There are as many ways to garden as there are ways to cook. Some folks plant neat rows of vegetables; others create geometric arrangements of herbs. Traditional ornamental gardens in our part of the world might feature forsythia, crepe myrtle and daffodils—plants that originate in Asia, Europe and other faraway places. But for gardeners sensitive to the larger systems that surround our gardens, there are compelling reasons to choose native plants: those that evolved here in our region, in concert with other native species.
One of the reasons is simple practicality. “Native plants, once established, are tougher than your average garden plant,” says Tim SanJule. He and his wife, Wanda, opened Hummingbird Hill Native Plant Nursery, north of Crozet, in 2016.
Because natives are evolved to thrive in our local soil and climate, they generally demand less coddling than exotic plants. At the Quarry Gardens—a new 40-acre native botanical garden in Schuyler—gardeners from the Center for Urban Habitats have planted thousands of plants in the last two years, but have done little watering. The bluebells, blue-eyed grass, birdsfoot violet and many other species growing there are, in the right spots with the right conditions, well-equipped to thrive.
But the greater significance of native plants is the key role they play in the abundant biodiversity of our locale. In a world undergoing widespread development by humans, says SanJule, “There’s a huge difference in the amount of wild places for wild critters—a lot less space for them to live and less food for them to eat. Native plants are the base of the food chain.”
Birds and butterflies are some of the more obvious creatures who get their food from native plants, but so do a host of other species, including many fungi and invertebrates. Mary Jane Epps, a biologist at Mary Baldwin University and a member of the Virginia Native Plant Society who sometimes leads plant walks at Ivy Creek Natural Area, points out that while threatened honeybees have been rightly getting a lot of press, they themselves are not native—and there are many species of native bees that are in even worse trouble. “A surprisingly high proportion of bees are specialized,” she says. “You’ll only see them on particular native plants.” Willows, for example, can support eight to 11 species of native bees.
If the opposite of native is exotic, it’s important to understand that not all plants originating on other continents are invasive—that is, prone to uncontrolled spreading that crowds out native species in the garden and beyond. Many species introduced to our region for one practical purpose or another have escaped their intended boundaries; some of the most notorious are honeysuckle, kudzu, Chinese privet and Japanese stiltgrass.
Yet even in a time of increasing awareness about invasives, some are still offered for sale in the garden trade. “A lot of places advertise garnet autumn olive,” says Epps. “It sounds great on paper—really hard to kill, nothing eats it, produces tons of berries…” But these are exactly the qualities that make it invasive. Other plants can directly harm native wildlife—like lesser celandine, whose pollen is toxic to bees.
The more you learn about native plants, the more the subject deepens. In his work with CUH, Devin Floyd aims for as narrow a definition of “native” as possible. A species may grow in many eastern states, but seed gathered from that plant in Pennsylvania is not genetically identical to that collected from the same species in Virginia, he explains. The geographical definition of “native” gets more circumscribed the more rigorously you consider environmental factors like geology, soil type, elevation and exposure. Ideally, Floyd tries to source seed from within a 15-mile radius of where the plant will be sited.
That said, planting natives doesn’t need to be an intimidating affair. CUH is partnering with two area native plant nurseries—Hummingbird Hill and Farfields Farm—to produce plant specimens with as local a genotype as possible. These could become important resources for gardeners around here who otherwise may have trouble sourcing some native plants at all, much less from local seed.
Start small by adding a few plants to your landscape that are known to benefit wildlife. One of Hummingbird Hill’s bestsellers, says Wanda SanJule, is mountain mint. “It’s a pollinator magnet,” she says. “It blooms like crazy, it’s pretty easy to grow, and it doesn’t spread like peppermint.” She says native milkweeds, asters, goldenrods and sunflowers are also popular, as is medicinal elderberry. The nursery sells herbaceous plants as well as flowering shrubs, small trees, ferns, vines, grasses and sedges.
Another strategy that can be fairly simple is to choose a section of your lawn to leave unmowed. “You can mow around it and make it look intentional,” says Epps. Scatter native seeds and let the plants stand uncut through the winter. “When you do mow it, do it in March after the nesting bees do their thing and before the next growing season is upon us.”
Observing the pollinators and birds who interact with your native garden is one of the most rewarding aspects of growing these plants. “This is a way that anybody with access to a garden can help restore the environment,” says Tim SanJule.
Native plant resources
Hummingbird Hill Native Plant Nursery
The retail nursery is open on weekends or by appointment.
964-1034, humming birdhillnatives.com
Mostly a wholesale nursery, the facility does have occasional times when the public can buy plants on-site. Upcoming events at the farm are on May 6 and May 27. The nursery will also be part of a Nelson County Master Gardeners plant sale at Devils Backbone Brewing Company on May 6. 326-2157, facebook.com/farfieldsfarm