How to Go Native
Green experts share insights into bringing Indiana’s natural plant heritage home
Master Gardeners and their guests were privy to Gene Bush’s lovely gardens on his property in Depauw, Ind., at the Garden Night at the Museum event in September. Bush is a gardener that has a good time in his gardens while tending a combination of plants that form a casual but “wild” gardening style.
He is proof that gardening is one glorious experiment that can capture and sustain any budding green thumb’s interest.
“Gardening is not a science; it’s an art,” Bush says. “I killed more plants than survived through my initial ignorance. This led me to read gardening books while looking around to see what grew naturally in my area.”
An interest in native species growing in nearby woods became his passion.
Hence, Munchkin Nursery & Gardens, owned by Bush and his wife, JoAn Riley, which feature lush plantings, including natives.
Here are his insights on including natives in your gardens and landscaping:
Take a walk in local woods in different seasons to see what natives are good for soil and climate conditions similar to your garden setting.
Natives aren’t something to be worshipped from afar. If you do the homework, they do the work for you. Give them the light and moisture needed in their desired soil types to successfully establish native plantings.
Consider a “wild” garden with a mix of native and non-native plants.
Plant natives in pairs to lengthen their bloom life and add interest. For example, pair early-blooming dwarf plants, such as Anemonella, next to Christmas ferns for early color and lasting foliage from the ferns.
If you need further motivation to plant natives in your garden and landscaping, consider this reasoning:
“Indigenous plants are a significant part of a region’s geographic context,” says Michael A. Homoya, botanist and plant ecologist in the division of nature preserves at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. “In fact, they help define it. They have proven themselves capable of surviving in the landscape for millennia. What better plants can there be, if not the natives, to confront the soil conditions, climate, pests and diseases of the local areas?”
Plan your native garden for next season
Beautify your gardens, attract wildlife or bring a natural allure to your home’s landscaping with reliable native plantings accustomed to Hoosier soil and climate conditions. Some varieties can attract butterflies and birds, as well as provide color and interest throughout often-gray Hoosier winters.
The Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society has recommendations of the most garden-worthy plants, perennials, shrubs and trees native to Indiana. The list ranges from shade to sun and includes specifics useful for establishing a rain garden.
Start planning which natives to grow in your garden by logging on inpaws.org for resources and tips.
Visit native plant gardens & landscapes
The Nature Conservancy: Indiana’s state headquarters boast more than 14,000 square feet of native landscaping at the Efroymson Conservation Center in downtown Indianapolis.. Plantings represent different ecosystems, such as glades, prairies, wetlands, cliffsides, savannas and forests. For more information, log on nature.org/indiana. The Nature Conservancy’s Guide to Indiana Preserves is an excellent book of locations to see native plantings in the wild.
Indiana Department of Natural Resources: Locate forest preserves across Indiana with ample native plantings. Log on in.gov/dnr/naturepreserve.
Resources for Going Native
Munchkin Nursery & Gardens: Call (812) 633-4858 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for an appointment. For plant offerings from the nursery, log on munchkinnursery.com.
Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society (INPAWS): To access the Landscaping with Plants Native to Indiana brochure, area garden events including the INPAWS spring plant sale, and more, log on inpaws.org.
Native Plants Unlimited: Find native plants, not hybrids or cultivars. Preorder online and pick up your plants in early May. For more information, log on nativeplantsunlimited.com.
Make the World a Better Place
Balancing ecosystems with natives
Doug Tallamy, Ph.D., author of Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Backyard, shares his perspective on the value of native plants for sustaining the delicate balance between flora, fauna and humankind.
“Plants are the food that everything else eats,” Tallamy says. “Other species either eat the plant directly, or they eat something that ate the plant. Typically, that is an insect. Just think, 96 percent of our birds rear their young on insects. If we landscape in a way that takes away the insects, we’re taking away almost everything else.”
Tallamy says this is important because those species run our ecosystems.
“We pretend we would do alright without anything else, but we would not,” he says.
Tallamy strives to raise awareness about the use of native plants to restore healthy ecosystems where people live and work.
“Plants defend themselves chemically. And insects can only eat the plants they are adapted to,” he explains. “Look at the monarch butterfly. Milkweed is a toxic plant to most things. It only eats milkweed; monarchs have become specialists at getting around milkweed’s defenses.
“That’s true for 90 percent of insect herbivores out there; they are host-specific.”
When native plants that insects are adapted to are no longer a part of landscapes and gardens, those insects will disappear. Traditionally, making insects disappear has been a gardener’s goal. So why care?
“The ‘good’ insects go away with the ‘bad’ ones,” Tallamy says. “And all of the food that everything else eats goes too. Native plants don’t just belong in their natural habitats; they do critical jobs for us in keeping our ecosystems functioning.”
His message is to use more natives to support insects as a part of our localized ecosystems, and use more plants in general.
“Suburban landscapes are 92 percent lawn, which is not a functioning ecosystem,” he says. “Grass is great to walk on, but where you don’t typically walk should be planted with wildlife-friendly plantings.”