Native & Invasive Plants
The most direct and significant sustainable action to protect ecosystems can start by using native plants in your landscape.
By selecting native plants, we can create a complexity of habitat in our landscapes while enjoying a multitude of benefits they provide us. Maintaining a diversity of native plants in the environments for which they are adapted helps promote the longevity and the benefits of native ecosystems. Protecting native species and the benefits they provide us is not difficult when each of us recognizes that we can all be good stewards of the land on which we live.
Native plants are the heart of the true American
landscape. Whether you are gardening in a small backyard garden or restoring a habitat, native plants support life and conserve soil and water. Even a few natives added to a garden can attract more birds, pollinators, beneficial insects and other wildlife. They also can help with a host of environmental problems.
Restore Life and Rebuild Communities
Biodiversity is crucial for maintaining the needs of all the different species in the local food web. Native plants serve as the foundation of our native ecosystems, or natural communities, and contribute greatly to the biodiversity of the landscape.
Native plants, birds, and insects have all evolved together to meet each other’s needs. When used in a landscape, native plants attract and support:
- local and migrating birds;
- pollinators, including butterflies, bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and other native insect pollinators; and,
- an array of other wildlife.
Repair Environmental Degradation
Rain gardens, erosion control, bioswales, shoreline and riparian buffers are all examples of ways that native plants help solve our environmental problems. Native plants have deep root systems that help protect and build the soil. Their root systems can mitigate flooding and absorb pollutants in water runoff, protecting waterways from harmful contaminants.Rain gardens capture excess runoff from houses and other buildings and remove pollutants from street water, reducing the load and the toxins in the water system.
They limit the chance that potentially invasive, exotic plant species will be introduced into and damage natural environments.
Reduce Water Use and Lower Maintenance
Native plants are well suited to particular conditions of soil, temperature, nutrients and rainfall of their region. Once established, native plants are drought tolerant to the extent that they are planted in the right conditions where they can thrive without additional resources. Landscaping with native plants creates beautiful and diverse spaces that reduce the need for mowing and eliminate the need for fertilization and pesticide use.
Selection and Purchasing
Selecting the right plant for the right location is the key to a healthy, attractive sustainable landscape.By choosing plants well adapted to each landscape site condition, you reduce the need for water, fertilizers and pesticides, reduce water pollution, save time and money, while providing habitat for wildlife. When you grow plants in the appropriate conditions, they thrive with minimal care.
Know your site conditions.
The first step in choosing the right plant is to know the conditions in your landscape. Once you know your soils and microclimates – the areas in your landscape with unique climate characteristics – you can choose plants that will thrive in each area.
When selecting plants for your landscape, remember that many factors determine the suitability of a plant for a particular location. Plants vary considerably in their ability to tolerate different site conditions and it is critical to select plants to match the existing growing conditions of the site in addition to their value in beauty and other sustainable uses. Even the best planting conditions will not help a plant thrive if it is poorly suited for a particular site.
Determine your ecoregion and hardiness zone.
Ecoregions reflect broad ecological patterns occurring on the landscape. In general, each ecoregion has a distinct composition and pattern of plant and animal species distribution along with physical factors, such as climate, landform, soil and hydrology.
Hardiness zones are based on the average annual minimum winter temperatures. The United States is divided into 10-degree F zones to help gardeners and landscapers determine which plants will thrive in particular locations.
Remember, if you live close to the border of an ecoregion, all of the plants listed in that region may not do well in your location. In addition, some of the plants that do well in the next region also may do well in your area. This may also apply to hardiness zone boundaries.
Purchasing Native Plants
Purchase local native plants or seeds from local reputable nurseries, botanical gardens or organizations that specialize in propagating native plants. Use the EcoScapes Native Plant Search Engine to determine the right Georgia native plants based your landscape condition.
When purchasing native plants, your first decision is whether to purchase plants or seeds. Each has its advantages.
- Allow choice and design flexibility well suited to residential and urban gardens.
- Provide rapid resolution to problems such as soil stabilization on steep slopes or infiltration in wet areas.
- Provide immediate vegetation that often flowers in the first season.
- Are easily added to existing plantings.
- Allow for a range of appropriate planting seasons, depending on plant habit type.
- Are a cost effective solution for large areas.
- Are a naturalized appearance.
- Offer highly diverse plant communities that support life.
- May include a range of appropriate planting seasons, depending on your location.
- Seeds may need as many as three years to establish.
Use local genotypes to preserve gene pool diversity.
EcoScapes recommends that you grow locally native plants to conserve and promote gene pool diversity. Locally native plants are available from native plant nurseries, which propagate plants originally obtained from local areas and track the source of their stock.
Using local genotype material helps ensure that you get plants that are well adapted to your region. It is especially critical to consider genotype in natural and semi-natural settings. Ideally, the plants you use should come from stock roughly within a 200-mile radius in your ecoregion.
Responsible collecting is key to keeping these healthy and thriving.
Do not collect plants from the wild.
In our quest to restore habitat, it is important to not remove native plants from the wild. Native plants may occasionally be obtained from the wild, as with plant rescues or wild seed collections. In general, however, they should not be taken directly from the wild.
There are many important reasons not to remove plants from their natural environment:
- Removing native plants from the wild diminishes the natural population and consequently reduces the diversity within that population.
