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The Benefits and Beauty of Native Plant Species

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The Benefits and Beauty of Native Plant Species

By Karina Low

In an ideal garden, watering would be optional, applying fertilizers unnecessary, colours would abound from the early spring until the fall and with those first snowflakes of winter the gardener wouldn’t be wondering what plants will make it through this year.

Of course, there are gardeners who love to fuss over their plants, and there are certainly unique plants worth pampering. But most people with a yard and garden want time to enjoy other summer activities, so beautiful and low- maintenance plants are just what they are looking for. Thousands of years of plant evolution has created this modern ideal: unique and colourful plants that thrive in our climate and soil.

Bob Stadnyk, Perennials Manager at Hole’s, has seen a trend towards native plants and thinks more people are turning to these plants as they get frustrated with new plant varieties and the extra care they require. “They are going back to the basics,” says Bob. “They want something that looks good and survives.”

A native plant is defined as a plant the evolved naturally in the region. Edmonton. Alberta is in the Parkland Natural Region, characterized by forests, clearings and wetlands. Because these plants have adapted to growing here, they don’t need or want our attention once they are established. A little compost, leaf mould or bark mulch to recreate a natural setting helps, but commercial fertilizers will make the soil too rich for most native plants. Rain should provide
enough water for a native plant after the first year. In times of drought, the plant will simply go dormant. Native plants aren’t entirely perfect – they still require weeding just like regular perennials. As for designing a garden with native plants, you can use them on their own or mix them in with regular perennials and annuals.

“With native plants you can have any look you want, you just have to choose the right species,” says Cherry Dodd with the Edmonton Naturalization Group. “You can have a neat, tidy and orderly garden, or a riot of colour.”

For a sunny location, there is a wide range of choice as many flowering native plants grow naturally in open meadow locations. The Slender Blue Beardtongue (penstemon procerus) is one of Dodd’s favourites. With intense blue-purple flowers, this low and compact plant stands out. It blooms early in the season and prefers a location with full sun.

Another sun loving flower is the Blanket Flower or Brown-Eyed Susan (gaillardia aristata). This one brings a yellow and rusty orange-red colour to a garden through the middle summer months. It grows naturally in sandy and stony soils, but will do fine in any well-drained garden soil. Butterflies love these large, cheerful flowers too.

For a pink colour in a sunny and moist location, Wild Bergamot, also known as Bee Balm (monarda fistulosa), blooms through the middle summer months. This medium height native plant forms a colourful patch that will draw hummingbirds and butterflies to your garden. Though several cultivated varieties of monarda are available, this native one is best suited to our local climate.

The icon of summer, the sunflower, also has a couple native relatives. The Common Tall Sunflower (helianthus nuttallii) and the Rhombic-leaved Sunflower (helianthus subrhomboideus) are both native to our region. The first one grows up to six feet tall and grows naturally in wetlands and wet meadows. Though it prefers a wet area, it will adapt well to regular garden moisture levels. The flowers are smaller but more plentiful than the cultivated annual sunflower and bloom through the late summer into the fall months. The second native sunflower has similar flowers in size and bloom time, but is shorter, growing between one
and four feet tall. It grows naturally in meadows and does very well in a garden. It spreads quickly though, so may need to be contained with lawn edging. Both native sunflowers like locations with lots of sun.

For those areas of your garden with a little shade, there are native plants that will thrive. Northern Bedstraw (galium boreale) puts on a show of tiny white flowers in woodland and semi-shaded areas, as well as in sunny locations. It blooms throughout the summer and grows up to two feet tall. The Giant Hyssop (agastache foeniculum) prefers sun, but will do well with some shade, too. This medium-tall plant, up to three feet high, has distinctive light blue to purple flowers through the middle summer months. It grows in a clump, so will fit in well with a
traditional perennial garden.

