Wilhelm and his team have identified 2,891 plant species, subspecies, and varieties that currently grow without cultivation in the Chicago region. Of those, just under two thirds are native, meaning they’ve been growing here since before European settlement. The remaining third came in as weeds or ornamentals from Europe, Asia, the western states, or the subtropics.

Unfortunately, many native plant species are currently threatened. Heneghan estimates that roughly 60 species have already “gone missing” in contemporary times. “As a result of really rapid transformation of local landscapes in the last 100 years or so, native species have been besieged by things we’ve introduced.” And their habitats are dwindling, too. Wilhelm says the vast majority of the region’s original native species occupy just 1 percent of the outlying landscape.

The good news is that some native plants are garden or lawn-friendly, from vibrant wildflowers (click here for a visual) to lush prairie grasses and sedges, to edibles like wild ginger and onion. But what else do they have to show for themselves?

Some of Illinois’ natural beauties, clockwise from left: little bluebell, purple coneflower, shooting star. (Pictures by Chicago Botanic Garden)

Winning Traits: The Varied Benefits of Going Native

Benefits abound, from the heightened feel-good quotient (you’re helping preserve species that are way older than the U.S., after all), to supporting the many local critters that depend on native plants for food and habitat. Here’s a quick roundup of potential perks.

Impact on biodiversity: Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s no denying that a diverse, healthy  population of insects, spiders, centipedes, mites, and other invertebrates is essential to a healthy ecosystem. (So in other words, try to learn to love them!) “Larger and more diverse insect populations benefit birds, small mammals, and plants who depend on insect pollinators,” explains Hipp. And guess what: Those insects depend on a diverse mix of plants. Plants feed the insects; insects feed the birds. Case in point: 50 bee species depend on one particular plant species for survival. “If we lose that one plant, we’d lose 50 insects. And that’s true of many native plants—they are key to a whole network,” says Wilhelm.

What’s more, diverse native plants help “give an ecosystem its resilience against environmental stress, such as disease or drought,” according to Wetlands Initiative ecologists Iza Redlinski and Gary Sullivan. This is true even in urban environments. Hipp points to the overabundance of ash trees as plants street trees in the region as an example of how too little diversity can hurt the ecosystem. We expect that most of these ashes will be killed by emerald ash borer. In the same way, eastern North American cities lost their cathedral—like ceilings of American Elms to Dutch elm disease in the 1950s through 1980s. Increasing plant biodiversity in even the urban ecosystem increases how resilient that system will be.

Impact on water: Native plants may help us better utilize water resources. Wilhelm says that native grasses and sedges can promote healthy soil by absorbing rainwater well—therefore supporting the earth’s ability to thermoregulate, a good thing considering climate change. And Hipp points out that native plants are the most successful options in rain gardens, which keep water nutrients moving through your soil rather than running off into storm systems. “There are a lot of good native wetland species to work with.” As he says, “You can potentially take a problem—like constantly feeling that you have to fight a wet area of your yard—and turn it into a beautiful garden.” One other gratifying reason to go for a rain garden is that many weeds don’t do as well in highly saturated soils…but you will still have to weed even so.

Impact on communities: Though they’re all scientists, each one of the experts we chatted with mentioned the less tangible—but equally important—benefits of native plants. Being able to recognize them helps connect us with our natural landscape, heightening our awareness and appreciation of the individual plant and ecosystem at large. “Plants growing in a native landscape that’s being well managed and well nurtured—they do not lie; they’ll flourish if we’re gentle or languish if we’re not. These plants can teach us absolute lessons of what our relationship with the world should be,” reflects Wilhelm. And when we plant native plants in our yards, we learn to recognize those same plants in the forests, prairies, and wetlands that surround us. Planting native plants is a primer in regional plant ecology.

There’s also the question, ponders Heneghan, of whether we have a moral responsibility to protect plant species that are older than we are. If you’re thinking we do, then planting native plants may have the added benefit of simply making you feel good.

Sizing Up the Competition From Non-Native Species

First, let’s clear the air. We’re not judging non-natives—plenty of them are lovely and wonderful. There are just a few basics to keep in mind when it comes to figuring out which (if any) of the ones you’ve currently got are problematic.

Heneghan breaks it down like so: “The majority of non-native species are not invasive and most conservation biologists are not awfully worried about most of them…We use the term ‘naturalized’ for species like that, which have been around for a long time and aren’t causing major problems.” He says only a handful of species around here are considered problematic: buckthorn, honeysuckle, garlic mustard, oriental bittersweet, and in urban areas, tree of heaven. Of the many non-native plant species in our region, only about 150 are considered invasive, explains Hipp.

