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Moving Away From Only Native Plants

Good news! The pendulum is swinging from strictly native plants to include some non-natives.

Until very recently, many garden purists would only plant U.S. native plants, believing that introduced plants were responsible for a host of environmental woes. Many would limit their plant palette to only those that were native to their own locale. Those who dared plant introduced plants were often vilified.

Today, many native-only advocates are moderating their stance to, “It’s OK to plant suitable non-native plants along with natives.” I believe that most gardeners are now approaching the middle ground. More garden communicators are suggesting that a plant be judged on specific characteristics and suitability for a particular location and not its point of origin, so long as it’s not a plant that is potentially invasive. This has been my attitude right along, and I applaud the gardening community for seeing the benefits that many non-native plants can bring to a landscape.

It’s easy to point to invasive insects and diseases as the culprits that wreaked such havoc as decimation of the American elm and the current scourge of our native ash trees. It should be noted that pests like these weren’t purposely introduced to our shores. They hitchhiked here. On the flip side of this argument, scientists are experimenting with crossing imported varieties with our native varieties to reestablish our elm and ash populations.

The key words when determining whether to plant an introduced plant is “potentially invasive.” No matter how attractive a plant is, if it can take over your landscape, don’t plant it. It’s not worth the extra, sometimes futile, maintenance required to keep it under control.

If we removed every introduced species from our urban forest, our landscape would look barren indeed. Many non-natives are suited just fine to our climate and growing conditions. Few garden centers would carry a plant that is knowingly invasive. It’s poor customer relations.  Native and non-native, plants undergo extensive field trials before being introduced into the nursery trade today. The chances are very good that any undesirable traits will be discovered before a new plant ever reaches your local garden center.

So, take it from me that, contrary to what you may have heard, you can use non-native plants and still be a good, eco-friendly gardener. Just do your homework and be cautious until a new introduction, native or not, proves itself in the field.

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