Thoughts on how to create a well-designed garden retreat.

Posts tagged “native garden

Native or not?


There is a new residential development in our area that advertises that they are green and use native plants.  This excited me because having a whole neighborhood that was planting natives could show how attractive a native community could be and such a large area of natives would be a seed source for natives to be reintroduced into the natural landscape.

Imagine my surprise when I drove through this neighborhood and had a hard time finding these native plants.  I had a couple customers referred to me in this neighborhood and their front yards were already planted by the landscaper hired by the builder.  NOT ONE native plant was in these front yards.  The clients were surprised to hear this.

So I found out the name of the GUY IN CHARGE of selling lots in the development and gave him a call.  He told me that they did plant native.  When I told him what I saw he said well they plant SOME native.  When I pressed further, he said well they plant drought-tolerant and maybe in order to do that, they had to plant some non-natives.  You do not have to plant non-natives to have drought tolerant plantings.  Many natives are drought tolerant because every where has the occasional drought and the natives in that location survive.  Then he said that azaleas are native.  I told him that some azaleas are native but the ones that are here are deciduous.  The evergreen azaleas common in the south come from Japan.  He still insisted that they are native because they are everywhere.  That is the same as saying European- and African-Americans are Native Americans.  He then got short with me and said he had heard enough.  He did not want to hear the truth any more.  He wanted to go on believing that he was being responsible to the environment and planting native plants.  I feel he is lying to prospective buyers.

The term NATIVE when it comes to plants means that it is indigenous to the area.  When I plant “native”, I include plants that are indigenous to the Southeast US with the exception of South Florida.  This gives me an expanded palette of plants to choose from above what is indigenous to Durham, NC.

The term NATURALIZED means that the plant came from another part of the world but has moved into the natural environment on it’s own.  So the Japanese Azaleas are not even naturalized as they do not seed into the woods.   Privet is naturalized as it comes up on it’s own all over the woods.  It is in fact an invasive exotic.  Some 20% of the plants found in the woods are invasive exotics that should not be there.  Up to 30% are NATURALIZED, invasive or not.  NATURALIZED plants are NON-NATIVE!

Most plants sold by plant nurseries are in fact NON-NATIVE.  Care must be taken when planting non-natives to not introduce them into the wild.  Most of the native plants in the wild are nearly non-existent except for the native trees.  Many wildflowers and native shrubs are hard to find in their native habitats any more due to farming practices and clear-cutting.  Native plants are usually limited in the wild to steep slopes and swamps where man could not farm.

Planting natives today means you are helping to reintroduce the native plants into your area and hopefully they will once again be seeding in and sprouting up in their native habitats they used to enjoy.  Calling a plant native when it is not does not make it so.

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Your green lawn is not so green


One of the least “green” thing you can do in your yard is to have a grass lawn.  Being green is a buzz word today but it is an important way to live.  We must take care of the earth and that is no more true than in your own yard.  You may not have the influence to clean up the entire earth.  However, you can make changes right at home.

The U.S. style of the suburban lawn is a good place to start.  Our cars have all these gadgets to help reduce emissions to help keep our air clean.  Our gas-powered lawn mowers, weed-eaters, and blowers do not.  Add to that fact, a lot of lawn care  equipment also uses two-cycle engines.  Two-cycle engines have oil mixed with the gas.  This is all burned together which is why most of them noticeably smoke when used.

One solution is to not have a lawn at all.  That was the solution I used.  I have a small piece of property that is long and narrow.  It made little sense to put any grass near the house as the widest of any area was 15′.  Add to that the shade caused by trees it made no sense.

However, families with children may want a lawn for play.  That is understandable.  However, not every square inch of the property needs to be covered with grass.  Only use grass where it is a large enough area for play or maybe along parking areas where you might need the room to get out of the car.  Smaller areas of grass in the front yard may help to set off the plants better than a large expanse.  Generally speaking, less is more.

