On a long-ago camping trip, my fellow Girl Scouts and I were introduced to a gentleman, of whom we were told we could ask any question we had about nature. “He knows everything,” our troop leader said. So, I showed him the pretty caterpillar I’d just found. “What should I feed it?” I asked. He said, “Most any green plant.”
Now, I’d already had enough experience as a preteen entomologist/ bug collector to suspect that this ‘expert’ was wrong. Still, based on his advice, I brought it home, and it died shortly afterward. Just as I thought, it ate only the plant I’d found it on, and that particular wildflower didn’t grow in my backyard.
Nowadays, that larval butterfly might have been luckier. More and more, people want to have native plants and wildflowers in their landscapes, so that more of his kind might survive. In fact, a few different trends are coalescing to increase the popularity of naturalized landscapes.
One is the eco-green, sustainable movement that eschews using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, out of concern for pollinators, wildlife and water quality. The next is the need to conserve water, especially in areas hit by drought.
The growing desire for low-maintenance landscapes is another. Native-plant landscapes satisfy all of these concerns and constituencies, making them increasingly desirable and marketable.
How popular are they?
“I’ve managed to make a living at this, and it keeps getting better,” said Paul Dowlearn. He and his wife Nila own Wichita Valley Landscape, a native plant nursery and landscape business in Wichita Falls, Texas.
“Every year, there are more people writing about natives, and more places like the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center in Austin that are introducing the topic to regular folks.”
A 30-year veteran of the green industry, Dowlearn started out doing conventional landscapes. “I knew how to throw up a row of hollies, and put some annual color in front of it, and I thought I knew what I was doing. Then this native plant movement started to happen, and a whole new world opened up for me.”
It’s taken a few years, but Jane Case, owner of Blue Moon Farm, a combined native-plant landscape and nursery business in Wakefield, Rhode Island, says she’s seeing a tremendous change in people’s attitudes towards native plants. It’s very different now than it was in 1980, when she first entered the green industry.
Back then, in addition to doing landscape design, installation and maintenance, she started growing her own native plants, and began incorporating ones that interested her into her installations. She thought that if she liked these plants, then others would like them, too.
But she was a bit ahead of her time. “Back then, people thought native plants were just a bunch of weeds. The thought of putting a Joe Pye weed or a goldenrod in a garden didn’t go over real big.” Now, those two plants are staples of her landscape designs.
“Natives have become popular. Clients are asking different questions, not just ‘What kind of fertilizer should I put on my lawn?’” Case gets a lot of calls from people doing coastal renovations, where they’re required to use native plants. And even the average customer who comes into her nursery has some idea of what a native is, and is much more interested in planting something that’s going to be sustainable over a long period of time.
Kimberley Leeper, in Seattle, Washington, had a similar experience of being a bit ahead of the curve. In 2005, when she started Mariposa Naturescapes, a company that designs and installs native and edible landscapes, “People were just starting to hear about planting natives. It was sort of the first wave.
People didn’t know what was native and what wasn’t. They were also afraid that the native plants would be too boring. But that’s not true anymore.”
Native landscapes have a lot of things going for them. Case tells her clients that they’ll be spending a lot less time and money on fertilizer and water, since native plants are adapted to the local soil and climate. They’re more resistant to pests and diseases than nonnatives that need a lot of extra help to stay healthy.
When asked the reasons for going native, Jan Hunter, owner of Naturally Native Nursery in South Bend, Indiana, doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, there are lots of them! It’s better for the environment, for wildlife, for water conservation; I could go on and on.”
Besides designing native landscapes, Hunter consults on rain garden installation, prairie restoration and wetland enhancement. “As far as a home landscape goes, it’s less expensive and less labor-intensive. It gives people a lot more free time, instead of constantly mowing grass and futzing over nonnative plants that require much more care, and oh, so much more water.”
That might not sound like good news to a maintenance or irrigation contractor. But Avi Askey, owner of Overhill Gardens in Vonore, Tennessee, a combined native-plant nursery and landscape design/installation business, says that while a native landscape may require less maintenance and less water, that doesn’t mean zero maintenance and zero water.
“You still have to water things in to get them established. And you have to do regular upkeep; you can’t just let the plants go.” It’s still important to do a little nipping and pruning and cutting off of dead material. Case agrees, saying that regular weeding is still necessary.
Leeper says at least half of her design projects include maintenance on some level, mostly in the form of ‘sheet mulching,’ laying down cardboard or burlap bags with compost and wood chips piled on top, to help retard weeds and invasive plants.
Dowlearn doesn’t think there’ll be any shortage of work for maintenance contractors. “That end of the industry has shown more growth than plant sales or the installation of new landscapes. When it comes to the weekly chore of mowing the yard, a lot of people are all too happy to write somebody a check, and let him take care of it.”
