A Look on the Wild Side: Adding Native Plants and Wildflowers
Depending on who you ask, wildflowers are either a blessing or a curse. For some clients, the idea of a landscape teeming with local blooms captures the image of untamed wilderness, kept ever-so-slightly controlled for the owner’s enjoyment. Others, however, envision nothing but weeds choking the life out of their prized plants and leaving behind a visual blight on their carefully maintained lawns.
A widening ecological consciousness has prompted a boom in native landscapes. Green landscape companies have been offering native plant services for quite a while now, and perhaps you’ve been thinking about adding them to your list of services. But will you risk alienating customers who want a neat, organized landscape?
The answer is no. But by knowing all the benefits that come from using natives in the landscape, you could convince even the most organized of homeowners to give native plants a try.
Order and beauty
The definition of a wildflower is any flowering herbaceous species, or woody species with ornamental flowers, which grows wild within the state’s natural ecosystems. This just means that they are plants that have always been in the state. With proper maintenance and careful planning, it is more than possible to maintain a well-groomed landscape with nothing but native plants.
“A lot of times, what we’ll do if we’re designing with natives, is to do the arrangement in the style of a landscape similar to what you’d create with other kinds of plants,” said Lucy Hershberger, co-owner of Forever Green, a landscape company and nursery in Coralville, Iowa, that specializes in native plants. “We’ll either use all natives or incorporate natives into the planting, so that you might have a little more organized or more symmetrical look.”
However, even if you plan out the most rigorously organized landscape, there is one primary fear that clients face with natives: ugly, nonflowering plants. Because they worry that they’ll be left with weedlike plants in spring and a completely dormant landscape in winter, clients hesitate to make the leap to a native landscape.
To combat that fear, several nurseries, such as Johnson’s Nursery in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, recommend planting a mix of natives with various blooming times. “That way, there’s always something happening,” says Ben French, an employee at Johnson’s. “It helps to help get rid of the notion that native plants are ugly.”
Once the aesthetic worry is dealt with, you can focus on the environmental benefits of native landscapes, like providing food and habitat for native wildlife, and having long root systems to hold soil in place, which controls soil erosion. And, perhaps most relevantly, native landscapes don’t require as much water to maintain, which is very important in times of drought.
When the now-countrywide drought first spread throughout the Southwest, homeowners found that arid climates don’t mesh well with thirsty trees, like beeches and willows. And keeping lawns green and springy takes gallons of water per day, which exacerbated already dwindling water supplies.
But the plants that originate in the Southwest are accustomed to the climate and grow even with limited water. As a result, native landscapes full of succulents and desert brush— previously seen as eyesores and only featured in the most eclectic landscapes—began to pop up here and there, and the merits of using natives became a hot topic.
Now, environmentally-conscious communities in the Southwest press for native plants to be used exclusively. In Arizona, for instance, landscape contractors are restricted to using mostly native plants in any kind of landscape, or else they might not get permit’s to build. And when the six-year drought first hit California, there was a monetary incentive for residents to change lush green lawns into waterfriendly landscapes featuring less-thirsty native plants.
The discussion even spread to non-arid environments—partly due to droughts across the country, but also as people began to see the other ecological benefits of focusing on native landscapes. One issue in particular was the dwindling population of bees.
Save the ecosystem
Pollinators, especially, are a large reason why native landscapes have been catching on; some companies even offer building ‘bee gardens’ or ‘butterfly gardens’. This started a few years ago, when bee populations began rapidly diminishing worldwide. People all over the country sought to make bee-friendly landscapes.
For most, this meant turning to native landscapes. Wild bees favor indigenous plants, so planting them means that more bees are likely to get food and strengthen their numbers. Additionally, pesticide use dropped in native landscapes, which also helped bees and other pollinators, like butterflies and moths.
Between helping the bees and being aware of water use, some people began to think about what they really wanted in their landscapes, beyond some pretty flowers and a gazebo. In the years since the bee shortage and the drought, landscapes with an aim of aiding the environment have been steadily growing in number across the country. “As we start to talk about climate change and bees and other pollinators being endangered or in decline, people start to think about how what they do affects the environment and the world,” says Hershberger. “So I think more and more people are thinking about what they plant and how it affects the environment.”
And there’s more to ecology than pollinators and drought. As housing developments expand throughout the country, flora and fauna in those areas are at risk of being pushed out of their habitats.
“Most ecosystems are getting smaller and smaller, and getting cut apart by development. If we put native plants to use in our landscapes, we can really help those ecosystems,” says French.