The other problem with lawns is the amount of chemicals usually used to keep the lawn thick and green.  Weed killers and fertilizers are often used in ratios that cause them to runoff into gutters and streams.  Some of these chemicals also cause severe reactions to kids and sensitive adults. A “healthy” lawn usually is not.  Most people strive for a monoculture of grass with nothing else growing in it.  This is also opposite of nature.  If you’ve ever watched the opening of “Little House on the Prairie”, Laura Ingalls is running through a field of grass and many wildflowers.  That is nature’s idea of a lawn to play in.  Until the 1950’s it was a badge of honor to have clover in your lawn.  Clover was recognized as beneficial to the soil for the fact it releases nitrogen into the soil.  Once the chemical companies got going, they convinced people that this was undesirable.

If you choose to have a lawn, try to find organic lawn care products.  There are companies out there that focus on using only organic products.  Check them out carefully.  For cutting your lawn, you might check out electric mowers and equipment.  There are lawn care companies that use electric equipment that the charge up using solar power.

Back briefly to the idea that a lawn is necessary for children.  I have a friend who has a five year old son.  He used to live with me but now has his own place.  His home has a lawn which Nicholaus loves to play in.  However, when Nicholaus is here where there is no lawn, he is still out there playing and exploring.  He says he likes my yard more. My garden is an adventure for him.

Easter egg hunt in Jaliya's Garden


More about the alien invaders.


One thing that I have found is that so few people know what is native and what is not.  I recently had a job in a new development that claimed to be “green”.  The information brochure said that the landscaping was done with native plants.  This customer called me to do the side/back yard as the front yard was already done by the builder.  I was excited because I wanted to do all natives and wanted to start getting jobs in this development.  Imagine my surprise when I pulled up to the house and not one plant in the front yard was native. Not one!

Many people think that just because a plant is commonly planted in their area that it is a native plant.  Not true.  I like a lot of plants from around the world.  European explorers collected plants and took them back to Europe and the U.S.  People were intrigues by the new plants.  Money was to be made by growing these plants and selling them.  If people wanted native plants in their garden, they could just go out and dig them up from their natural habitat.  Not much money to be made there. To make it worse, as the native plants were being destroyed by farming and development and nurseries weren’t growing them, when people did want natives they would go out and dig them up to bring home.  This further helped to wipe out native plant populations.  It is only a good idea to go dig up plants from the wild if they are about to be destroyed by development.  Any gardener knows that when you transplant plants, you have the risk of killing the plant if it doesn’t survive the shock of the move.  Protect the native plants in their natural environment.

For a plant lover, it is hard to refrain from planting exotics.  I don’t plant 100% native myself.  Generally, the further away from urban settings and closer to the woods, the less I plant exotics.  I do not want the exotics escaping into the natural landscape.  Not all non-natives are invasive.  I have given up on planting some plants once I found they were invasive.  To determine what plants are invasive in your area, go online and type in “Invasive exotic plant” and your State and you should be able to find a list.  In NC there is a list of the invasive and the potentially invasive.  Never plant the invasive.  Only with extreme care plant the potentially invasive.  Better to not plant either.

Because I have divided my yard into a native plant section and an exotic plant section, I can compare the two easily.  One thing that I have noticed is how much more life is in the native section.  The native garden is humming with life.  Sit still for a bit in the native garden and you will notice loads of honeybees, bumble bees, butterflies and birds.  The contrast between the numbers in the native garden and the exotic garden is astounding.  Nothing is still in the native garden.  By contrast the exotic plant area is a funeral home.  Ok, maybe an exaggeration but if you saw it, you would notice the difference. It’s like night and day.

Notice the bees and the hummingbird moth.


Going barefoot.


