Is native gardening a fairy tale?
Once upon a time, a gardener decided that she wanted more butterflies and more birds in her yard. She read books and oodles of online material and then she attended classes, conferences, workshops, and garden fests. After all this education, she found that she really could make a big difference by installing native plants that attract butterflies and birds with their berries and delicious leaves that caterpillars would eat. As a bonus her landscape would be easy to care for since native plants have lived in the wild for eons with no care at all.
After a great quest* far and wide across her realm, she found a local native plant nursery that had the native plants she wanted. She paid the small bounty for the plants and brought them home and everyone (and every bird and butterfly) lived happily ever after.
*Things* are more complex than many people promise
How to plant for success
Obviously you’ll choose a plant that’s right for the site and you’ll leave enough room for its mature size. You won’t plant a full-sized tree under overhead wires, too close to buildings, or on top of underground pipes or other infrastructure. In choosing trees, pick a relatively young sapling that has not been topped. The old gardeners’ tale of buying the biggest specimens that you can afford is wrong. A younger tree will adapt much more quickly with less ongoing care than a bigger one.
The day before planting a potted tree, soak the pot thoroughly so that it’s well hydrated. On planting day, rinse away ALL the soil from the roots and place it in a wide, but fairly shallow hole so that the root flare is at least a couple of inches above the soil level. Spread the roots out as far as they can reach and gently press the soil from the hole on the roots. Flood the hole with water and pack in some more soil around the tree so that it stands on its own. Build a berm around the root area so that when you irrigate that the water soaks into the root area and doesn’t run away. Depending upon the size, you’ll need to irrigate it every day for a couple of weeks or more and then a couple of times per week for a month or two until established. Even then you’ll want to irrigate during droughts for the next couple of years. You should notice that NOTHING was added to the hole except the native soil. This is to encourage the roots to grow out and not stay in the planting hole. Several weeks after the tree is established (after the intense irrigation) lay a top dressing of compost in a wide band in a full circle around the edge of the planting hole to increase the fertility and to promote a healthy soil ecosystem. After the initial compost treatment lay in two or three inches of mulch, but do not pile any against the tree trunk–I use arborist wood chips as a mulch. Repeat the compost treatment each spring after the last chance of frost to stimulate new growth.
– For an irrigation schedule and volume based on the size of the tree, see my article Trees and shrubs: the “bones” of your landscape.
– For more information wood chips, see A requiem for a hickory tree.
What to do with a “Less than Ideal” plant
Even though you try to avoid it sometimes you end up with a pot bound plant or a tree that has been topped or otherwise poorly pruned. Three years ago I acquired a winged elm (Ulmus elata), an interesting canopy tree that is native from Maryland south to northern Florida and west to Texas. It serves as the larval host for the question mark butterfly. Its corky extensions on its young twigs give it its name as the winged elm. There is already one of these trees growing naturally on our property, but it’s in an out of the way location. This species is not common in the neighborhood. So when given a chance to bid on the tree in a plant raffle, I bought a ticket.
It had been severely trimmed back, but it did not look pot bound. I soaked it in its pot for a day before planting it. When I rinsed all its soil away, I saw that it had been potted up after being previously pot bound in a smaller pot–I could not see its circling roots when I first took it out of its pot. This is one good reason to rinse away the soil. The bright red roots were unexpected.
My ultimate goal for this tree is to have a single trunk with no lower branches, but it takes time to reach this goal because you are not to prune more than 20% of the tree per year and in this case I didn’t prune it in the fall when I planted it because I had broken some of its major roots in the process of unwinding them. The tree was already stressed and needed all its leaves to produce all the sugars so it could spend its energy adjusting to its new home. Read my post, A Less-Than-Ideal Potted Tree? Even Natives Can Have Problems for the initial care of this tree. Today it’s about seven feet tall. I needed to adjust the lead trunk last fall because the one I’d originally chosen was growing toward the house. I’ll finish pruning away the rest of the messy branches at its base this fall.
Irrigation for natives
Over the eons they’ve been in place, native plants have adjusted to the conditions in their natural range including the amount of rainfall. In Florida that means the natives have adapted to a five-month wet season (hurricane season–from June through October), seven-month dry season during the cooler months, and all the variations within this basic pattern. In other sections of the country, the pattern of rainfall will be different, but the principle is the same. Normally, natives (once they are established) flourish in their native habitats with only the rainfall for irrigation. That being said, in severe droughts even well-established natives could die in their natural environments.
The promise of native plants not needing irrigation is only partially true. If you are comparing the care of an established native landscape to a lawn, then yes, natives, once they are established in appropriate habitats, require much less irrigation. While it’s natural for native plants to die prematurely in extreme drought conditions, you don’t want that to happen in your yard. Plan for supplemental irrigation for your native habitats during extreme droughts–you don’t want to lose those native plants you’ve worked so hard to plant and nurture.
Plant it and forget it?
Managing a natural and native habitat in an urban/suburban neighborhood is much more forgiving than a landscape with a lawn and manicured trees and shrubs pruned into gumdrop and lollipop shapes. But your landscape is not a restoration of a native environment–it’s only an imitation. It will need ongoing care to keep it at least somewhat civilized around the visible edges. So no, you cannot just forget it.
Real life, even when decorated with native plants, is not a fairy tale.
* Quest: I started the conversation of where to find natives for your yard back on my very first post to this blog back in May 2011: Getting Started with Native Plants in Florida and more recently I wrote Supporting the Native Plant Industry and here is the response from native plant nurserywoman, Kari Ruder Challenges of a native plant nursery. The conversation has also continued here on this blog when Debbie Roberts posted: Finding native plants for your wildlife Garden.
© 2013 – 2014, Ginny Stibolt. 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.