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Getting Started With Native Plants
Article by: Jessica Warren, ANR Agent, Camden County

image of red flower native plant

There’s been a lot of interest in recent years in planting native plants – which I couldn’t be happier about! Planting native plants is a simple yet impactful choice that benefits not only your landscape, but the entire ecosystem and future generations. Contrary to popular belief, native plant landscapes don’t have to look messy or wild – though personally I love landscapes that mimic nature – and native plants can be easily incorporated into any garden style or aesthetic.

What makes a plant native? Native plants are those that have inhabited an area for thousands of years – generally prior to European settlement. These plants have evolved with the climatic conditions, insects, diseases, and predators of the area making them more resilient to the stressors in their native range. There are more than 100 distinct plant communities in Georgia. Native plants support native insects like butterflies, moths, and bees in ways that non-native plants cannot – through the food chain. Since plants have defense strategies such as toxins to protect themselves from predators, insects evolved to neutralize the defenses of a specific plant or family of plants for their larvae to feed and develop. When these native plants aren’t present, these insects, that serve as both pollinators and the base of the food chain for all other wildlife, cannot reproduce or survive long-term. In addition to affecting pollinator populations such as butterflies and moths, this affects other wildlife such as songbirds which need 3000-4000 caterpillars to raise one nest of hatchlings. Native insects help bring in more native birds, bats, lizards, toads, and turtles, among other wildlife.

When planting native plants, it’s important to remember, as with any plant, to choose the right plant for the right place. Plant for the size a plant will be when it’s mature – not the size it is when you buy it. Choose an appropriate site based on the sunlight, moisture, spacing, heat tolerance, and salt tolerance needs of the plant. Though native plants are resilient and well adapted to our area, they still need to be planted in the correct site. For example, planting a native sandhills plant in perpetually wet soil will lead to failure. Native plants can have a longer establishment period but need little to no care. The rule of thumb is that native plants need a year to sleep, a year to creep, and a year to leap. After establishment, native plants rarely need watering, and native plants do not need to be fertilized. Native plants have less disease and pest pressures and rarely if ever need pesticides, and remember, you want insects to eat your plants!

One of the best things that you can do for your plants, whether native or non-native, is to mulch them with natural debris such as fallen leaves. This simple action retains soil moisture, feeds soil and improves soil structure as the mulch decomposes, offers naturally appropriate nutrition to native plants, reduces erosion and crusting of soils, and offers habitat to pollinators, wildlife, and beneficial insects (including fireflies which need leaf litter to reproduce).

Image of Native plant

One question that comes up a lot is the value of cultivars. Cultivars of natives are readily available in big box stores and typical nurseries. Cultivars do not offer the same ecological benefits that true natives do. Cultivars have been selectively bred to increase a human desired trait which may impact their other functions in the environment. In addition, many plants produced through big nurseries are treated with broad spectrum insecticides that are lethal to pollinators. However, if you are unable to source true natives and you are choosing between a native cultivar and a non-native exotic plant, the native cultivar is still the better choice.

Sources for native plants are continuing to expand and improve. For us Camden folks, our closest option is Florabundance Gardens in Darien (Deb, the owner, is lovely to work with). Coastal WildScapes, a local area nonprofit, hosts a native plant sale each spring and fall at the Ashantilly Center in Darien with several different vendors in attendance. There are also nurseries in Savannah, Statesboro, and beyond, as well as mail order options such as the aptly named Mail Order Natives. There are also lots of resources available to learn more about native plants including Coastal WildScapes, Georgia Native Plant Society, EcoScapes Native Plant Search Engine, and the Georgia Green Landscape Stewards Program. If you are interested in native plants, I would also encourage you to check out the Homegrown National Park movement, and books by University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy.