Beautiful Native Plants

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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

When native plants die…

As readers and writers of this blog, we know that we should plant as many natives as possible for many reasons. Some important reasons are: to reduce the need for extra irrigation, to better support native wildlife, and to create landscapes that are authentic for our regions. But this is not the end of the story…

Native plant nurseries do their best to present beautiful natives to attract buyers. Thanks to Renee Stambaugh for her attractive garden fest display.

Within one year, many of these lovely native plants will be dead!

I talked to this lovely Irish couple at garden fest They told me
 that they only buy plants on Sunday and take them to church and
give them their last rites before taking them home.
Most plants bought at nurseries, garden centers, or garden fests (native or not) will fail because they are improperly planted and/or do not receive adequate care after planting–especially irrigation.

I think this is particularly true of native plants because people assume that if they grew in their regions by themselves without human help, they won’t need much care. I try to offset this notion when I speak or when I participate in garden fests.

You should find out which plants are likely to  be successful on your property so you put the “right plant in the right place”, but then you should then plant them properly and irrigate adequately while they try to adjust to life outside of a pot. I included some ideas in Native plants for your yard: the next step and I covered proven planting methods in great detail in my book, Sustainable Gardening for Florida because it’s certainly NOT sustainable to purchase a plant and kill it.

In addition, our urban/suburban properties will rarely become a true native habitat no matter how many natives we plant or how sustainably we manage them. Many plants that used to grow in our regions may not be “happy campers” in our highly modified environments. Maybe they need a specific soil fungus as a symbiont or the presence of another plant or animal to provide a specific habitat value or seed disbursal. If you try to grow these fussy plants in your yard, they may hang on by their fingernails for a while, but ultimately they will fail.

There are other fussy natives that don’t do well in the nursery environment of growing in a pot with the temperature and moisture fluctuations while they wait for you to purchase them. Running a native nursery business is not easy as I’ve written about before in Supporting the native plant industry and sometimes the plants you purchase will not look like much when you buy them in a dormant state when your chance of planting success is greatest.

So we need to be wise in our selection of plants and matching them to the best micro environments in our landscapes. Choose only those that have been proven to thrive is a wide variety of habitats.

This oakleaf hydrangea had never grown
to its full size and recently it had died back.
It was time for a rescue.

Plant rescues in our own yards

As informed gardeners we think we know what we are doing, but sometimes *things* don’t work out for unknown reasons or because conditions have changed since the original planting.

I had planted an oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quericifolia) near our fence 6 or 7 years ago, and while it has survived, it has deteriorated in the last couple of years.

There is now more shade in this location, but maybe this acid-loving plant was not happy being near the fencepost held in place by a large wad of concrete, which exudes an alkaline chemical. Whatever its problem, it was not going to get better by itself.

I planted the hydrangea in front of the ferns. 
I had another problem plant out by the corner of the front porch. I had planted a coontie (Zamia pumila), a native cycad, in front of the fern bed. The coontie has not done well either, plus its texture is so similar to ferns that it disappeared into the landscape. So I moved it to a new location with some other coonties and installed the hydrangea in its place.

There is more sun here and while it looks like the drainpipe just empties into the garden, there is a drain there so it’s moist, but not too damp.  I’ll leave the straggly branches in place to see if new leaves emerge. If it adjusts well to this location I’ll begin to trim back the snags and give it a better shape next year, but right now the shrub needs all its leaves for nourishment. My hope is that this distressed shrub will love it out here and that its large lobed leaves with its pinkish fall coloration will contrast nicely with the ferns.

There are 3 fern species cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), netted chain fern (Woodwardia aerolata) and marsh fern (Thelypteris  palusteris var pubescens). By the way, all the ferns planted themselves here. How sustainable is that? Learn more about our ferns in Ferns in the Landscape.

Native longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) planted in
a roadside project were planted too close together.
Maybe the planners were counting on some
of them to die.

Public plant failures

I wrote about a roadside project where the native trees were planted too close together and under some power lines in my article, Plan ahead!.

What I did not point out at the time is that quite a number of them had already died and had been removed.

We need to encourage more use of natives in public landscaping projects, but let's be smart about it.

You don’t have to look hard to find public plantings that have failed.  I’ve included two photos of examples from a recent trip to Alaska–my husband was puzzled when I took these pictures.

Alaska #1: Some effort had been made to create a naturalized setting for this tree and shrub planting with an arrangement of river stones to one end. But one of the shrubs is dead and the other one has drastic die back–it might make it, but maybe not.
Alaska #2: Someone obviously spent some time and money so these trees would have a nice place to grow in this urban setting, but only one made it and weeds have taken over the bed.
I’m sure you can find many examples in your own town or city. Urban and suburban planners really, really need to include ongoing care for their projects: first, immediately after planting so the plants can become properly established, and then for ongoing weeding and trimming for several years so the plants have a fighting chance in these alien landscapes that occur within their native ranges.

Guidelines for successful native plantings

1) Choose highly-adaptive native plants and install them in the best locations on your property where they won’t interfere with wires or underground infrastructure. For trees and shrubs plant for their adult sizes, but fill in with perennials while you wait for them to grow.

2) In most cases, rinse all the soil away from the roots to discover the true planting flare and any circling roots. Spread the roots out in a shallow planting hole so the root flare is above the soil surface.

3) Do not add any amendments (fertilizer, peat moss, compost, etc.) to the planting hole, just soil that’s in the area. Flood the planting hole and mud in the plant. Build a berm around the plant to keep water in. Mulch the area, but not right next to the plant stems or trunks. After a month or two, add your own locally-made compost outside of the root balls to improve the soil so roots will spread outward. Do not use artificial fertilizer because that may cause too much growth that the plant may not be able to support.

Add a ring of locally made compost outside the
root ball a few times in the first year. 
4) Add enough water above the general landscape irrigation everyday and gradually taper off until the plant shows new growth. The larger the plant, the longer this intense irrigation cycle. If you know you will not be able to irrigate more than a few times after planting, plant smaller specimens that have a better chance to adjust. Care for these plants with extra irrigation during severe droughts for several years–plants in the wild may die during these dry times, but your plants don’t have to die, too.

5) Keep the aggressive weeds (even if they are native) away from your new plants for the first few years until established. Keep vines from strangling the plants.

6) You’ll make mistakes. Some plants might not adjust to your garden and may die, but keep trying until you find the right plants for your property. Move things around until you find the right combinations that work for you.

Plants are alive!

Even though we grow natives in our yards, it doesn’t mean that we won’t have to take care of them. They are not made of cement or plastic. If we arrange our natives in sustainable groupings or groves, we will eventually have a reduced workload in our gardens, but the no maintenance landscape is a myth. I covered this topic in my third book, The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape. Note: While I used Florida plants as examples, the principles of the low maintenance landscape can be applied anywhere.

© Ginny Stibolt