Going Native

From Black Eyed Susans to Lizard’s Tails, plants that thrive naturally in your garden

Autumn Mott

What exactly is a native plant? 

A native plant is one that occurs naturally in a particular region, thriving in that region with no human intervention and growing naturally in that zone. In South Carolina, native plants are those that grew here before there was any contact with Europeans. 

Native plants play an important role in a local ecosystem as they evolved with other living things to survive in a complex and symbiotic relationship, providing food, shelter and water to wildlife. These plants are also used for medical research, food research and industrial research. Native plants add beauty and diversity to the garden, and they require much less water and maintenance once established.

Gardening with native plants is not a new trend in gardening circles. Adding them to the home landscape can cut down on maintenance hours, maintenance costs and water costs. Native gardening does not come naturally to many of us in the gardening industry because we have grown up with manicured gardens filled with non-native plants. Native plants are sometimes thought of as weeds and unsightly specimens for our suburban gardens. I must admit that it would be hard for me to trade my formal, evergreen garden for a garden completely planted with native plants; however, I do think it is important to at least consider incorporating them into our gardening schemes. These plants add to the diversity of the landscape and provide food for insects, birds and other animals.

Because they have adapted to the soil and climatic conditions of their region, they require much less water, fertilizer, pruning or mulch. Most natives have developed a resistance to local bugs, so they do not need pesticides and are not usually threatened by disease or pest infestation. 

Using natives in a garden helps maintain the beauty and balance of a natural habitat as local and migratory wildlife need these plants for food, shelter, water and a safe habitat to raise their young. 

There are many reasons to use native plants in the garden. Here are just a few: 

Easy to maintain: Native plants that are planted in the proper spot in the garden are hardy and will adapt to normal weather extremes, such as hot, humid temperatures as well as drought. Also, because they require so much less maintenance and watering, there is more time to enjoy their beautiful blooms.

Good for wildlife: Native plants provide food and shelter for many more species of wildlife than non-native plants do.

Good for the pollinators: Native plants provide pollen and nectar for pollinators such as bees which are vital for fruit and vegetable production.

Good for the water system: Natives usually get enough moisture for survival from rainfall and usually do not need supplemental watering once they are established.

Beauty in the garden: Using native plants in the garden introduces new flowers, textures and colors into the garden. The attraction of bees, butterflies and birds adds more interest and movement.

It is difficult to completely change your mindset about what a beautiful garden should look like. If gardening with natives is intriguing to you, start small. It may be as simple as replacing a flowerbed planted of non-native annuals with native perennials. The following are native plants that will thrive in the Midlands with very little care; you will be surprised at how many are familiar.

For a native wetland garden consider these varieties: Arrow Arum, Beebalm, Black Eyed Susan, Bluets, Cattails, Goldenrod, Foam Flower, Joe Pye Weed and Lizard’s Tail. Spend a relaxing Saturday afternoon perusing our local garden centers for some of these easy to grow native, wetland plants.

For a sunny, dry garden in Zone 8, consider these natives: Monarda, Baptisia, Butterfly weed, Ox Eye sunflower, Purple coneflower, Rose mallow, Blue Aster, White false indigo and Wild iris.

For a shady native garden, consider these varieties: Cardinal flower, Cinnamon fern, Columbine, Carex, Jack in the pulpit, White false indigo, Chelone and Wild geranium.

One very worthwhile gardening activity is to plan to have your garden certified by the National Wildlife Federation for a Certified Wildlife Habitat. It can be great fun and is a very simple process as instructions are provided by the National Wildlife Federation. The basic formula is to plant native plants that provide food, cover/shelter and safe places for animals to give birth and raise their young. Almost any type of landscape can be planted as a Wildlife Habitat, even if it is not a large garden. It can be a suburban-sized yard, a balcony container garden or even a garden at the workplace. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Food — The habitat will need at least three types of plants or supplemental feeders to provide food for wildlife. These could include shrubbery that produces edible berries, such as a holly; trees and shrubs that produce fruit, such as apple trees, fig trees or blueberry bushes; trees that produce sap such as pine trees; bird feeders and hummingbird feeders that are easily accessible and easy to fill. It is important to remember that wildlife needs food all year, so consider what types of food sources you’d like to include to ensure that the wildlife is fed throughout all four seasons.