While most homeowners who make their landscapes fit into the native ecosystem are focused on the big picture, they’re also finding immediate benefits from the switch. tive landscapes are thrilled to hear Many people who have turned to na- making their homes in them. And bird songs and find little animals there’s no need to force them out; native plants are hardy and able to withstand their natural cohabitants.
And, for clients who want the ecological benefits of native plants but are too afraid to go fully native, you can always offer to do a partly native landscape. Even a small area of natives will attract pollinators and aid in combatting soil erosion. The client will reap the benefits of both native and cultivated plants, as well as conserving some water.
We’ve established that green clients will absolutely be onboard with native plants, due to all the ecological benefits. But perhaps the most attractive thing to your clientele is that natives require very little long-term maintenance.
They typically don’t need extra watering or special fertilizer, because the area where they’re being planted is where they naturally thrive. So, for the client who wants minimum upkeep in his landscape, using native plants makes even more sense.
“I think a lot of people are just looking into lower-maintenance landscapes and things that are easy to take care of,” says Hershberger. “And if you plant natives that are going to take care of themselves, then you’re not going to have to spend as much time doing maintenance.”
As for herbicides and pesticides, most people who ask for native plant installation are already wary of using chemicals on their lawns. Even so, weeds are a much less prevalent problem than in non-native landscapes.
“I never tell people that weeds won’t be a problem, but truthfully, they’ll be less of a problem, because native plants tend to be a little hardier than some of the other plants we might use, since they’re adapted to our soils and our climate.”
But, she adds, the occasional spritz of herbicide won’t hurt the plants. “If you wanted to go in and treat your weeds with herbicide, or use a pre-emergent, the natives really aren’t going to be any more affected by those chemicals than any other plant would be. While a lot of people choose not to use them, you certainly can use those in beds that have natives,” she says.
Pesticides, as mentioned earlier, are unnecessary and often harm pollinators. The insects that eat native plants are nature’s way of keeping them from becoming too invasive, and often do minimal damage to the plants.
Do your research
Creating native landscapes is a great way to expand your market and offer new options to your customer base. But before you add “Native Landscapes” to your website, some preparation is necessary. You need to know the ins and outs of the plants that are native to your area.
“You’ve got to take into consideration light and water requirements—if a plant’s going to try and establish a big colony of itself on this site,” says French. “So you’ve got to be careful and not just plant any old native plant. You’ve got to do a little research and find the ones that are the most appropriate for the situation you’re putting them into.”
For example, one thing to be wary of is thinking that ‘native plants’ are synonymous with ‘plants that grow well in the environment’. Invasive species, like the Japanese Kudzu plant in the South, thrive in ecologies outside of their home. But, with no natural deterrents like frosts or animals with a taste for the plant, there is no natural way to keep them from taking over.
One other thing to consider is that xeriscaping and native landscaping are not the same, and you would do well to clarify this to your clients. Xeriscaping’s focus is on water-efficient landscapes. As mentioned earlier, native plants do require water, but less than non-natives, and so there is some crossover. However, xeriscaping often focuses on desert plants and shrubs, which need almost no water at all.
Clue in your clients
While native plants flourish with ease, it doesn’t mean that you can just add the plants and leave. If you are not going to maintain the property, you’ll need to talk to your client about how to care for his new, native plants, and let him know the way to get the most out of them. Also, take care to remind him of what your location’s climate is and when the usual growing season starts and ends.
For instance, Rob de Bree, of Elkhorn Nursery in Monterey Bay, California, often has people coming to him about their plants ‘dying’ in the summertime. He says that many people don’t realize that California native plants grow at the start of the rainy season in October, and go into hibernation at the end of the season in mid-to-late April.
Like French, de Bree recommends planting an array of different natives to avoid a ‘dead’ season. Evergreen trees, he said, are an excellent way to keep color all year round. Pruning certain flowers, like red poppies, also prompts them to flower longer, and, if you are not in a drought-stricken area, giving ample water outside of the growing season will trick them into thinking it’s not time to hibernate yet.
Wildflower and native plant installation is an excellent service to offer to your clients, especially the more environmentally-conscious ones. You can assure them that they don’t have to commit to an entirely native landscape to reap the benefits of an eco-friendly environment, and that they don’t have to sacrifice order and neatness if they end up going ‘full native’. Wildflowers are what you make of them, and they can have a place in every landscape, from the wildest meadow to the most organized home.
Equally as important is the aesthetic value, as well as water conservation and the importance of being environmentally compliant. It’s just good business.