Good Growth

Area Expert Recommends Gardeners Tend Plots With Purpose

Posted: June 10, 2014

Daily News-Record

Gardeners who choose to plant native species often do so to mirror the natural landscape or ensure the plants are well-adapted to the environment. (Courtesy Photo / Garland Dovel)

Gardeners looking to spruce up their yards this summer might be tempted to purchase exotic plants, but Jan Mahon, director of the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum and Botanical Gardens at James Madison University, has strong arguments for sticking with indigenous species.

“There are a lot of reasons people prefer to plant native species,” she remarked, adding that some gardeners enjoy having yards that mirror the natural landscape, while others appreciate having plants already well-adapted to the environment.

Mahon, however, believes one argument for planting native species stands out above the rest: It’s generally believed to be better for the ecosystem.

As plants are at the base of the food chain, Mahon says altering the plant life of a given area may cause a rippling effect on insects, animals and, eventually, humans. Take the recent honey bee buzz, for example.

 Pointing out that insects have evolved together with the local plant life for thousands of years, Mahon says introducing exotic plant species can sometimes lead to trouble.

“A lot of non-native species can be invasive,” she cautioned. “They don’t have that evolutionary relationship with insects, [so] they tend to not have [predators] that prey on them or attack them.”

Additionally, while the exotic blooms may be beautiful, they’re rarely useful, as local insects are generally unable to use non-native plants as sources of food or shelter.

Due to overdevelopment, Mahon says many insects are already struggling to find resources.

“All the development has already taken away land to begin with, so [exotic plants] are just another hurdle,” she said.

To compensate for overdevelopment, Mahon suggests homeowners reduce the size of their lawns by replacing grassy areas with flowering plants, which tend to be most beneficial to insects.

Mahon — who worries society’s penchant for “esthetic has gotten out of hand” — also encourages eco-conscious gardeners to lay off the weeding, and consider cutting back on lawn chemicals.

“None of us are saying to have a weedy garden, but set aside an area for weeds or let the edges of a bed be less tended,” she advised.

While weeds are generally viewed in a negative light, Mahon says they provide shelter and a feeding location for certain insects.

Although Mahon insists nurturing native plant species is “definitely” one of the arboretum’s priorities, she says the center also appreciates a little diversity.

“[Promoting native plants] doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever plant an exotic species,” she clarified. “Just pay attention to the ratio!”

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