Most gardening books seem to have been written by people who live in Connecticut, in hardiness zones 6 or 7, with warmer winters, cooler summers, more rainfall, and ericaceous soils that enable lush growth of rhododendrons, azaleas, and other broad-leaf evergreens, none of which grow well in the Midwest. I know, because I tried to emulate those landscapes in my own garden and worse, in my client’s gardens.
In the last 10 years, however, there has been a growing appreciation of native Midwestern plants. But, other than their hardiness and incredible beauty–reason enough–why should we plant them? Let me count the ways:
1. Native plants are sustainable. They are well-suited to the climate and soil conditions of the area where they are found naturally–they are grown successfully with little effort. They are adapted to extreme temperatures, blustery winds, and intense sunlight. They are drought- resistant–once established, after 2-3 years; they need no supplementary water–ever.
The roots of prairie plants grow deep into the earth–some as much as 15’ where water is available. The root systems make up 2/3 of prairie plants’ biomass. In addition, the surfaces of the leaves may be hairy, deflecting sun and wind, or thick and leathery or waxy to minimize transpiration. They do not need to be dead-headed or divided–they like to grow close together and they seed themselves about, making them bountiful beyond belief.
The growing point of prairie plants is just below the surface, making them resistant to fire, unlike exotic species. The ash from an annual controlled burn fertilizes the plants and keeps woody plants and Eurasian weeds at bay. Nothing needs to be brought in, nothing has to be taken out. If native soil
is no longer on the site, native plants will create native soils. (see below)
2. Native plants contribute to the overall quality of the environment
by improving soil, water, and air qualities. 1/3 of the dense root systems of prairie grasses and sedges decompose every year, enriching the soil with organic matter and increasing its water-holding capacity.The longer roots of forbs draw water deep into the earth, replenishing the shallow aquifer. This water infiltration and holding capacity prevents runoff, erosion, and flooding. In addition, deep-rooted plants have the ability to sink carbon.
3. Native plants support biodiversity by providing food for native insects, that in turn are eaten by native birds–96% of birds eat insects. With few exceptions, native birds can only eat native insects and native insects are only attracted to native plants. Native insects provide the protein upon which our entire ecosystem is based. Native landscapes and gardens provide habitat for birds, butterflies, bees, grasshoppers, crickets,and other insects; frogs, toads, and salamanders; and they offer fascinating places for children to play.
4. Native landscapes celebrate the character, history, and identity of a particular community and region.
This book pictures and identifies 75 native plants, from Allium cernuum to Zizea aurea, and gives you sizes, bloom time, and cultural requirements of each, telling you which plant goes with what and where. Which plants for sun or shade, clay or sand; which plants for hillsides or for rain gardens? Which plants do butterflies prefer?
There are designs you can copy for Entrance Gardens, for Patios and Terraces, for Borders and for Hillsides, and for
Woodland and Water.
There are over 200 color photographs of native plants and gardens.