Gardening with Native Plants: Nitty-gritty
By Samantha Winter
Irene Check, Chicago, Ill.
Once upon a time, in a land of golf courses and the Home Depot gardening section, there was a house. A well-manicured, perfectly green, weedless lawn surrounded this house. And in this magical place, mosquitoes swarmed and danced delicately above a tiny fountain of water leaking from a black plastic sprinkler head. The sun shone warmly on this small house and the air was always thick with the stinging aroma of freshly applied weed-killer. . .
Feeling disappointed? Well, let's face it. The stereotypical American yard just isn’t a suitable setting for fairy tales. Nor is it a verdant paradise for animals and insects. More likely, poetry and story are set amidst blossoming wildflowers and grasses, under the shade of old moss-covered trees, and in gardens overflowing with the smells of herbs and spices. In other words, folks, they’re inspired by native landscapes.
But as I mentioned briefly in the Essential Answer, natives offer more than subject matter for fairy tales. So now let’s dig a little deeper.
Cutting Pesticides and Fertilizers
Fewer than 10 percent of insects are harmful to plants. In fact, many of them are beneficial to your garden. Yet, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 78 million households in the United States still use pesticides on their lawns or gardens. These commonly used toxins, such as Roundup and Plantguard, don’t discriminate between insect friend and foe. And they’re easily carried or tracked into houses—increasing indoor pesticide levels on surfaces and carpets tenfold in households where they're used. Exposure to these pesticides can mean more than just the charcoal smoothies my adventuresome toddler taste-testing earned me, especially for vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women, the elderly and the chronically ill. In fact, many studies show that the most commonly used pesticides are linked to health problems such as cancer, birth defects, liver and kidney damage and neurotoxicity. While most of these health problems probably do not occur as a direct result of trace pesticides in the home, recent studies suggest that use of home and garden pesticides increases risk of serious health problems. For example, one study suggests use of home and garden pesticide can increase the risk of childhood leukemia seven fold.
Luckily, native plants are not only resistant to pests, they can actually help deter harmful pests or weeds from entering your garden. Converting to native plants or intercropping non-natives and natives can attract helpful insects and, in doing so, eliminate harmful pests. For example, parasitic wasps, attracted by numerous plant species, can eliminate many kinds of aphids. For more recommendations for intercropping as a form of pest control, including possible plant parings, click here.
Water Savings & Water Quality
Perhaps it’s time to put down the watering can. On average, outdoor water use accounts for 32 percent of total household water use in the U.S. But native landscaping offers a low-maintenance solution to outdoor water use. Native plants, accustomed to the local environment, are acclimated to local water conditions. Consequently, native landscaping can help households conserve the Earth’s most precious resource while reducing the monthly water bill.
Reducing pesticide and fertilizer use not only minimizes our direct exposure to the toxins, it also reduces the amount of these harmful toxins that run off into streams, lakes and oceans. Pesticides in the water system can have detrimental effects on myriad species. Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, for example, 16 are toxic to birds, 24 are toxic to fish and other aquatic species, and 11 are toxic to bees. According to the EPA, pesticides also seep into groundwater sources and wells, exposing humans to health problems such as cancer, birth defects and neurotoxicity.
Environment and Health
Believe it or not, native plants help combat global warming. Caring for a native landscape involves minimal mowing, trimming and/or cutting. According to the EPA, gas-burning lawn equipment accounts for 5 percent of U.S. air pollution. Hence, native landscaping helps eliminate some of the fumes and particulates we inhale at the ground level and reduces overall air pollution by virtually eliminating the need for lawn maintenance equipment, such as mowers or weed-whackers. In addition, native plants, especially when compared to traditional mowed grass, act as better “carbon sinks,” effectively absorbing more CO2 from the atmosphere.
Landscaping with native plants, including grasses, shrubs, wildflowers and trees helps create and restore healthy ecosystems. Native landscaping attracts and sustains birds, butterflies, animals and, you guessed it, toddlers. And with biodiversity comes beautiful color, life and health to your yard and gardens. Speaking of health, native plants also attract bees and other pollinators that bolster the productivity of your and your neighbor’s garden.
One day, several years after I stopped exploring nature solely with my mouth, my mom pointed at an orange and black butterfly floating delicately around my yard. I watched the butterfly stop and hover gently over a milkweed plant that stuck up unabashedly in the middle of my father’s patchy mowing job. After a moment my mom told me that milkweed plants are the sole food source for the Monarch butterfly. Then she looked me in the eye and told me milkweed was disappearing, taking the Monarch with it. I was mortified. I stomped on the handle of my butterfly net and took to the library with my mom. Turns out people can plant native butterfly gardens. So, armored with my plastic trowel, I did—all over the yard. I was sure I’d saved the entire Monarch population. While I may have overestimated the reach of my milkweed mission, it was a sublime example of the co-benefits of landscaping with native plants.
Planting a new garden, uprooting an old garden, or replacing your lawn may not seem like much of a fairy tale—it requires work and preparation. However, once native plants are established, they require very little maintenance, they are hardy, beneficial for the environment and gentle on the pocket book. In the end, you may find that native landscapes really can be a dream come true.
SAMANTHA WINTER earned her master's in environmental engineering and science in 2011
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Data is from the past two weeks.