Plant native plants and your local ecosystem will thank you

Not interested in your garden? Find it easier to go over to Lowe’s and grab some geraniums? You’re wasting an opportunity to grab some native plants and restore some eco-harmony!

Photo courtesy of Sneed’s Nursery.

Now, as days get longer and hearts turn to love, you may find yourself considering the land around your dwelling place. Whether you’re planning on revamping the whole thing or just doing your same-old same-old, think about the opportunity you have. You can be part of a growing problem, or part of the solution.

Now is a good time to review how the food chain works:

  1. Plant grows
  2. Bug breeds on plant, feeds on plant, evolves to operate precisely in harmony with said plant
  3. Birds find bugs in plants, feed them to baby birds
  4. Birds eat berries and such, and drop seeds that make new plants from step one
  5. Birds become tasty meal for other predators
  6. And so on and so on

Well, this all falls apart as humans develop land, destroying the existing stuff, and then bringing in plants that look cool but are from Europe or Asia, much to the insects’ dismay. “Realistically, we’re not going to stop human development,” says Andy Wichorek of Sneed’s Nursery. “But with native landscapes, we’re trying to restore the food web.”

Andy Wichorek at work. If you head over to Sneed's and ask for him, he can get you all set up with native plants galore. (He also insists that other people can help, too.)

Andy Wichorek at work. If you head over to Sneed’s and ask for him, he can get you all set up with native plants galore. (He also insists that other people can help, too.)

Plants from our neck of the Virginia woods fit seamlessly with the bugs, the birds, da Bears, and the rest of the wildlife. That’s what’s called giving your yard or garden “wildlife value.” And Wichorek is here to help you figure out how best to restore your green space to its normal, Virginia vibe.

What kind of spaces do you have?

First, figure out the different zones of your yard. Do you have shady spots? Spots that get a lot of sun? A layer to fill under some tall trees? Write it all down, and then proceed.


Shade Lovers

Make your choices, using these photos and Wichorek’s wisdom about these plants as a guide!

Cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum)

An evergreen fern that you can spot in Pocahontas Park or, really, any park in the Richmond area. And it’s easy to spot in the wintertime, as it stands out among all the other plants who’ve given up the ghost for the season. Does it feel superior? No one knows!

Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica)

Photo by: danxoneil

Photo by: danxoneil

This ground-covering little flower was named after John Clayton, an early botanist in Virginia. “It’s not a very showy plant,” says Wichorek. “It’s just a few inches high, almost grasslike with some green and maroon in the leaves and really small, light flowers.” It’s naturally a woodland plant, so your soil should be humus-rich, and it blooms early, which helps out the early risers from insect dormancy.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

“You might see a lot of people planting these out in the sun, but they really don’t prefer that.” Wichorek recommends planting these “understory” trees below large oaks. “We tend to overlook that part of the landscape that’s above the wildflower and shrub levels but below the high tree cover.”

Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum)

This shade-loving ground cover is not only a delight to behold, but a low-maintenance perennial. The flowers will bloom in both spring and fall, kind of like a beginning- and end-cap to the nice weather (they may bloom in the winter too).

Part-Shade Lovers

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea)

Photo by: wackybadger

Photo by: wackybadger

Ragwort is a real spreader. It provides really pretty ground cover and is great if you’re on a budget, as it’ll fill in all your empty spaces. It’ll do best in wet soil.

Winterberry Holly (Ilex Verticillata)

Also works well in full sun, as one of the more hardy native plants. “Wetter spots, drier spots, sunny or less sunny–it’s versatile all the way around,” says Wichorek. “But you will have to get a male shrub and a female shrub in order to get the female to actually berry.” The winterberry holly is especially good for adding wildlife value to your yard–birds will eat the berries, which begin in the fall and persist through the winter.

Sun Lovers

Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

“What makes black-eyed Susans so good for wildlife,” Wichorek says. “Is that the goldfinches really like their seeds. So if you leave them up through the winter, you’ll see goldfinches coming along and eating the seeds.” The sun perennial adds some visual drama to a natural landscape as well.

Foxglove Beard-Tongue (Penstemon digitalis)

Photo by: wlcutler

Photo by: wlcutler

Wichorek particularly recommends this no-fuss, no-muss perennial. “You can just put it in the ground and let it go,” he says of the spreading, flowering beauty. Plus, if you’re hard up for a great D&D name, you can just look out your window and get some inspiration.

Tickseed (Coreopsis)

Photo by: PL Tandon

Photo by: PL Tandon

Despite the unfortunate name, tickseed really refers to a genus of plant whose seeds (in burrs) stick to your clothes. Which is fine and dandy, just don’t walk among them. Tickseed is very hardy and drought resistant.

For more information

Check out Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in our Gardens by Doug Tallamy. Tallamy and Rick Darke’s other book The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Diversity in the Home Garden gives you some pointers in pairing plants with each other, specific site types, and landscaping design.

And, of course, check out Sneed’s Nursery anytime, and follow them on Facebook for info about classes and other special events that can help keep you informed, even if you think you’re a total black thumb.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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