While the scientists we talked to don’t necessarily agree on the impact of all non-native species, they do agree that buckthorn is highly destructive to area plants. Though relatively rare in its native Europe, buckthorn is “astonishingly successful in this part of the world,” says Heneghan. That success means it crowds out available space for native species. “There’s nothing inherently bad about it, but it’s so successful that we can’t simultaneously let it do its thing and honor our own commitment to conservation goals.”

Complicating matters is the fact that, as Dan Larkin from Chicago Botanic Garden has written, most of our invasive species were originally introduced as ornamental plants, and most go through a period of slower population growth before they become invasive. We don’t know whether newly introduced plants will become invasive or not. So, as Hipp says, “when you choose to plant non-native species, you’re doing it with a certain amount of risk that it will become an invasive species at some point.”

Does this mean we should abandon every non-native plant in our garden? Hipp favors gardening and managing natural spaces with an eye towards species diversity, including native plants insofar as you are able to. “If you’re choosing between having a big open lawn with nothing else in it or doing a border that’s a mix of wildflowers, some native and non-native, then probably the latter is more beneficial in terms of supporting insects, and birds, and supporting microhabitats for small mammals and birds.”

Heneghan’s recommendation: Deal head on with invasive species that are clearly taking over local ecosystems in conservation areas. “It’s not that the invaders are bad in any way, but we are facing a world where increasingly vegetation is going to be homogenized, particularly in urban areas. So if we want to ensure biodiversity in urban areas, we have to remove buckthorn to allow other plants to grow.”

For the average green-thumbed joe or jane, the most straightforward way to do that is naturally to plant a variety of native plants when you can.

Botanist Andrew Hipp at work. (Photo by Jeffrey Liem)

Choreographing a Sustainable Garden

While native gardens don’t exactly take care of themselves, you may find you need fewer resources to care for them over time. According to Chicago Wilderness and the EPA, established native plants can save you money “by eliminating or significantly reducing the need for fertilizers, pesticides, water and lawn maintenance equipment.”

As for choosing which natives to go with, look for hardy plants that thrive in home gardens. According to Wilhelm, of the 1,800 plants native to the area, “only about 100 would do well for five years or more in a home landscape.” (Psst…visit our blog for a short list of ’em—and for info on sales where you can chat with experts to help you decide.)

Bonus Round: The Experts Talk About Their Gardens

In case you’re feeling nosy, here’s a peek into the experts’ own gardens:

Wilhelm: “Most of my yard is native, or at least, it’s an educated attempts towards it. I burn every year, and have a little front patch that’s not closely mowed and holds all its own rainwater. All the roofwater goes to native plants. My neighbor has done different things, some of which are just as interesting. It’s really about where is your heart when you’re doing whatever you’re doing.”

Heneghan: “We have a little prairie garden…My wife mostly handles it, but we brought Dan Larkin from the Chicago Botanic Garden in to look at it and he assured us that for a juvenile prairie, it’s doing fine. I think aesthetically it’s very pleasing. To be honest I never maintain gardens anyway—frankly I like sort of weedy lots, so I like non-native species because I think aesthetically they’re pleasing. But we wanted this garden because we think there’s conservation value to having these species in areas within the city—they gotta have a home.”

Hipp: “In our yard we have a lovely rain garden with around 20 native species in it, and on the shady side of the house a lot of woodland wildflowers and ferns, a few bottomland forest sedges, and a nice swamp white oak. In areas with partial sun, we have golden Alexanders, more sedges, northern bedstraw, yellow and purple coneflowers, growing alongside California poppies and tulips. We grow a mix of natives and non-natives. In the rain garden, which is planted only with native species, we see the most butterfly and insect activity.”

EcoMyth Outcome: Myth Busted

There are benefits to incorporating native plants when possible—but that doesn’t mean you need to abandon non-native plants you’re already growing and loving.

One Green Thing You Can Do

Plant one new native bush, tree, prairie grass, or flower in your garden or on your balcony this summer. Then see if you can find it in your local forest preserve.

More ways to help include:

  • Volunteer with your forest preserve in activities like removing buckthorn or planting and collecting native seed for new communities.
  • Plant natives in your community—think outside the box, since public and private spaces like schools often have land associated with them that’s underutilized.
  • Visit native plant gardens, like the ones at The Morton Arboretum and the Chicago Botanic Garden, both of which have amazing prairies and woodlands.

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