As it happens, a native landscape may not need selling at all. It might be mandatory. “If you go to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and want to build a home, you’ll be handed a list of plants that are acceptable,” said Dowlearn. “Eighty percent of them will be natives. If you don’t want to comply with that, they won’t write you a building permit, and you’ll have to go build your house someplace else.” Talk about a captive market!
Native-plant landscaping is growing in acceptance in the commercial arena as well. As Hunter points out, some of our biggest corporations are required, or at least encouraged, to use native plants at their facilities. They want the good P.R. that being green brings.
“We do an ever-increasing amount of commercial installation—that’s been one of our fastest-growing segments,” said Askey. “We’ve done everything from office landscapes to parking lots and large corporate plantings, for companies that want to present an environmentally-friendly image.”
Native landscapes need less water, period. If you’re installing them, the drought will drive customers to your door, as the extraordinary one that just ended in Texas did for Dowlearn. “I got extremely popular during that time. Everybody wanted me to come and do talks.”
The region of Wichita Falls was one of the hardest-hit areas. “At the final stage, Stage 5, we went a full year with no outdoor water use whatsoever, for any reason. Water haulers were running up and down the street. People were drilling wells and collecting rainwater any way they could.”
Now that rainfall has returned to normal, he tells his native-landscape clients that their job is to simply keep an eye on things. “If a plant looks wilted, by all means, give it a little help, but that’s all. When the next drought happens—and it will— their landscapes will survive.”
Case says that even though drought hasn’t been a huge problem where she lives, people there have grown “much more interested in putting in plants that are going to be sustainable without having to use more water, do more maintenance, and spend more money. It’s become a huge thing.”
Nice, neat natives?
One of the notions people sometimes have about native or wildflower-filled landscapes is that they’ll look messy, weedy, random and overgrown.
Askey thinks he knows how this idea got started. “Early on in the native plant movement, there were a lot of false attempts to create native landscapes, and they weren’t all done well.”
“But that perception is going out the door, as more examples of good native landscaping are coming into play.” He adds that native landscapes can be very neat and tidy, depending on what a client wants, and which plants are chosen.
Hunter says a native plant garden can look exactly the same as a cultivated, manicured one, with shorter plants in the front, taller ones in the back, and coordinated colors.
“It doesn’t have to look random or weedy. It’s all in how you design the landscape, how and where you plant things, and after that, how you trim and maintain them. But if you plant natives, they’re going to spread, because that’s what native plants are supposed to do.”
Case says that she’s been amazed by the number of formal native gardens she’s seen over the past three years or so. You just don’t think ‘native’ when you hear the word ‘formal,’ picturing a regimented, trimmed English garden, broken up with pathways and bordered by hedges. Yet they exist.
“When I first heard about that from people in the trade, I said, ‘Are you serious? How can that even be?’ But that just shows you how far we’ve come.”
There’s a growing awareness of the environmental impact of landscape practices. Clients who are concerned about that are a natural market for native landscapes.
Hunter personally derives a lot of satisfaction in the knowledge that by planting natives, she’s helping wildlife. “The native plants provide food and shelter for the whole ecosystem, for the butterflies and birds we all love.”
“There’s so much land development going on. I look down my street, and there are no birds out there, no butterflies. Then I look at my backyard, and there are frogs, snakes, bees, butterflies and birds galore. My grandkids have learned to identify all of the different bird species.”
Dowlearn says that a sustainable landscape actually adds resale value to a property. “A lot of people want to see wildlife; that’s getting huge. They’re willing to pay a little bit extra to get it. A lot of residential developments are going up that advertise how native and wild they are.”
Landscape professionals who specialize in natives tend to take an organic approach. Most won’t use any chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. The type of person that wants native plants in his yard is usually simpatico with that.
“It used to be that people would see a bug, any bug, and they’d want their landscaper to kill it, thinking, ‘It’s going to put a hole in my leaf!’” Case said. “That’s beginning to change.”
“There’ll be a few blemishes, because the caterpillars need to feed,” said Askey. And, as in the illustration we opened with, they’re fussy eaters. Monarch butterflies, for example, will only lay their eggs on milkweed.
Native plants such as milkweed provide the forage our pollinators so desperately need. One of the reasons the Monarchs are in trouble is because the vast milkweed meadows that used to dot the Midwest have been mowed down in favor of development. More people are aware of this, and have joined the movement to plant the wildflower in their yards.
If ‘going native’ interests you, remember that it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Case, for instance, still uses some nonnatives in her landscapes, depending on a client’s needs and the site.
Try offering some native plants as an option, and educate your clients about the advantages of including them in their landscapes. You may be pleasantly surprised at how much interest there really is. As it did for Dowlearn, it could open up “a whole new world” for you and your business.