I read a recent article in Forbes magazine introducing a new book, Wild: The Naturalistic Garden by Noel Kingsbury. It nudged me to share a gardening concept that I have grown more passionate about as I have matured in horticulture. The idea is to introduce a little ‘wild’ into our home landscapes by adding native plants to improve environmental health.
Around 2000, I attended a professional landscape operations tour in the Baltimore and Washington area. One of the stops was a visit to the landscapes of Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden with the two men as our guides. During their careers, Oehme and van Sweden created naturalistic designs that minimized turfgrass and incorporated large swaths of perennials and grasses. Trees and shrubs were strategically placed to provide structure to the garden. Their landscape designs were captivating, and the experience forever changed my idea of a traditional home landscape. More recently, landscape designers Piet Oudolf and Claudia West & Thomas Ranier are creating naturalistic landscapes that seek to introduce the wild back into the built landscape.
Unfortunately, I cannot claim to have been a long-time proponent of gardening with nature in mind. By working with plants, I assumed I was a good environmental steward. Still, when I began my career, my main concern was making the landscape look nice. Other than knowing not to introduce invasive plant species, I had no concept of planting for environmental health.
In re-examining my relationship with ornamental horticulture during my career with Extension, I gained a greater appreciation for the ecological roles plants fill in the landscape. The Clemson University Cooperative Extension’s mission is to improve stewardship of natural resources and the environment by providing unbiased, research-based information.
Doug Tallamy, the TA Baker Professor of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Delaware, contends that the widespread planting of ornamental plants native to other parts of the world is creating ecosystem-wide problems. To be clear, Tallamy does not entirely blame non-native plants in our landscapes. Instead, the practice of planting non-native plants and the subsequent absence of native plants. The distinction is small but significant.
The occurrence of climate change and the loss of ecosystem biodiversity are complex problems upon which we as individuals can feel helpless to make any significant impact. However, Tallamy estimates that if each home across the United States plants native plants, citizens can create a 20-million-acre Homegrown National Park to serve as much needed habitat for birds, insects, and other native wildlife. For more information about participation in Homegrown National Park, visit https://homegrownnationalpark.org/.
No one says our landscapes cannot be attractive and contain beloved ornamental non-native species. However, for the health of our local ecosystems, we must have native species to provide vital ecological needs. For information about native plants appropriate for South Carolina, visit HGIC 1852, An Introduction To Native Plants for SC Landscapes, Native Plants for Wildlife: Resources for Home Gardeners, and When Plants and Powerlines Collide – Native Shrubs Under Ten Feet.