The older I get, the less interested I am in having heated debates with those I disagree with. Live and let live and to each his own are more my mottos now — unless someone’s doing something particular atrocious. It’s not that I don’t care about things anymore: I’ve just learned that arguing your point doesn’t often change people’s positions on things. That’s particularly true when the positions are complete opposites like: GMOs are perfectly safe! No they’re not! Studies show lawn chemicals may cause lymphoma! No they don’t. Discussions like this make most of us shut down when what we really need to do is think.
If you honestly look at the facts in most cases, the truth in an argument is usually somewhere between two vehement sides. And this is the case with native plants. Talk about native plants at all and you’re sure to start a fierce debate because people either shriek that natives are the ONLY thing gardeners should plant. Or they whine that natives are hard to grow, weedy and mostly look crappy in gardens. Neither of these arguments is true. Chosen well and planted in appropriate places, native plants can be a great addition to home gardens. In fact, this season is as good a time as any to add some to yours.
Before you buy anything, here are some things to consider. Definitions of what is native vary widely, but natives are most commonly defined as plants that were growing naturally in a specific area before European settlement (about the mid-1800s in the Midwest). With that in mind, look for plants that were growing in Minnesota so you know they’re suited for our climate and will be less likely to become invasive, like buckthorn, a European native. To read up on plants and see some beautiful photos, I’d recommend checking out two great books: “Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota” by Lynn Steiner and “Native Plants for Northern Gardens” by Leon Snyder. You won’t believe the number of perennials, vines, grasses, shrubs, trees and more that you can choose from.
To narrow down your shopping list, look around your yard and consider the site. This is the most important thing to do when adding native plants, or any plants, really, to your landscape. Put a plant that loves sun in deep shade, and it’s not going to do well. In the case of natives, site is vitally important. Unlike “exotic” or “cultivated” plants, introduced by breeders or long ago by travelers and settlers, native plants develop a complex relationship with the natural environment around them. Removed from that environment and plopped into our gardens, natives may fail to thrive, die or spread everywhere and take over the place because the checks and balances they depend on are gone.
Don’t believe it when native proselytizers tell you that natives are magical plants capable of growing anywhere, going without water, thriving in any conditions and the only plants bees and butterflies will visit. This is hogwash, and the sort of talk that gives natives a bad name. The truth is, if you want to grow native plants and you want them to survive and behave as you would like them to, you have to choose and care for them wisely. That means, for a rain garden, choose natives that either grew in wet conditions or can adapt to them. The same goes for natives for rock gardens, woodland sites, prairies, grasslands, dry boulevard gardens and bogs. As Lynn Steiner aptly puts it in her book, “Nature is truly the best garden designer, and you will never go wrong if you attempt to imitate it.”
I have a mix of natives and cultivated plants in my gardens. Some of my favorite natives are prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), blue giant hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), turtlehead (Chelone glabra), gayfeather prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) and ironweed (Vernonia fasciculaae).
To learn more about native plants, and tour gardens of people who include many natives in their yards, get in touch with the Twin Cities Chapter of Wild Ones (wildonestwincities.org/p/about.html). When shopping for natives locally at places like farmers markets and co-ops this season, look for plants from Glacial Ridge Growers and Rush Creek Growers. In Linden Hills, you can buy native plants from Debbie Hansen, owner of Naturally Wild. Scheduled dates for her booth can be found here (naturallywildflowers.com/). Other local sources include: Landscape Alternatives in Shafer, Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis, Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, The Vagary in Randolph and Outback Nursery in Hastings.
Water gardens and gardening classes
Looking for something new to try this summer? How about container water gardening? Easier to care for than ponds, container water gardens are affordable and can be placed just about anywhere that gets at least four to six hours of daily sunlight. (Blooming plants need six hours or more.) Any watertight container will do. I like galvanized tubs, but you often see water gardens in half whiskey barrels and interesting antique pots people pick up at antique shops. Plug any holes or cracks you spot with plumber’s epoxy putty.
Once you’ve picked a container, choose a spot that’s level and has good drainage, so your container won’t crack if the soil settles or shifts. If you want to have a bubbler or a fountain, be sure to your water garden close to an electrical outlet so you can install a pump. Shopping for plants is the fun part, of course. When you shop, keep in mind that when growing plants in containers, it’s good to have a mix of plants from these categories: surface, marginal, floating and oxygenating. In addition to being nice looking, these combinations help ensure a healthy ecosystem in your container because each type of plant performs a different function.
Tropical or hardy water lilies, lotus and other surface plants add color and help control algae by blocking sunlight. Marginal or emergent plants such as dwarf horsetail (Equisetum scirpoides), dwarf papyrus (Cyperus isocladus), blue flag iris (Iris versicolor) and parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquatic) make good accent plants and do best in shallow water. Floating plants shade the water with their leaves. A few good choices are: water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes), water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) and fairy moss (Carolina azolla). Submerged or oxygenating plants, like anacharis (Egeria densa) and hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum) grow beneath the surface of the water and help supply oxygen keep the water clean.
If your container doesn’t have a pump to move the water around, keep it from becoming a breeding ground for mosquitos by using mosquito dunks, which contain the naturally occurring soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis). The dunks kill mosquito larvae, but it’s safe for people and pets. Keep containers topped off with water, but not overflowing. And fertilize with slow-release pond tablets for aquatic plants. There are several good, local places to buy water plants, including Water Lilies by Forsman, Cook Water Farms plants are sold directly and at local garden centers and Winsome Orchids.
I love learning new things, so I take a lot of classes on gardening and horticulture and it occurred to me that some of you might like to do the same. If so, here is a list of some of the many places that offer gardening-related classes and workshops for adults and kids (sometimes).
— The Minnesota State Horticulture Society (www.northerngardener.org)
— Bachman’s (www.bachmans.com)
— Metro Blooms (www.metroblooms.org)
— Mother Earth Gardens (www.motherearthgarden.com)
— Eggplant Urban Farm Supply (www.eggplantsupply.com)
— Minnesota Landscape Arborteum (www.arboretum.umn.edu)
I am certain I’ve missed some more good ones. So if you know of something I should have listed, maybe on beekeeping or backyard chickens or other interesting stuff, please send me an email at my blog and let me know. Thanks.
Check out Meleah’s blog: www.everydaygardener.com for more gardening tips or to email her a question or comment.