Water A Wildlife Habitat must have at least one source of water. This source could be a birdbath, lake, stream, man-made waterfall with un-chlorinated water, rain garden or garden pond. Monitor the water source in the winter to make sure another source is provided if one freezes. In the summer, make sure the water does not contain mildew or become moldy. If providing a birdbath, make sure it is not too deep. If it seems too deep, add a large stone for birds or frogs to sit on while drinking water. If the birdbath is a water supply, change the water frequently so it does not become stagnant.

Cover — Wildlife needs cover to hide from predators, to sleep and to take shelter from inclement weather. Some things to consider for providing cover in the garden are: ground covers, rock piles, roosting boxes, evergreen trees and shrubbery. I have several large podocarpus that become “bird condominiums” in the spring.

Places To Raise Young — To become a Certified Wildlife Habitat, there should be two different types of places to raise the young. Here are some to consider: tall, mature trees; nesting boxes; and dense shrubs such as holly, cleyera and podocarpus. The edges beside garden ponds are ideal places for frogs to lay their eggs and for the young frogs to live. These areas are especially favorable if planted with tall reedy plants such as papyrus, yellow flag iris and horsetail fern.

Sustainable Garden Practices — The certification also requires that sustainable gardening practices are integrated into the maintenance of the landscape. Water and soil should be conserved by planting native plants. Rainwater should be captured by using a rain barrel. One astounding fact is that the average lawn of 1,000 square feet requires 10,000 gallons of water per summer to keep it growing and green. Most of that water runs off and goes straight to the storm drain instead of being absorbed by the lawn. Drip or soak hoses are preferred over spray heads. Mulch should be used to retain as much moisture as possible. Non-native plants should be removed, and chemicals of all types eliminated.

April is a great month to consider creating a Certified Habitat. When the birds arrive in flocks and the frogs serenade at bedtime each night, you will be glad that you created a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

Now that you have a list of what, why and how to use native plants in the garden, look at your landscape to see if there is a spot to dedicate to only native plants or find a way to incorporate some natives in your existing garden landscape. Consider working toward a Certified Wildlife Habitat. Even if you only have a small balcony, you can have native plants and a Certified Wildlife Habitat by following this recipe: Plant a fig tree in a large terra cotta pot. Plant a holly bush in a smaller container. Plant four or five small containers using the above list of native plants. Put a birdbath in the center of these containers, and you have the beginning of a beautiful, native Certified Wildlife Habitat. 

One advantage of a small balcony garden is that the wildlife that is attracted to your container garden will be very close for many happy hours of observation. Give it a try. You will be so glad you did!


Chores For The April Gardener:

Peruse your garden to find a suitable spot for some native plants.

Consider working toward a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

Nurseries will be well-stocked this month, so spend a nice weekend afternoon shopping for new varieties of annuals and perennials.

It is too early to plant annuals in the garden, but it is not too early to begin the seeds in the house or in a cold frame.

If you air-layered any hydrangeas or azaleas, now is a perfect time to separate them from the mother plant and find a permanent home for them in the garden.

Rake your old mulch or pine straw from the perennial garden. Apply a light amount of 10-10-10 or Erth Food and re-mulch. If any perennials have become too big for their assigned spot, divide them to share with other gardeners or find another place for them in the garden.

Cool season vegetables are happy during the month of April before it gets too hot. Plant a pot of lettuce to harvest for fresh salads every week.

Complete any heavy pruning that is desired. Do not prune azaleas or hydrangeas or you will cut off all of this year’s buds.

Roses should be pruned and given a light application of liquid fertilizer. 

Boxwoods respond well to a light application of cottonseed and dehydrated cow manure. Water it in well after applying.

Re-define all planting beds so they have well defined borders.

Check all irrigation and lighting systems.

Bring any indoor plants outside on warm, sunny days.

Update your garden journal. Lots of things will begin blooming in April and it is fun to compare bloom time from year to year.


What’s Blooming?

Azaleas, Banana shrub, Crabapple, Red bud, Quince, Raphiolepsis, Spirea, Wisteria, Ajuga, Carolina Jessamine, Daffodils, Gerbera Daisy, Iris, Pansies, Violas and early blooming Tulips.