What’s in Your Garden?

An american toad in a native garden

It’s no secret that native gardens lack plant variety compared to traditional gardens. Why not try more native plants in your garden?!

By Scott Woodbury

(This article first appeared in The Gateway Gardener January/February 2015.)

It’s no secret that native gardens lack plant variety compared to traditional gardens. A trip to a local garden center illustrates the point. Native plants are usually displayed in small well-marked areas (the Grow Native! point of purchase). The remainder of the garden center consists of vast areas dedicated to cultivated varieties (cultivars) of annuals, perennials, ornamental grasses, tropicals, hanging baskets, sculpted evergreens, trees, shrubs, and evergreen groundcovers (a garden center’s bread and butter). This is horticultural diversity at its best, delighting the eye, promising an artful display and the latest, greatest plant and trend year after year.

Why? Homeowners like nice things. They are looking for a makeover or something new to see and show. They are hoping to maintain or increase the value of their big investment, their home. So when perusing plants at the local garden center, native plant displays are passed up. They tend to lack colorful variety and bold foliage textures. They lack new

A house finch eating fruit from a native serviceberry.

This finch is enjoying fruits from a native serviceberry.

trademarked and heavily marketed varieties to choose from each spring. No skinny upright or low bushy evergreens. No weeping small flowering trees or wispy ornamental grasses. Only one purple coneflower for heaven’s sake compared to the dozens of cultivars that come in every color of the rainbow.

But here is the thing. Native plants attract more natural diversity with a handful of species than a hundred non-native cultivars combined. Native gardens have finches because purple coneflowers produce seed. They have dozens of bee and wasp species because plants like wild hydrangea have pollen and nectar. And native plants attract beetles, bugs, dragonflies, grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, butterflies, moths, lacewings, flies, ants and better yet, the critters that feed on them: birds, bats, hawks, lizards, frogs, toads, snakes and more. In total the natural diversity in a native garden is vastly greater than the horticultural variety in a traditional garden. In years past I have enjoyed the eye-grabbing jolt and the al

A monarch on milkweed

A monarch finds its favorite plant–milkweed!

luring elegance that comes from a horticultural display full of cultivars and non-native plants. But now I enjoy the ongoing march of natural diversity that finds its way to the native garden. The difference is that gardening isn’t just about my selfish pleasures anymore. Those days are waning as I plant more and more native plants

and observe more and more natural diversity. The native garden is a sanctuary for species, a buffet for birds who feed their young insects, and a safe harbor for as much diversity as I can attract. Gardens can still wow gardeners and their visitors but what they are seeing is so much more than just nice to look at. It’s full of life and mystery. It’s unpredictable and changes from day to day. It invites natural diversity that isn’t for sale in any point of purchase. So I ask you again, what’s in your garden?

Horticulturist Scott Woodbury is the Curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, where he has worked with naitve plant propagation, design and education or more than 20 years.