- Nature is likely to fill the vacuum you create when you dig up a native with a plant of a different species, often an invasive plant. Wild collected plants often perform poorly in the garden. Plants propagated in a reputable nursery or grown from wild collected seed or cuttings are much more likely to survive transplanting.
- Plants play an important role in natural ecosystems, providing food and shelter for many animals. When native plants are removed from the wild, animals suffer greatly.
- Many native plants are rare, threatened or endangered and thus are protected by federal or state law.
Collect native plants seeds responsibly.
You can gather inspiration from Mother Nature and acquire native plants without pillaging sensitive ecosystems in their natural habitats.Visit local forests, parks, and other undisturbed areas to observe plants in their natural habitats. You can gain insight into appropriate native plants for your area and ideal groupings of plants.
Collect seeds or cuttings and propagate them yourself. Be sure to obtain permission from the property owner prior to collecting the plant seeds or cuttings you will use, leaving plenty behind for wildlife food and to reseed the plant for the next year.
Caring and Protecting
In the long run, natives require less maintenance than ornamental plants. Although methods may differ, native plants require the same level of care in installation and establishment as do ornamental plants. However, in the long run, natives will likely form self-sustaining plant communities that require less maintenance. Because they are adapted to a local region, they tend to resist damage from freezing, drought, common diseases, and herbivores if planted in that same local region.
Prepare your site carefully for planting.
If the environment has been altered significantly by human activities, some work will be necessary to recreate an environment more hospitable to natives. Then plant your appropriately selected native plants that fit your site conditions.
Make sure that you consider mature size (height and width) for appropriate spacing. Match the organic mulch type to the site conditions and plant requirements. Water immediately after planting to allow soil particles to settle in around the roots of the plants which help plants adjust faster. Until established, native plants may require supplemental watering and extra care, especially during dry periods.
Protecting rare plants contributes to species’ long-term survival.
There are many reasons to ensure that rare plants are protected for future generations.
- Contribute to biodiversity
- Play key ecological roles
- Have evolutionary significance
- May provide medicinal uses
- Are protected by legal regulations
- Can be part of conservation planning
- Can help protect natural communities as a whole
In addition, local rare plants help:
- Contribute to long-term survival of species
- Preserve the diversity of the species
- Preserve gene pool of local flora
- Preserve potential for species to undergo speciation events
Managing Invasive Plants
Invasive plants degrade our native plant communities and ecosystems. Sustainable landscapes responsibly eradicate existing invasive plants and prevent future non-native plant invasions. Identifying invasive plants and understanding the serious ecological and economic damage they can cause is essential to preventing their spread.
What are Invasive Plants?
An invasive species is defined as “a species that is non-native to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Thus, they are introduced species that can thrive in areas beyond their natural range of dispersal. They are characteristically adaptable, aggressive and have a high reproductive capacity.
Invasive plants disrupt naturally occurring native plant communities by altering structure, composition, natural processes or habitat quality. Two plants cannot occupy the same spot at the same time, so when an invasive non-native plant escapes from a landscape and settles into a new ecosystem, it displaces a native.
Invasive plants do not encounter diseases, weather conditions, foraging animals, competitors or pests that would keep them in check in their homeland.
Impact of Invasive Plants
Their phenomenal growth allows invasive species to overwhelm and displace existing vegetation and form dense one-species stands. Invasive plants can spread to natural areas due to wind, water flow, birds and other wildlife and other factors, causing significant ecological harm.
They can alter fire frequencies, soil chemistry and erosion rates – all with detrimental effects on native plants and animals. They can degrade or change wildlife habitat, food quality and availability. They can displace native plants through competition for water, nutrients, light or space for establishment. They can also alter native populations through hybridization.
Invasive species should not be used in our landscapes because they are degrading our native plant communities and ecosystems. Second only to habitat loss, invasives are a major factor in the decline of native plants. Plants such as kudzu are displacing native plants and degrading habitat for native insects, birds and wildlife. Endangered, rare, and threatened native species of plants and animals are especially at risk because they often occur in such small populations that make them particularly vulnerable.
A practical reason to avoid invasive plants in your landscape is that even when grown in a cultivated yard, they can spread, escape, and cause maintenance and eradication problems for years to come. In short, invasive plant infestations can be extremely expensive to control, as well as be environmentally destructive.
What can I do about invasive plants?
Prevention is key when it comes to invasive plants, but the following actions help ensure that your landscape will be sustainable:
- Make sure no invasive plants are growing in your landscape. This practice is the best insurance against future problems. Invasive plants should not be used around homes or communities because they can escape cultivation and aggressively move into surrounding ecosystems.
- Remove any invasive plants currently in your landscape in a responsible manner and replace with regionally appropriate native species.
- Minimize landscape disturbance. Invasive plants thrive on bare soil and disturbed ground where the native plant community has been displaced.
- Be cautious if using fertilizers. High nitrogen levels sometimes give an advantage to invasive species that are better adapted to using plentiful nutrients for explosive growth. For soil fertility in sustainable landscapes, use organic slow-composting compost and mulches.
- Have a land management plan for maintenance over time.
- Scout your property annually for invasives. The best way to control invasives is prevention, and prevention can only happen through vigilance.
- Remove any new invasives as they appear while their densities are low. This gives the most immediate success because invasive plant control works best where there is a functioning native plant community still in place which can move in and fill the empty niche.