A website from UGA Cooperative Extension

by Sandra Shave, Fulton County Master Gardener Extension Volunteer

This article is part of Garden Buzz, a series from Appen Media and the North Fulton Master Gardeners, where rotating columnists explore horticulture topics like herbs, insects, and wildlife conservation. Find all Garden Buzz articles here.

The North Fulton Master Gardeners will hold its annual Garden Faire on Saturday, April 20, 2024 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in partnership with the City of Alpharetta at The Grove at Wills Park (175 Roswell St, Alpharetta, GA 30009). This year, the North Metro Atlanta Chapter of the Georgia Native Plant Society will feature a variety of Georgia’s native plants for sale and provide information to visitors on best practices for planting natives. As a preview, here’s an interview with the Georgia Native Plant Society’s Ellen Honeycutt about frequently asked questions about native plants.

Rudbeckia hirta

SS: First, what is a native plant?

EH: A native plant is one that was here without direct human intervention. Generally, that means before settlers from Europe arrived, but it also addresses plants that were moved around by indigenous people such as corn, beans, and squash. These are plants that have been here long enough to have developed a life-sustaining relationship with native insects (usually thousands of years).

SS: Why is it important to plant natives now?

EH: Native plants are a critical part of the life cycle of native insects, as I mentioned. Without their host native plants (milkweed and monarch butterflies is a good example), native insect populations would decline as would the populations of those that depend on them (such as birds). Hundreds of years of human settlement have reduced the population of native plants, replacing them with non-native ornamentals that native insects usually can’t use for their life cycles. We need to start using them in our landscapes to support the food web. I like to reimagine the food pyramid to illustrate how our gardens might be.

SS: What should we know about native plants?

EH: Native plants can be just as beautiful in the landscape as exotic plants. Native plants also help give us a sense of place, allowing us to celebrate what makes Georgia unique. For example, our native magnolias – we have seven species native to Georgia – represent our landscapes better than the Colorado blue spruce or the exotic crape myrtle.

SS: What inspired you to become so interested in native plants?

EH: I was introduced to the concept of “native plants” in 2000 when I joined the Georgia Native Plant Society. Fostering an appreciation for native plants is now a passion of mine, and I love to help other people learn more about the benefits of native plants. I also like to help people figure out which plants might work best in their garden.

SS: Knowing what’s native and what’s not is confusing. How can you tell?

EH: It is easier than ever to use resources on the internet (even at the store, using our smartphones) to determine if something is native. It is best to search by the scientific name when doing so because common names can be misleading. The USDA Plants Database is a good source and easy to use.

SS: Do native plants require less maintenance? Do I still have to water them?

EH: Newly-planted native plants should receive the same amount of care that you’d provide to newly-planted exotics. That is, water them as needed for the first 6 months while they get their roots established, protect them from mischievous squirrels that like to dig up any new plant, etc. Be sure to research their preferred growing conditions just as you would for any plant: sun, shade, moist, dry. Once they are established in your garden, they should be fine. I don’t water my plants after they are established unless something unusual happens.

SS: Do you have some recommendations? What’s your favorite native plant? And why?

EH: I am partial to our native woody plants – trees and shrubs – so one of my favorites is the sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) that blooms in June with tiny white bells. In fall, it has some of the best fall color around. I do like to help people find good ideas for shady areas; we have lots of native ferns and shade-loving perennials like foamflower (Tiarella) and coral bells (Heuchera).

SS: Tell us about the native plants you’ll have for sale at Garden Faire?

EH: We like to provide an assortment of native perennials, shrubs, trees, ferns, and vines. Knowing that some folks are new to native plants, we make sure we have some of the most dependable choices, but we also like to have a few special things for the experienced native enthusiast. We have plants that are donated by our members as well as plants that we purchase or grow especially for the sale.

SS: What if someone wants to learn more?

EH: The Georgia Native Plant Society provides downloadable education materials (for our area, look for resources for the Piedmont ecoregion) as well as a link for year-round native plant sources including small nurseries that have the deepest selection of native plants. You may also want to check out the UGA Extension publications about native plants listed in this column.

I also have a personal blog that has a lot of articles about using Georgia’s native plants in home landscapes. For example, here is an article about shade-loving plants.

You can learn more by visiting GNPS at the NFMG Garden Faire at Wills Park on April 20th.

Happy Gardening!

Learn More

About the Author

This week’s “Garden Buzz” guest columnist is Sandra Shave, a master gardener since 2018. Sandygrew up on a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin and learned to garden at her mother’s knee. She is a recent transplant to Roswell, Georgia, moving from Wisconsin in 2014 after retirement to be nearer to her children and most importantly her grandchildren! Sandy is the chair of NFMG’s 2024 Garden Faire and Speakers Bureau and is excited to share her love of gardening.

In this week’s Garden Buzz column, Sandy interviews Ellen Honeycutt, the current Chair of the State Board of the Georgia Native Plant Society. Ellen has gardened with and appreciated native plants for over 23 years as a member. Helping others to see the beauty, versatility, and ecological importance of Georgia’s native plants—whether it be in the wild or in the garden—is both a passion and a compulsion—just ask her kids! She uses her personal blog to share her love of nature and native plants in Georgia.