Native plants are hard to find, so gardeners don’t buy them. Nobody buys them, so suppliers don’t stock them. Nobody sells them, so farmers have no reason to grow them. It’s a vicious circle that Albemarle County staff is trying to remedy.
Four months after the county published its native plants online database, Water Resources Specialist Repp Glaettli hosted a native plant symposium last Wednesday, a two-hour seminar aimed at showing small business owners, farmers, and landscapers how to market indigenous flowers, shrubs, and trees to consumers.
When I asked why the county is pushing native plants, Glaettli laughed and said “How many reasons do you want?” They’ve had thousands of years to adjust to the area’s soil, climate, and pests; they increase diversity of the bird population; they create a “sense of place”; and, contrary to popular to belief, they’re much easier to grow than non-native species.
The county has taken on a regional leadership role, encouraging the use of indigenous plants, Glaettli said, by adopting a standard operating procedure to use 80 percent natives when landscaping on Albemarle property. He said the county cannot require anyone else to do the same, but he certainly hopes garden centers and landowners will catch on and follow suit.
At Wednesday’s presentation, Eastern Shore Region Steward Dot Field spoke about her experience working with Plant ES Natives, a movement that began in 2009, encouraging Eastern Shore businesses to carry and market native plants to local gardeners. Now nearly four years old, the campaign, funded by a Department of Environmental Quality grant, has a logo that is recognizable across the region and Field said garden center owners are more educated and willing to stock native plants.
Albemarle County staff want to emulate the Eastern Shore’s success here in Central Virginia. Field said collaboration across the board is essential to a successful campaign, so getting everybody from gardeners and farmers to store owners and landscapers together in one room was a good place to start.
“Partnership, partnership, partnership,” she said. “That’s the only way it works.”
Gardeners are hesitant to buy natives to plant in their yards, Field said, because most people simply think they’re not pretty enough.
“They think all native plants are scraggly and ugly,” she said, so an important step is encouraging garden centers to display blooming native flowers in the front of the store where customers are likely to see them.
Other barriers include the assumption that they’re difficult to grow and propagate, they usurp other plants, and they’re almost impossible find. The latter, she said, is unfortunately true. But plants native to Virginia include wildflowers, ferns, vines, shrubs of all sizes, and even large trees—many of which she said blossom beautifully, and are easier to grow because they’re already accustomed to their surroundings.
Other local organizations are already coming together with the county to make Charlottesville-Albemarle a native plant haven. The Thomas Jefferson Soil & Water Conservation District is initiating conservation assistance programs like “Turf to Natives,” which offers financial incentives for converting yards into areas of native wildgrasses. The Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards is offering $25 tree vouchers for homeowners in certain neighborhoods, with a focus on native trees like redbuds, dogwoods, and fringe trees.
To get started on your own native plant project, check out albemarle.org/nativeplants.