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Gardening with Native Plants has Benefits

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PANTON – Stunning landscapes abound all over the world, each one a testament to the captivating beauty of its native plant life. A flamboyant Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia) in bloom in its African natural habitat is a breathtaking sight that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Likewise, the majestic expanses of sugar maple (Acer saccharum) forests can be appreciated only in eastern North America, their place of origin.

Introducing native plants into existing landscaping brings a host of benefits. Native plants thrive in their natural habitat and need little care once established. Like plants in a forest, they flourish in their specific local ecosystems and climatic conditions.

At the same time, native plants support ecosystems by attracting wildlife, including birds and native pollinators, providing them with nutritious sources of food.

courtesy photo
Introducing native trees into an existing landscaping benefits birds such as cedar waxwings, which feed on berries of black cherry and other fruit trees.

In addition, native flowering plants, trees and shrubs protect the environment by absorbing and filtering runoff from heavy precipitation thereby preventing the harmful pollution of waterways.

Incorporating native plants into a landscape takes a little bit of planning, including the environmental characteristics of a garden such as sun exposure, drainage and soil type to help choose the plants best suited for these conditions.

Take the time to learn about the native flora by visiting local parks or public gardens landscaped with native plants. Nature preserves in an area are also a great source of inspiration.

Spend as much time and energy planting and caring for native plants as for non-natives, but as native plants get established, there will be lower water bills and less maintenance and no need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Landscaping can be updated in phases as money and time permit. Consider incorporating what the Audubon Society calls Vermont’s “superstars” because “these plants are more powerful than others when it comes to supporting pollinators and birds.”

For example, oak, black cherry, birch, red maple and serviceberry, all Vermont natives, are each host to hundreds of species of insects and caterpillars that provide nutritious food to birds.

The same applies to native shrubs like alder, dogwood, blueberry and shrub willow. In addition, superstar native perennials include joe pye weed, asters, goldenrod and sunflowers.

photo by Bonnie Kirn Donahue 
A number of different species of flowers suitable for Vermont gardens, including the purple coneflower, provide important food sources and energy for native bees and insects.

Plant nursery-grown potted plants anytime during the growing season to ensure the plant’s roots get established before winter sets in.

Prepare the planting area as for any nursery plant by following the specific recommended guidelines. 

Use organic mulch to reduce weed pressure, but do not smother the plants and keep the mulch away from the plant’s crown. Choose a mulch that breaks down and improves soil structure such as compost, well-rotted manure, shredded leaves or pine needles. However, keep in mind that mulch may prevent ground-nesting bees from accessing the soil to make their nest.

Maintain plantings with good watering habits until they are established, which takes about three years. By then, native plants should not require as much water or mulch. Moreover, there will be no need to fertilize them, as they are meant to grow unaided in their native soil.

Planting native species will transform your garden into a haven of birdsong. It will become a sanctuary for birds and a peaceful retreat all while protecting the environment.

For more information regarding native plants, visit the University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener Garden Resources web page (go.uvm.edu/garden-resources).

Nadie VanZandt is a UVM Extension Master Gardener from Panton.

Nadie VanZandt

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