There are lots of reasons to garden with native plants—they are better adapted to the local climate and soil, so there is less need to feed and fertilize, less need to water, and they are not going to run amok and crowd out natives. Plus, it is generally cheaper to garden with native plants, a big advantage in the current economy.
So you have made the decision to go native. Now what? Many states have native plant societies, run by volunteers (California Native Plant Society, at http://www.cnps.org/) or professional botanists (the Connecticut Botanical Society at http://www.ct-botanical-society.org/garden/index.html), or universities (Illinois Natural History Survey, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign at http://www.inhs.illinois.edu/animals_plants/plants/ilgallery/). These groups and their web sites are a great source of information about what is native and what is not.
My colleague Susan lives in Connecticut and she recommends the Connecticut Botanical Society’s Web site. It has extensive photos and planting information—shade or sun, type of soil—for each plant. The Web site also has a list of nurseries throughout the state that sell these plants.
It’s easy enough to go out and buy native plants. But these plants can be somewhat hard to find—they are not necessarily available at your local Home Depot—and somewhat more expensive. So, I advocate taking a more creative approach. Look at some of the things you think of as weeds—they may very well native plants that can be used. A common vine in Susan’s area is Virginia creeper.
This stuff is everywhere, sending out shoots and tendrils. I did a little research and discovered it is a native plant in the south, Midwest, and eastern U.S., and it does well as a ground cover. Problem solved for that shady patch along her driveway.
Also growing in her backyard is the native plant wild ginger. It has lovely green leaves and makes a great filler for bare patches in sun or shade.
Another trick depends on the layout of your residence and the tolerance of your neighbors. Let your lawn grow wild, and see what comes up. Susan’s house is set back off the road so the lack of regular mowing does not make her family the neighborhood pariahs on an otherwise nicely manicured street. Their lawn has been a great source of some interesting plants.
The first thing I noticed when I visited her a few months ago was the wild strawberries, which produce little red berries that are attractive but kind of tasteless. They make a nice groundcover in sun or shade, and she transplanted them to fill in the edges of her garden patches.
A few weeks later, I noticed tall stems topped by little white flowers with yellow centers. These turned out to be daisy fleabane, a native in the aster family. We moved a bunch off her lawn and started a wildflower garden.
Friends are another other great source of native plants. Do your research, identify native plants that suit your location, and then take a look at the gardens of your family and friends. Susan’s mother hates it when her garden gets too crowded, so she has gladly contributed spiderwort and Solomon’s seal plants. A friend’s mother gave her woodland sunflower a few years ago. It took a while for them to spread but this year they are everywhere.
One important thing to remember: never, never take plants from the wild. These plants are important parts of the ecosystem. If you are out hiking and see a plant you like, remember it and go to a nursery to get your own. Then go native!