“Skeletons” are the trees and evergreen plants  that make up the back bone of the garden.  The “Focals” are the spotlight plants that help the eyes settle and lead the eyes through the garden.  The “Decoratives” are the deciduous blooming shrubs and the “Pretties” are the flowering perennials adding color to the garden.  However, we are not done.  The final category is the “Infills”.  The infills are the low growing plants that fill in the space between plants.  I liken a garden without the infills as a woman who is all dressed up but has no shoes to wear.

Infills are the ground-covers.  They could also be annual plants that you plant to fill in the spaces between plants until the larger plants grow and fill in the space.  People say that nature abhors a vacuum and that is definitely true in the southeast.  The southeast US was originally forest.  In this area, if you don’t plant something, Mother Nature will.  My definition of a “weed” is a plant out of place.  Think about that if you don’t understand.  Corn is a crop in a corn field but if it’s growing up in your lawn, it is a weed.  If you want to keep down weeds in a garden, you must plant enough plants to crowd out the weeds.  It might not eliminate every weed but it goes a long way.  Because this area was the southeast forest, tree saplings will always be a problem but can be lessened with thick plantings

The other advantage of the infills is that layers of plants are more attractive if done right and birds and wildlife naturally prefer it.  In a small garden, infills also allow you another way to add flower color in less space.  Layer, layer, layer.  The five types of plants that John Brookes mentions all help to create layers and interest in a garden.  No garden is complete without a good proportion of all five, 4 just wont do it.


Winging it.


One of the joys of a garden is the life it brings.  Of course, plants are living things but a well-designed garden brings in life on wings.

I have discussed 3 of the 5 functions or types of plants in the well-designed garden.  These different types of plants is also what makes the garden attractive to birds.  Birds like open areas near protective cover.  This is best achieved by planting layers of plants.  Shade trees tower over understory trees with shrubs planted under those.  These are all planted together alongside of a small open place make an ideal garden for birds.

Evergreen shrubs help to block the winds which also make for an inviting garden for birds.  Trees such as hawthorn and service berry provide berries for food.  Hollies not only provide berries for food but also provide great shelter for nesting.  One native plant in this area that almost never seems to be found without a bird nest in it is the Yaupon Holly.  The yaupon holly can get 15′ tall and wide.  It has small evergreen leaves and the females have berries.  But the twiggy stiff branch structure seems to be ideal for bird nests.

It also helps to plant flowering perennials that produce seeds that birds like.  One of my favorite plants is a type of sunflower commonly called “Dumbo Ears”.  It produces large leaves fairly low to the ground but shoots up flower stalks rising around 6′ tall.  When it blooms, it is a yellow cone-flower shaped flower.  But when it goes to seed, the gold finches flock to it.  There are other plant/bird combinations but I will be honest and say I don’t know of many of them.  I have learned that birds prefer our native plants over many exotics.  This is because the natives are what they have eaten for millenia.

Another favorite sight is when hummingbirds visit the garden.  Hummingbirds are attracted to bright tubular flowers.  Cardinal flower, bee balm, and trumpet vine are some examples.  There are many more that may be native in your area.

The biggest thing you can do if you want birds is to provide a water source.  Many people keep bird baths for that purpose and they work.  However, you must remember to keep them with water as the shallow bowls evaporate quickly.  Water gardens work best for attracting birds.  If the garden pond has a shallow area, the birds will love it.

Other winged creatures highly desired are butterflies.  Butterflies add color and motion to the garden.  They often hang around a little more than birds as they are so much slower and seem more care-free.  The key to attracting butterflies is to plant the flowers or shrubs that are food for the larva of the butterflies you want.  Many species of butterfly larva only feed on one or two species of plants.  If you want that specie of butterfly, you need to plant that particular food source.  You can find lists online to help you here.  Again, native plants are preferable because that is what they have fed on for millenia as well.  Be sure to limit pesticide use as well if you want butterflies.

Just before dark, the bats show up in my garden.  Bats are very welcome as they eat loads of mosquitoes.  I often see them dipping down to the pond to get a drink.  The more bats and birds you attract to the garden, the less mosquitoes you will have.