Native plant! | Reviews | Northern Express

guest review
By Karen Mulvahill | May 28, 2022

When I was little, I spent hours pulling dandelions from our garden. Our “grass” was actually a collection of different shades of green weeds. But when the bright yellow dandelions reared their perky heads, the green disappeared under their sunny umbrellas. My parents were working, supporting three kids, a mortgage, and paying for a car, and didn’t care about the quality of our lawn. But our neighbour, Mr. Melton, had the greenest, lavishest lawn you had ever seen. He was constantly outside – watering, fertilizing, pruning, weeding, mowing. He put our turf to shame. Eventually, I came to agree with my parents: there was better to do. In the years that followed, I just kept my motley green weeds short.

That was until about five years ago when I visited Saving Birds Thru Habitat in Omena (SBTH). Founded by Kay and Jim Charter in 2001, SBTH is a “conservation education organization that teaches people of all ages how to create habitat”. According to Douglas W. Tallamy in his book Bringing nature home, more than half of the land in the United States is now occupied by cities and suburbs. Overall, he continues, when you factor in other uses, US land available for wildlife is 5% of its original size.

Loss of natural habitat contributes to severe species decline. According to the American Bird Conservancy, “12% of the 4,230 species of birds are declining and heading towards extinction in our lifetime without immediate conservation action.” The SBTH reports: “Nearly a third of North America’s birds have disappeared in the past 50 years.

We are also experiencing a severe decline in our bee population which threatens our food sources. According Ohio State Overview (March 2018), bees are responsible for pollinating about a third of the world’s food supply.

Inspired by what I learned during my visit to SBTH, I replaced most of my lawn with native trees, shrubs and flowers.

Plants are generally referred to as “native” if they were present before the arrival of European settlers. It makes sense that native plants are the gardener’s best choice. Flora and fauna have evolved together; thus insects have favorite plants, birds have favorite insects, etc. We disrupt this beneficial ecological symbiosis when we raze our native plants and replace them with lawns, ornamental shrubs and flowers from far away.

Ornamental plants favored by nurseries and their customers have been brought to this country without their natural enemies; thus, they can outcompete and replace native plants. Non-native species can provide food, but it is not as nutritious as native species. For example, the invasive fall olive has an attractive red berry that could be compared to red pop. Birds like it, but it’s not particularly good for them. And ornamental flowers usually don’t contain enough nectar for bees.

In addition to providing food and habitat for birds, bees and mammals, landscaping with native plants can also help fight climate change. Native trees and shrubs sequester carbon much more efficiently than grass. When you factor in the pollution caused by pesticides, fertilizers, and lawn mower exhaust, avoiding the lawn in favor of planting natives is a big win for the environment.

Once established, native plants require little maintenance. A little pruning, a little watering in case of drought. But they are adapted to our conditions, so they will endure a lot… and reward you immensely.

There’s milkweed, on which monarch butterflies cocoon, and ironweed, which grows over six feet from the ground each summer, sprouting purple flowers covered in butterflies. St. John’s wort, a small shrub, explodes into a profusion of yellow flowers in midsummer, above each of which hovers a bee. The nine-bark shrub’s pink flowers shine against its dark leaves. Phlox, aster, black eyed Susan, purple coneflowers – these are just a few of the beautiful native flowers available.

The native plants are even showy in winter – the red and yellow twigs of the dogwood, the blue berries of the arrowwood, the red berries of the highbush cranberry, a little nest in the hazel. How can a green dish compete with all that?

I can still be spotted digging dandelions in the spring. Given their proliferation, you might think otherwise, but dandelions are a non-native species, brought to our shores from Eurasia with early European settlers. I pull them out not because they mess up my weed, but to save space for my natives to propagate – which they do very well – and for other natives to willingly plant themselves. (Goat’s beard and aster have traveled through my garden.)

Now that it’s finally that time of year, when everything is buzzing with new life and it’s hard to get our hands dirty, look for native varieties at your local nursery. Four Seasons in Traverse City and Peninsula Perennials near Northport are two of my favorites. If you live in a subdivision that requires or requires you to have a lawn, engage in discussions about the benefits of native planting. See if you can change some minds and regulations.

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