Native Gardening – Should We Plant Only Native Plants?

Native Gardening

Organic Gardening Goal 10 : To encourage the creation and protection of native plant and wildlife habitats.

Native gardening is becoming increasingly popular in conventional and organic gardening. The two main reasons generally cited for planting native plants are because they are:

  1. Adapted to our environment, and
  2. Best at attracting birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

The truth is that the above points are sometimes false. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t practice native gardening, but just for the record:

  1. Non-native plants are often healthier and happier in our gardens, and
  2. Wildlife regularly chooses non-native plants over natives.

Why Do Non-Native Plants Do Better In Our Gardens?

The reason non-native plants often do better in our organic gardens is because native plants actually grew in very different conditions than are present in and around our cities and towns, and anywhere that humans have spent much time, which is pretty much everywhere we have gardens.

For example, in many parts of North America and many other places, native plants grew in an environment that was mostly covered by healthy forests. The soil, light and water conditions were very different there. Even the air conditions are hugely different underneath a forest canopy as there is way more CO2 there.

But chances are good that where you are looking to practice native gardening is in a relatively open space, with soil conditions that have been greatly disturbed, less organic matter, and so on.

This is where many non-native plants flourish.

Organic gardens with greater diversity that includes non-native plants will generally have more wildlife. Gardeners around the world have noticed that birds and butterflies and insects often spend more time on non-native plants than native plants. I’m not sure why, but it’s the way it is.

Should Non-Native Plants Be Blamed For Displacing Native Plants?

Toby Hemenway says “I see a certain irony in immigrant-descended Americans cursing invasive exotics for displacing native species.”

Non-native plants should not be solely blamed for displacing our native plants. The reason they move in is because we have changed the landscape in a way that makes it inappropriate for the native plants to grow anymore and more appropriate for the non-native plants.

Over the last couple of centuries, we have turned our mostly-forested land masses around the world into fields and roads and cities. The point of this article is not to say if that was right or wrong, but just to point out that our environment has changed in a drastic way. The native plants aren’t going to stay around for this.

Most of the time, there is no point in trying to keep the non-native plants out of certain areas because they will just come right back in. If we decide we want to practice native gardening that includes native plants, we need to focus instead on the root of the problem.

What To Do About It

Native gardening does have a role to play, but there are some things we need to do first.

We need to first stop causing so much disturbance to the natural environment.

And then we need to work to restore it by bringing the soil conditions back to the way they were. It’s obviously a huge task in which everyone needs to be involved.

The other thing about most non-native plants is that they are mostly “pioneering” plants that come to repair the soil. They do things like fix nitrogen, balance soil conditions and clean up polluted water, all very helpful for organic gardening.

Once their work is done, which takes years, many of our native plants will come back and our native gardening will be more successful.

Should We Engage In Native Gardening?

So, should we avoid native plants? Of course not. We should plant lots of them, and when I’m designing an ornamental garden I use almost 100% natives.

But we should take just as much care to give them the best growing conditions that we can, because they need it, even more than many of the common non-native plants. They are not acclimated to our compacted soils that are low in organic matter, so we have to improve conditions.

And if we want lots of wildlife, we should plant a diversity of native plants that will feed them and house them. We may choose some non-natives, too. It doesn’t mean we try to grow things that aren’t right for our climate, but we may use plants from other climates similar to ours that are better adapted to our environmental conditions as they are now.

We choose plants that provide more organic gardening benefits to the landscape as a whole. We pursue native gardening and non-native gardening.

As for food, if we want a diversity of food, we grow lots of non-native plants. Almost all of our common food plants are not native. Yes, we should educate ourselves on the wild plants that have fallen out of favor and incorporate them, but if we want tomatoes and potatoes and all of the other non-native plants that are in your grocery store, we have to rethink the native-only mantra.

Of course we still want to preserve our native plants – even those that we’re not particularly fond of – because they have a role to play in the ecosystem.

13 Comments

  1. Mark on November 9, 2010 at 10:20 am

    I never really thought about the fact that all of the food I grow is non-native, but it definitely puts a new spin on the debate for me.

  2. Slblackb on February 10, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    I have been preaching, preaching, preaching about using native plants. This adds an interesting dimension to the conversation! I appreciate having my thinking broadened! I think the problem is that so many people never plant any natives – a trip to Loew’s is probably it for the average gardener, so I think we do need to keep encouraging the use of natives from local sources, but as with so many things it isn’t all or nothing. Using the best non-natives along with native plantings, building up soil, eliminating chemicals and capturing water is the probably the best thing for our environment. Thank you, Phil for this wonderful series!!

  3. africanaussie on February 21, 2011 at 1:23 am

    what a true article. we change the environment, and even native plants change to adapt to the environment. Lots of variety makes for a much healthier garden.

  4. McGee on March 15, 2011 at 6:25 am

    Nothing like an objective, well-informed viewpoint—a huge breath of fresh air. Thank you, Phil, well done!

  5. Heidi on March 29, 2011 at 7:03 am

    Who is Toby Hemenway? That’s a pretty funny quote! I really like your writing style. Very accessible.

    • Phil on March 29, 2011 at 1:56 pm

      Toby wrote my favorite intro to permaculture, Gaia’s Garden.

  6. christine on September 13, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    What a neat perspective, thank you Phil.  For an interesting discernment about tomatoes listen to segment 1 of the Sept 11, 2011 broadcast on http://www.blunt.fm

  7. Cindy on October 21, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    I find this article to be disingenous.You seem to imply that all native plants need woodland conditions. There are many native grasses & meadow forbs that will perform well in suburban gardens.No one suggests that “native plants” be excludively planted in the food or ornamental gardens. And while adult pollinators may find both natives & non-natives useful, the larval stages are much more host specific. To preserve biodiversity a native should always be chosen over a non-native if site approriate.

    • Phil on October 21, 2011 at 6:05 pm

      All excellent points, Cindy. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. LMcWilliams on June 6, 2012 at 2:56 am

    The interaction between large herbivors and the plant communities created savannah-type environments across much of the eastern half of what is now the US in pre-colonial times.  Assisted by fire, both wild & set by natives, the vast herds of grazing & browsing animals created soil tremendous soil fertility.  The forests were not all deep, dark places of shadow – as clearly escribed in the journals of early explorers.  Otherwise enjoying your articles, and the reminder that we are part of the biosphere!

    • Phil on June 6, 2012 at 2:41 pm

      Thanks for your comment. Cindy above made a similar good point. Where I’m from was almost all forested before settlement, but obviously, not everywhere was that way.

  9. Mini_monkey15 on August 25, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    Hello.I am a landscape architect student from the uk and we are talking about this in class. I was wondering are there any groups out there, websites, books, people who advocate non-native planting and are ‘for’ a more non native environment. I’m trying to find 2 sides of the story…. Any help will be great thanks a lot….

    • Phil on August 26, 2012 at 5:03 pm

      Yes, many (probably most) permaculturists advocate non-native planting, mostly in order to grow more food. Check out the book “Gaia’s Garden” or search around online.

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