Native plants, pest control key to healthier lawns and gardens

by Dan Holland

Native plants – flowers, grasses, shrubs, trees and other plants that have developed naturally in a specific region – are an important consideration when developing a landscape or gardening plan.

Sandra Barbic, education specialist for Summit Soil and Water Conservation District, said species native to Northeast Ohio date back to when the “glaciers left this area around 12,000 years ago.” Since that time, she explained, “they have co-evolved with all the insects, so they all work together.”

“When you plant hybrids or non-natives, they don’t provide the services for the wildlife and pollinators that the native plants do,” she continued. “A bee might be attracted to a non-native plant, but the nourishment it gets is not as good as it needs. With the butterfly and bee populations declining so drastically, the more native plants we can plant, the better.”

“Native species are adapted to our local climate, so they’re meant to grow here,” added Amy Roskilly, conservation education & communications manager for Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District. “They require less water and less fertilizer or no fertilizer, and they’re meant to handle the fluctuations we have in weather here in Northeast Ohio. They also have a symbiotic relationship with the birds and pollinators that are meant to be here.”

“They have long root systems, so they’re really infiltrated into the soil to get the water to run through the soil,” she continued. “They also help with erosion, because they help to hold the soil together along with adding good organics back into the soil when their roots fluff off and they grow new ones.”

As far as native tree species, Sal Manera, of Sal’s Landscaping in Brecksville, lists hydrangea trees, snow fountain weeping cherry, Kwanzan cherry, Japanese maples and flowering magnolia. A variety of conifers, including Norway spruce and green giant arborvitae are good species to plant, he added.

Bob Witsaman of Royal Victorian Gardens in North Royalton, also recommends a variety of junipers, such as eastern red cedar, which attract birds, along with elderberry, cephalanthus (buttonbush) and Amelanchier. Desirable native oak trees include pin oak, swamp oak, white oak and red oak.

“The thing to remember is that some of these plants require a certain microclimate,” said Witsaman. “I suggest when people are in doubt, to bring in a picture of a plant; there are a number of native plants that, if put in the right situation, will attract all kinds of wildlife.”

Witsaman also recommends a variety of native planting edibles, such as blueberry, raspberry and blackberry as good options.

“What you want to consider first is habitat to attract the wildlife in, and then you give them their food source,” he added.

According to, native Ohio flowers include black-eyed susan, butterfly milkweed, blue false indigo and cardinal flower. Native shrubs include American black elderberry, black chokeberry and ninebark. Additional native trees include boxelder maple, pawpaw and the Ohio buckeye.

Pest Control

Both organic and insecticide spray approaches can be used in ridding a garden or landscape of unwanted insects.

A number of insects harmful to plants, many of them non-native, can cause substantial plant losses, said Manera.

“Japanese beetles are a common nuisance. Especially with the mild winter we just had, there will be a lot more of those this year,” he said. “They get into almost everything – flowering trees, shrubs and perennials.”

“Part of native planting is the idea of integrated pest management, which means that you leave the bugs alone without pesticide, and the insects have their own way of dealing with each other,” said Barbic. “If you leave the beneficial insects, they’ll take care of the other ones and create a balance.”

“You don’t necessarily need the insecticides for invasive species, if you have the right plants and the right ecosystem going on,” added Roskilly, explaining that the native insects will keep the invasive ones in check given the proper setting.  

Witsaman also acknowledged that beneficial insects can be used to control non-native insect species.

“We have a program where you can have lady bugs, praying mantises and predatory mites – that will go after the ‘bad’ insects – sent out to you,” he said. “Beneficial nematodes [small, slender worms] in the soil are also very important; they’ll actually control crane fly, cucumber beetles, weevils and white grubs.”

In some cases, he noted, systemic insecticides might be warranted.

“Systemic insect soil drenches will take care of Japanese beetles,” said Witsaman. “If you put that down in the spring on purple plum trees or any shrub that Japanese beetles go to, they won’t go near them. The only thing it won’t kill is red spider mites. For that, you can use all-seasons oil concentrate. It’s a natural oil that is perfectly safe to use.”

He does not recommend the use of neem oil, as it is a preventative, not curative, for warding off destructive insects.

Witsaman also advised applying grub preventative to the lawn.

“It needs to be applied during summer, and you should treat your lawn and garden beds at the same time because if they’re on a tree or shrubs in the garden or landscape, they’re laying their eggs there, too, not just in the grass. That’s where the systemic insect soil drenches come in,” he said.

As for stink bugs, which also feed on fruits and vegetables, Witsaman recommended bifenthrin spray as an effective method of control.

“They like to live in attics over the winter,” he said. “You have to make sure you spray under your overhangs where all your vents are.”

Moles and voles can cause much plant destruction as well, added Manera, who recommended a product called Mole Scram as a preventative.

Even with best-laid plans, homeowners can expect a battle.

“One thing I say to young people who are just starting to garden is, ‘welcome to self-persecution,’” Witsaman said. “It’s something different every year. Even gardeners who have been at it for 30 or 40 years will have a curve ball thrown at them. Don’t trust all the information that’s online. Find someone who knows what they’re talking about.” ∞