Bay Journal

Native plants help to save time, money, Chesapeake watershed

  • By Kathy Reshetiloff on March 01, 2000
  • Comments are closed for this article.

I used to consider myself horticulturally challenged. You might even know the type. We buy plants outside discount stores (not knowing much about what we’re buying). We take them home with good intentions. We plant them, water them once or twice and then forget them. Some plants thrive, others do not.

I always marveled at other perpetually green, exotically landscaped yards. Then I found out how much time, effort and money was spent on these lovely yards. Forget that.

“Survival of the fittest, that’s my method,” I'd say, proudly standing amongst sparsely vegetated patches. “If it survives, great! If not, well it was never meant to be.”

My friend Laurie refers to this as my Marquis de Sade method of landscaping. Well luckily for me (and for my yard), there is another choice. If you want a wide variety of flowers, shrubs and trees without a lot of pampering and maintenance, try using native plants.

Native plants are those that have naturally occurred in a region for hundreds of years. Plants native to an area are accustomed to the geography, soil, climate and other local conditions.

A growing number of nurseries are beginning to offer native flowers, shrubs and trees. When selecting natives, you need to choose species that will thrive in your particular soil, sun and moisture conditions. Besides requiring less overall maintenance, which saves time, water and money, native species also provide many added benefits.

Native plants create wildlife habitat. Habitat consists of food, water, shelter and breeding areas that our wildlife need to survive. These areas are being lost as land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is continually being developed for roads, homes, businesses and agricultural operations.

Incorporating native plants into landscape designs at home or work provides wildlife with food, such as berries, seeds and nectar; cover; and nesting areas. This creates a more self-sustaining system with all the checks and balances that nature provides. Habitats that will attract beneficial insects, small mammals, birds, frogs, turtles and other wildlife can be planted right outside one’s window!

Natives plants require less or no chemicals. Unlike many exotic plants, which require insecticides and fungicides to thrive, natives are less susceptible to pests. Often, they don’t even need pesticides to control insects because they have either developed their own natural chemical defenses, or the insects that attack them are controlled by other insects, birds or other animals.

Because they have adapted to local soil conditions — even “poor” soil — native plants require less chemicals because they don’t rely on fertilizers for their nutrients. Rather than fight with the soil, by routinely fertilizing or liming, choose plants that will thrive in existing conditions. For a small fee, the state Cooperative Extension Service will perform a simple test to identify your soil conditions. Contact your local extension office to learn about this program.

The less chemicals applied to our land, the less that can run off into rivers and the Bay.

Native plants have also adapted to local climate conditions and help to conserve water because they don’t need to be constantly watered. The basic rule of thumb is: the right plant for the right place. If you have a wet or very moist spot, plant a moisture-loving species. For hot, dry locations, such as a south-facing slope, use plants that naturally occur in these conditions.

Plants that have evolved to live in specific conditions, once established, won’t require constant intervention.

Native plants also help to prevent the spread of invasive plants. Some exotic plants — species from other countries or parts of the United States — have become invasive weeds, spreading out of control. Invasive plants already infest more than 100 million acres in the United States and continue to increase by 8–20 percent annually. According to the Weed Science Society of America, control efforts and losses resulting from invasive plants cost more than $20 billion per year in the United States.

When invasive plants take over wetlands, forests or meadows, we lose the native plants and habitats needed by local wildlife.

Many times, homeowners aren’t aware that a plant contained in a bed can become a menace in the wild. To avoid the possibility of releasing an invasive plant, use natives plants as often as possible. Some examples of invasive plants include: Japanese honeysuckle, kudzu, purple loosestrife, phragmites, autumn olive and Norway maple. For information on invasive plants and how to control them, visit the Plant Conservation Alliance’s web site at www.nps.gov/plants/alien

For many of us, our first connection to the land is a garden or yard. Hanging baskets and window boxes can provide that connection in an apartment. We recognize our homes not only by our houses but by the community, geography and landscape.

Native plants enhance this feeling of place. Throughout the watershed, identical housing developments and strip malls are transforming our diverse landscape into a sort of monoculture. By keeping or restoring native vegetation, we create communities that represent our local natural and cultural heritage. We create a sense of place.

As native plants become more popular, more nurseries are starting to carry them. Be sure to use only nursery-grown native plants. Never remove native plants from the wild.

There are many organizations and agencies that provide information about landscaping with native plants. Here are just a few:

  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, publication line 410-573-4593; request a list of Maryland native plants. For information, visit the BayScapes program web site at www.fws.gov/r5cbfo/Bayscapes.htm
  • Pennsylvania Native Plant Society, P.O. Box 281 State College PA 16804-0281

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About Kathy Reshetiloff

Kathryn Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kathy Reshetiloff

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