A Primer on Gardening with Native Plants
NORWICH CONSERVATION COMMISSION
Native plants – species present in Vermont prior to European colonization – are cornerstones of our environment. In addition to providing food and cover for native fauna including a myriad of beneficial insects, native plant communities provide the genetic and species diversity necessary for ecosystem resilience. Unfortunately, human activities and associated habitat loss threaten many of Vermont’s native plants. One seemly benign activity, gardening, can lead to habitat loss. When non-native species are planted, they often produce a homogenized landscape devoid of regional character. Some are invasive, escaping cultivation, and outcompeting native plants in natural settings.
In contrast, landscaping with native species celebrates Vermont’s natural heritage by restoring native plant communities. ‘Escapees’ from native plantings pose no threat to nearby natural communities. Plantings are selected based on site requirements (i.e., Orange Milkweed, or Asclepias tuberosa, on sandy, dry soils) so that constant watering, fertilizing, or soil amendments are unnecessary. Carefully chosen native plants are ideal for planting in the most difficult sites on your property (for instance, a wet and shady area) because they evolved under the same conditions. One excellent resource for matching species to site conditions is Native Plants of the Northeast (D.J. Leopold, 2008).
Autumn is the perfect time to start a native plant garden. Native plants can be obtained from many sources, including seed collecting, cuttings, or nursery purchases. Transplanting native plants from the wild into your garden is unethical and often illegal. It depletes natural communities of genetic and species diversity, so please don’t do it! Instead, collect seeds. Examine them to ensure they are mature and never take more than 10% of a population’s seeds. Sow seeds outdoors in autumn because most require repeated periods of cold and moisture to germinate. Reproducing these conditions indoors is difficult. Late summer to early fall is also the perfect time to propagate woody plants from semi-hardwood cuttings. Riparian species, such as willows or dogwoods, are easiest. Hardwood cuttings are taken later in fall when plants are dormant.
Autumn is a great time to purchase native perennials because they are often on sale. Be sure to ask where the plant originated. Some ‘native’ plants are produced from European stock or from those grown in the southeastern US. Refer to plants using Latin names, a binomial consisting of a genus (generalized name) and a species (more specific name). This is not difficult; many genera, (Geranium, Iris) are already part of our gardening vocabulary. Using Latin names ensures that we get the species requested. Ask for Acer rubrum and you will purchase a native red maple, prized for its fall color. Ask for ‘Red Maple’ and you might purchase ‘Crimson King’ a cultivar of the highly invasive Norway Maple (Acer platanoides).
Need inspiration? The native wildflowers in King Arthur Flour’s retention basins are one local example. To view the native plantings at the Montshire Museum, please check in at the front desk. Viewing is free with admission. The Conservation Commission also has native plant resources available through Google Drive. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for links on native plant gardening and spring flora photos.