Gardeners with evergreen trees usually have to deal with a bare zone under the tree where nothing seems to grow. The native groundcover Small-leaved Everlasting, or Pussy-toes (antennaria parvifolia) grows naturally in dry, open areas, but doesn’t mind the semi-shaded area near an evergreen tree. This small plant creates a mat of soft silvery leaves and cream coloured flowers blooming throughout the summer.

Since grasses naturally cover a large part of the Parkland Natural Region, they also make a unique addition to any garden or yard. Some grow in clumps, other spread out to fill in a space. Blue Grama Grass (bouteloua gracillis) is a short grass that can be used as a ground cover or lawn. Give it an open location with no competition and it will reward you with a show of blue-green curled leaves and seed heads that look like eyelashes. For interesting variety in a garden, Canada Wild Rye (elymus candadensis) is a tall clump forming grass with a graceful appearance. It grows naturally in stony and sandy soils, but will grow anywhere with lots of sun. The bristly seed-heads change from green to golden through the summer. Native grasses abound here, so there is likely one that will suit your garden style.

Though it may be tempting to find and collect native plants on your own from the wild, both Bob and Cherry emphasize the need to refrain from doing this. You may be uprooting the last of that plant in the area, and many won’t even survive the damage and shock of moving. Native plants can be grown from seed and can be purchased from a garden centre when they are young.

Planting for Pollinators

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Cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins were vegetables that we always grew on the farm. We had two main strategies that we used to increase our chances of maximizing our yields:
 
First, we only planted these heat-loving crops near our shelterbelts. The trees in the shelterbelts reduced wind speeds and provided a warm microclimate that these vegetables loved. Open fields were always cooler than fields protected by shelterbelts; plus, delicate, heat-loving crops like cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins tended to get beat-up in windy spots.
 
Secondly, we always had local beekeepers place their hives adjacent to these crops to ensure that they would visit the flowers and pollinate the plants. These cucurbit crops (as they are referred to) must have their pollen transferred from male to female flowers in order to fruit andas we all knowbees are terrific at this task.
 
In our own urban yards, encouraging bees and other pollinators to visit is not difficult if you choose the flowers that they like. Plants like...

Sunflowers – During blooming season sunflowers offer a rich pollen and nectar source for foraging honey bees, native bees, and any other garden pollinators.


At maturity, when the centre disk florets have dried up, these black-seeded sunflowers provide particularly oil-rich kernels with somewhat softer shells than others, yielding an abundance of nutritious feasts for birds of all sorts.


Zinnias & Cosmos – These two types of flowers are favourites of butterflies. Butterflies are attracted to blossom shapes and colours, so plantings should be made in mass blocks rather than a few isolated plants here and there.


Planting these flowers behind each other produces an ideal combination of flowers at differing heights, offering your visitors a choice of where to feed and rest.


Scarlet Runner Beans & Nasturtiums – Low, mounding, Summer Charm nasturtiums and tall, climbing, Scarlet Runner Beans are a sure fit for hummingbirds’ nectar-seeking bills.


These flowers offer an ideal combination of different blossoms and vegetation at varying height levels, providing your intended visitors with a choice of where to feed, rest, and roost.


Hummingbirds expend an enormous amount of energy for their size, and require an enormous amount of food—you can’t have too many flowers! After locating convenient nectar sources, these intelligent little creatures follow a foraging routine in a relatively small area (despite their ability to roam) and will return for ongoing meals from your garden.


Finally, asclepias (or "milkweed") is a plant that we get a lot of questions about from people look for a butterfly-friendly flower. Most known as a nectar source for monarch butterflies (a rare sight in Edmonton), milkweed is a favourite of other pollinators as well.

The Butterfly Mixture from Aimers Seeds is a good mix of flowers that attracts butterflies as well.  This mix contains a bit of everything for pollinators, including: alyssum, African daisy, bachelor buttons, milkweed, candy tuft, columbine, purple and Prairie coneflowers, plains coreopsis, cosmos, flax, California poppy, and Siberian wallflower.

~Jim Hole