In this article you’ll discover some reasons why native plants are amazing. Read on to learn about eight different species you might consider planting on your property.
Why Garden with Native Plants
For me, it took a while to recognize why having native plants around is so great. I started my career as a horticulturalist, focusing primarily on the care of individual plants as part of aesthetically pleasing gardens. Gardens, I was taught, were meant to by tightly controlled. Any plant growing outside of the gardener’s control was deemed a weed, and any dead plant matter – leaf, twig, or spent flower was meant to be removed from sight as quickly as possible. A tidy, tightly controlled environment was seen as beautiful, and a reflection of a gardener’s own discipline and tidiness. The only hint that disorder might be desired were instructions not to plant in rows, and always to plant in groups of three, not two.
As a biologist, my views on what makes a garden beautiful have changed. Looking back at my early gardening efforts, I realize I was trying to create a picture-perfect garden. But like a picture, the tightly controlled gardens I created were motionless and two-dimensional. I now find more beauty in connections between plants and other organisms in the environment. The flow of energy between plants and fungi; between insects and birds and bats. Creating gardens where these wonderous interactions can occur means leaving things to complete the cycle of life and death; a cycle imminently interrupted by attempts at tidiness. Encouraging the disorder associated with natural cycles creates the habitat and processes needed for a much broader diversity of life to exist within a garden. Utilizing native species taps into a pattern of relationships between organisms that are thousands of years in the making, turning your motionless garden picture into an Imax feature film. If this sounds good to you, read on!
The Right Plant in the Right Place
Drought (or flood) tolerance is the most important consideration when determining which species of native plants are suitable for your site. Sun exposure (which also influences drought severity) and soil type are also important. Fortunately, the spectrum of native plants on Mayne is as broad as the habitat diversity. Before we get too excited about specific plants, it’s only fair to mention that none of the species mentioned in this article are resistant to deer browse with our current deer populations. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about what that says about the severity of the ecological problem of deer overpopulation on Mayne Island today.
Playlist #1 – Hedge or low-maintenance shrub garden for dry(ish) sites.
The following four species are my go-to choices for a relatively drought tolerant, low maintenance shrub thicket which provides habitat for ground-nesting songbirds, butterflies, and countless other species. Throw in a thick layer of maple leaf mulch after planting and the occasional large piece of rotting wood and you’ve got yourself a dynamic, low maintenance garden. Regular watering and provision of additional mulch over for the first two seasons will limit mortality and maximize growth rate. I also add 1-2 shovels of compost per plant during the planting.
This thicket forming species typically grows 1-2m in height and once established will start forming a thicket via rhizomes (underground stems). The small flowers bloom into September, and despite their small size are a favorite of hummingbirds and bumblebees alike. The white berries provide sustenance for overwintering birds, persisting into late winter like an unwanted can of baked beans at the back of the pantry. Eventually when the robins and varied thrushes get hungry enough, they can be seen choking them down.
There are good reasons the flowering currant has become popular in the horticulture industry. It is a reasonably drought tolerant deciduous shrub which is quick to establish and responds well to hard pruning from the base. It produces flowers on second-year wood in late winter/early spring. These can get large under ideal conditions but can be maintained to fit a smaller space or left to go wild.
Under normal conditions, oceanspray does not tend to look like a gangly umbrella. This shrub forms a lush vase shape with new shoots growing from the base when protected from deer browse. The summer flowers are a feast for moths and butterflies, and it is the most important host plant for one of my favorite butterflies, the Lorquin’s admiral.
Of the four species in the dry(ish) hedge playlist, this is the slowest to establish. However, once established the stunning white flowers on this shrub make it a valuable ornamental plant. People hailing from the interior are often nostalgic about the times they’ve spent eating the delicious berries. Sorry to disappoint, but the berries here on the coast aren’t much more than a dry bag of seeds, likely due to our drier summers. Fortunately, the birds have less sensitive palates than we do, and seem to eat them up as they mature, to the point where it is difficult to find seed to collect in some years. Wetter springs tend to result in more berries and higher quality seeds.
Playlist #2 – Hedgerow or low maintenance shrub garden for wet(ish) sites.
If you have a site with at least a few feet of reasonable soil, that does not experience significant drought or prolonged flooding and has a decent amount of sun, then you are in the sweet spot for native plant options. Everything in Playlist #1 will grow more happily in slightly wetter conditions, and below are another four options to include among others.
Typically, the salmonberry is the first native plant to flower each year, often as early as January. The brilliant purple flowers are a welcome sign that spring is on the way. This species will spread by rhizome, forming thickets once established and creating the perfect habitat and springtime nourishment for ground-nesting songbirds. The berries taste pretty good, if you can find ripe ones the birds haven’t gotten to first.
Sometimes called osoberry, this species is one of the first to bloom in spring. There are male plants and female plants, with the males producing more flowers because the females must invest more resources per bloom. The single seeded fruit matures in June and though technically edible, they are neither palatable nor abundant. However, birds do love them.
The widely spaced thorns of this tall shrub/small tree are an adaptation to prevent being eaten by land mammals that are now extinct, such as the giant ground sloth that roamed North America as recently as 13,000 years ago, before being hunted to extinction by humans. Unfortunately, the black hawthorn’s thorns offer little protection against our present deer. This species should not be mistaken for the aggressive, recently introduced English hawthorn which is now widespread on Mayne Island. The black hawthorn grows only in a few known locations on the island such as Hedgerow Farm. It likes full sun and moist soils and will tolerate short seasonal drought and short seasonal flooding. We’ve been working to increase its presence on the island and have had some success establishing it at St. John Point and Bennett Bay.
For a large shrub that tolerates almost year-round flooding, the red-osier dogwood is remarkably drought tolerant. Prized in the horticulture industry for its red stems, white flowers, and white berries, this species looks good all-year round. In the wettest of sites, it can be propagated using a technique called live staking.
Plant Sale Opportunity
Fall is the best time to plant trees and shrubs so they can set roots prior to next summer. On Saturday October 14th we will be holding a fall native plant sale at our new office. This will also be the grand opening of a plant sales space we are constructing behind the office, where we will showcase a small selection of native plants for sale to local land stewards. Conservancy Members will have an opportunity to pre-order plants. To sign up for an annual membership click here. See the plant sale event for more information, including availability and prices.