This Week's Take:

Why garden with native plants?

Gardening is the No. 1 recreational activity in the nation, with more than 50 percent of Americans gardening in one form or another. The rewards of gardening are rich and varied. To make it even more valuable to our Chesapeake Bay ecosystems, try adding native plants to your landscape and get your hands dirty for a good cause.

Why native plants?

Native plants are those found in the local area before colonists arrived.

One of the best reasons to plant natives is that they tend to be lower maintenance and hardier. They have adapted to our soils and the fluctuations of our weather and pests for thousands of years and require little or no added water, fertilizers or pesticides. This helps preserve our water supply and reduces chemical additives to the environment.

The use of native plants helps develop a "sense of place" and a pride in our region. Whether viewing plants in a meadow speckled with foxglove beardtongue and goldenrod, or a redbud or dogwood tree in bloom, many people don’t have a good idea of which plants are original to our region.

Many are pleasantly surprised to find that natives are quite aesthetically pleasing.

For many, nothing quite matches the sight of butterflies or a flock birds attracted to landscapes planted with native plants.

More natives, less lawn

In addition to adding great beauty to a landscape, native trees and shrubs are very efficient at absorbing excess water and nutrients from stormwater runoff, cleaning the air, and controlling erosion.

Landscapes incorporating trees, shrubs and groundcover may be more work up front. However, they usually are less costly and less time-consuming to maintain than turf, and they provide much greater environmental benefits.

Landscape architect Larry Weaner tells us, "In an attempt to attain the perfect lawn, Americans are using enormous quantities of water, fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides and fossil fuels to make grass grow more vigorously, then spending time and money on a weekly basis to keep it short."

Mowed lawns will persist, and limited amounts of environmentally managed lawns aren’t necessarily harmful. But think of other, more beneficial, possibilities.

Conservation landscaping or environmentally-friendly landscaping - also referred to as BayScaping, Bay-Wise landscaping, or Ecoscaping - helps protect and improve the Chesapeake Bay. By practicing conservation landscaping, we can improve air and water quality and the health of humans and wildlife, while reducing maintenance costs and the time spent on lawn chores such as mowing.

Human health and economic benefits

Aside from the above excellent reasons, native plants should be the norm in the landscape for a host of very pragmatic reasons. A wide diversity of native plants and wildlife is absolutely essential, not only to our health, but to our survival.

The next time you bite into your lunch, think about this: According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, experts calculate that "over 90 percent of all flowering plants and over 75 percent of food crops require fertilization by animal pollinators in order to produce fruit and seed."

The survival of pollinating animals is directly related to our ability to grow their food sources. While our survival, i.e, our supply of food and fiber is dependent on animals, including the native bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, birds, bats, and other pollinators.

Many examples of the close relationship of plants and animals exist. The monarch butterfly is famous for its dependence on milkweed. The Maryland state insect - the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly - must lay her eggs on only a few select plants, including turtleheads. The zebra swallowtail butterfly feeds almost exclusively on pawpaw trees during its caterpillar stage.

Of further concern, there has been much in the news lately about the decline of honeybees around the country and the detrimental impact on farming. Planting native plants will help native bees and other pollinating insect populations.

Also, native plants attract helpful wildlife species which help control mosquitoes, flies and other disease-causing insects. Many birds eat flying insects like mosquitoes; and wildlife such as bats, dragonflies, frogs, toads, and others help control them as well.

Native trees and shrubs can increase property values. While trees can save money by providing energy conservation and cooling. Air temperature is up to 25 percent cooler under shade trees.

Gardening is a great way to commune with nature: planting, nurturing, observing wildlife, and harvesting and beholding the fruits of our labor. Gardening with native plants makes it even more rewarding.

This column was adapted from Zora Lathan and Thistle Cone’s book, "Ecoscaping Back to the Future ... Restoring Chesapeake Landscapes." Ms. Lathan and Ms. Cone are with the Chesapeake Ecology Center on Clay Street in Annapolis, which will host an open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sept. 8.


(Revised September 2007)