I’m having a crisis of identity. I imagine you’re having one, too, if you visit this blog often. I tout my 1,500’ garden as a native plant garden, but in reality it’s more like 80%. When I started out, I didn’t know the benefit of natives (I didn’t know much about gardening period), and I’m slowly winnowing out the non natives either by default, or because they have minimal wildlife value based on my observations and research.
I will likely keep my lavender, but I don’t know for how long. I admit their late May beauty and the bees adore them for nectar, as they adore globe thistle and crabapple. The iris are short for this earth, as is the last hosta. I’m seeding more and more sunflowers – insects love them, goldfinches and chickadees love them, and I love seeing little zigzag roads carved out in their leaves, places where leafcutters have been gathering nest material.
But you know what? My garden is not 80% native, it’s more like 20%. I have cultivars of ninebark and dogwood and viburnum shrubs – of value to wildlife for sure, adapted to my soil and climate for sure, but cultivars I don’t know about and figure the wildlife might not know either (at least not in ways they might know a wild specimen). I’ve removed 95% of coneflower hybrids and cultivars, primarily because I seldom saw insects nectaring on them like the straight species (and because they performed much less vigorously).
But too many things are named cultivars – the goldenrods, liatris, meadow rue, meadowsweet, rudbeckia, joe pye weed, coreopsis, even the grasses like indian, switch, and bluestem. What improvements are we really making? Why do we need to? What’s wrong with the straight species? If your bluestem flops, maybe it should be grown in an appropriate landscape design based on its natural state – bluestem require tall prairie flowers for support (as well as other bluestem), so they don’t make good architectural accent plants. Accept it.
I’d like to see someone try to “improve” Liatris ligulistylis. I’m amazed this plant hasn’t surpassed butterfly bush in marketing tactics, because before it started blooming two weeks ago I’d not seen one monarch butterfly the whole stinking year, now I see them every day. The thing is a miracle wildflower.
My crisis is ultimately this – my observations, admittedly part of a relatively new study in my backyard — show that straight species wildflowers in particular seem to be attracting more insects for reasons such as nectar, nest material, and as host plants; this goes for boneset, mountain mint, coneflowers, rudbeckia, purple prairie clover, wild senna, ironweed, coreopsis, liatris, baptisia, and prairie dock. This is all anecdotal on my part, so please chime in with your evidence. But it makes me wonder if I really have a native plant garden after all, and how my next garden might actually be one and serve as a more successful example of prairie gardening in a suburban, designed landscape.
© 2013 – 2014, Benjamin Vogt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.