Native plants are low maintenance, offer environmental benefits

by Laura Bednar

In a climate like Northeast Ohio, it can be difficult for plants to grow and adapt to changing weather patterns and less than desirable soil types. Native plants have occurred naturally in a particular region without human introduction and have evolved to thrive in the Midwest weather.

“Natives were meant to grow in our area,” said Rob Cowie, director of operations at Suncrest Gardens in Peninsula.

He said there has been a wave towards native plant additions in gardens. Many are surprised to learn they already have natives in their own backyard. Common native shrubs include arborvitae, viburnum, perennial geraniums and junipers, and common native trees include oaks, white pine, maples and dogwoods.

There are more benefits to natives than just a hardy plant. Bath Gamma Garden Club President Pam Reitz said native plants create a wildlife habitat for birds, bees and butterflies as well as small animals and microscopic organisms in the soil.

“They all have a job to do to create a symbiotic relationship in the environment,” she said.

Natives provide nectar for hummingbirds, leaves to host caterpillars and seeds for birds. Cowie gave the example of an oak tree, which houses insects that feed pollinators and birds, and produces acorns for squirrels.

Native plants also require less maintenance. They have deep roots that establish quickly, and because they have adapted to the local environment, require less watering, fertilizers and pesticides, according to Reitz. For those who may have flooding issues in their yard, natives can also prevent water runoff and soil erosion.

Cowie said the plants produce a more natural look in a yard and depending on the size, are best suited for the border of a property. “They’re not plants for the front door,” he said.

While they may grow large, Reitz said a native garden does not have to be a mess of overgrown plants. “Determine what your needs and wants are and make a plan,” she said. “Are you trying to create a pollinator garden? Do you have a wet spot and the need for a rain garden of water-absorbing plants? Are you dealing with an area affected by erosion?”

Natives can be incorporated into an existing garden of annuals or perennials. Reitz said she uses native plants as a backdrop to other plants to absorb excess water and prevent erosion. Some common natives for pollinators are butterfly weed, coneflowers, blunt mountain mint and wild petunia. Natives best suited for rain gardens include common rush, turtlehead, palm sedge and prairie coreopsis.

Cowie said customers commonly request spicebush and buttonbush, noting other popular choices as winterberry holly and elderberry. He added that a commonly overlooked native is the hydrangea. The deer-resistant thuja green giant plant is a welcome addition to prevent the critters from eating your garden.

If you’re looking for inspiration, natives have been successfully used in restoration projects such as the West Creek Reservation in the Cleveland Metroparks. The Watershed Stewardship Center in West Creek or a local nursery are prime resources for those looking to incorporate natives into their yards. ∞