There’s a lot of evidence that gardening with plant species native to one’s area can promote a healthier ecosystem for plants, insects, animals and birds. But how do we even go about planting a truly native garden, and what are the challenges involved?
A few years ago, I walked around the hedgerows and fields of our corner of rural France, picking a few wild plants that I thought were native for relocation into our small garden. I’m a mediocre gardener, so my attempts weren’t met with much success. Only one of the plants, I think it’s a Scabiosa triandra – a pincushion flower – really showed any signs of feeling at home.
At some point, I realized that many of the plants I saw on walks and hikes probably weren’t local in the first place. All those pansies and daisies had likely escaped from gardens, where the seeds or plants had been purchased at a garden store. As Jeff Ollerton recently wrote in a blog post about the shifting baselines of conservation, what’s considered local or ‘normal’ depends on how far you are willing to go back in time. Do we eliminate most roses and tulips because they aren’t native to Europe?
My neck of the woods has been farmed, cultivated and planted for hundreds of years, so where do I go to find truly native plants? How has animal life changed to adapt to the plants that we have on offer in our various gardens now?
I recently sat in on an online discussion by Desiree L. Narango on the impact of non-native plant species on the abundance and health of the animal ecosystem, even if the non-native species were related to native plants. The short version of the discussion is that native animal species often can’t simply adapt to related but non-native species. Reproduction goes down, and in general the animals – from insects to birds – don’t thrive as much as they would on a native diet. No surprise, really, since flowering plants and the animals that rely upon them developed side-by-side in the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous periods. They were, quite literally, made for one another.
The message was: Every garden that is planted with native species can make a difference.
Okay, so where do I start in my garden in the foothills of the Jura mountains? The local nursery, which stopped carrying all artificial pesticides several years ago and promotes organic gardening, still doesn’t sell a range of plants from this area. For all its good intentions, I imagine that the development of site-specific seed products isn’t commercially viable for a nationwide gardening chain. France has a wide range of landscapes and ecosystems – what works on the coast of Brittany is probably different from what works here on the elevated plains and mountainsides at eastern limits of the country.
There’s a seed company in the United Kingdom, Seedball, that caters to gardeners who want to plant native. The product range offers a variety of native plant species seed mixes to support butterflies, birds, bats, and so on. But what’s native in the UK might not be native here.
I found one French nursery that grows and sells native plant products, but it’s on the Atlantic coast, eight hours by car. So I guess I would have to go back to hiking and picking out a few specimens for cultivation and seed gathering – after verifying that the various species were, in fact local, and not endangered.
Apart from my own interests in ecology and conservation, gardening with native species faces another challenge: Do the native plants conform to our sensibilities and trends with it comes to garden aesthetics? We have, for example, some very delicate and pretty native orchid species in our area, but they are tiny things, barely the height of a forefinger. Not very showy. And the bigger flowering plants are what most people would identify as weeds. Planting native might mean adapting gardening trends to biodiversity, and not the other way around.
Looks like I’ve got some redesigning to do, and then some hiking in the company of a guidebook and a gardening trowel.