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Apr 04, 2022

Protecting the Garden that Nature Intended

By Lori Draz and Ann Sherwood, cofounder of the Monmouth Invasive Species Strike Team

Nature has lived in its own harmony for eons. Over millions of years, groups of plants, insects, birds, mammals and even soil microorganisms have evolved to depend on each other to thrive. Native species “grew up” in a particular habitat without human intervention. Native plants support 10 to 100 times more beneficial insects than nonnatives. These relationships developed over thousands of years and can be highly specialized. For example, monarch butterflies sip nectar from many flowers, but monarch caterpillars can only use milkweed for food. Butterflies may be attracted to a butterfly bush (Buddleja species), but as a nonnative plant, it does not provide food for any caterpillars. 

Plants from other parts of the world do not support wildlife as well as native plants. Occasionally, they can even escape into the wild and become invasive exotics that destroy natural habitat. Additionally, imported plants can introduce and support invasive wildlife species, like those smelly stinkbugs and the spotted lanternfly.

If your home improvement projects include landscaping, installation of decks or pools, or other works that disrupt outdoor spaces, why not include native plants? Using native plants is cost-effective because they require less maintenance and fertilizers. They are beautiful, and attract beneficial insects and birds, and as the Rumson Environmental Commission points out, they better manage rainwater runoff and improve soil quality thanks to deep root systems. 

To learn some important things to consider about using native plants before you talk to your local nursery or landscaper, The Journal turned to Ann Sherwood, cofounder of the Monmouth Invasive Species Strike Team and lifelong environmentalist. Sherwood suggests you begin by thinking about your outdoor space. 

“Before you search for plants or talk with your landscaper, decide the scope of your project,” she said. “Are you trying to create a sanctuary? Do you want a pollinator garden or a few plants? What birds, insects and mammals do you want to attract? Next, select a location in your yard and make a list of requirements. Is the spot sunny? What is growing there now? If it is not native, can it be removed? Are there particular colors you want to use? If your yard is not fenced, do you need use “deer-resistant” plants or plant in small areas that can be enclosed with two- to four-foot fencing? These details will help you choose plants that fit your needs. Once you have answers to those questions, the fun begins! There are many resources available that can simplify your choices.” 

Sherwood’s list of good websites to research includes:

• Doug Tallamy’s Home-Grown National Park: HomeGrownNationalPark.org/about

• Barnegat Bay Partnership: JerseyYards.com

• NJ Audubon Society: NJAudubon.org/gardening-for-wildlife

• New Jersey Native Plant Society: npsnj.org

Most native plants that you can purchase in local nurseries are cultivars, versions of native plants that have been bred for specific traits and colors. Your plant selection list should include the common name, botanical name and the cultivar you want. If you want a white, shade-tolerant version of Eastern purple coneflower, specify Echinacea purpurea “Avalanche.” The changes in cultivars don’t seem to deter native insects, with the exception of leaf color. If a leaf is purple instead of green, nibblers know that it doesn’t have the same chemistry. And yes, by using natives, you are offering food as well as shelter.

Sherwood advises monitoring for pests and using biologic and mechanical methods to manage infestations. She said, “For example, as soon as you see a few orange aphids on the undersides of milkweed leaves or on stems, gently wipe them off with a damp paper towel or cotton ball, after you move any monarch eggs or caterpillars, of course. Lady bugs are a great weapon too, as they love to feast on aphids. Unfortunately, there are few target-specific pesticides, and you don’t want to lure wildlife into a toxic space. Just because a treatment is natural does not mean it only kills ticks and mosquitos. For example, BTK (bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki) found in soil is highly toxic to all caterpillars, not just those you want to control. Nursery stock is often treated with systemic pesticides to keep plants healthy before they are sold. To protect your invited guests, ask for plants that are certified as pesticide-free.” 

Gardening with the plants and flowers that “grew up together” produces healthy and beautiful results, so do your homework and enjoy your work.