Think you know about curb appeal? Landscaping urban legends busted
A big, lush lawn doesn't have to dominate your front yard. A native plant expert explains why.
Fri, Aug 02 2013 at 2:40 PM
Chickadees will keep caterpillar populations in check among plants that are native species. (Photo: Gerald A. DeBoer/Shutterstock)
Myth 2: Native plants cannot be used formally
Apparently no one told European gardeners this. Native American plants are used frequently in formal European gardens. They are also used in American gardens such as the Centennial Flower Garden in Denver, which is built out of species from the Rocky Mountains and is a replica of the gardens of Versailles.
Myth 3: Dense plantings cannot be attractive
People who have bought into this myth must have never seen a community of plants such as alternate-leaf dogwood, red maple, river birch, silverbell, possumhaw viburnum, shumard oak or coral honeysuckle in bloom, Tallamy said.
Some areas beg for dense planting. Dense screens, for example, can be used to form a living wall to separate your yard from your neighbor’s. But, Tallamy urges, don’t think of a plant screen as a hedge. Hedges, he said, are typically one kind of plant. It’s better if you have a diverse screen of several kinds of plants. One example of a dense screen could include plants of eastern red cedar (shown at right), inkberry, American holly, and Rhododendron maximum.
Another area that cries out for dense planting is the edge of a pond or lake. Grass growing down to the water’s edge is a conduit for the nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizers to leach into the water, which can cause excessive growth of aquatic plants. It’s illegal on the Chesapeake Bay to have grass growing to the water’s edge, Tallamy pointed out.
Best of all, the more plants you have, the more insect, bird and other beneficial wildlife you will attract to your landscape.
Myth 4: Native plants will be destroyed by insects
Actually, the opposite is true.
“Our studies at the University of Delaware have shown that if you build a balanced ecosystem of native plants in your yard, you will actually have less insect damage than landscapes built with introduced plants,” Tallamy said. “This is because native plants provide a diversity of prey for natural enemies, so you always have large populations of predators and parasitoids such as birds, assassin bugs, praying mantids, ladybird beetles, and parasitic wasps in your yard to keep your troublesome herbivores under control.”
As an example, he said a single pair of breeding chickadees must catch 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to rear one clutch of young. Landscapes built with introduced plants don’t make enough food for natural enemies' communities, he pointed out. If a pest, which is often introduced with the introduced plants, appears in such yards, there will not be enough predators around to keep them in check.
Myth 5: Native plants are not as pretty as non-natives
When you compare the most beautiful plants in the entire world with the plants that grow within your local food web, it is difficult to claim that local plants always win. But that is not to say that one cannot make a beautiful garden featuring native plants.
“Anyone who has ever seen plant communities of Joe Pye weed, cardinal flower, blazing star [shown at right] and black-eyed Susans knows this to be true,” Tallamy said. “Adding to the beauty of native plants are the fascinating things they do. If we learn to find the beauty in the communities of animals these plants support, they will easily trump exotic species that support nothing.”
Myth 6: Native landscapes will be scorned by your neighbors
Why would they scorn an attractive, neat, orderly, low-maintenance, low-expense landscape that can even have a formal appearance while it is holding together the ecosystem that supports them?
Myth 7: Native plants attract vermin
The vermin that people worry about the most are snakes, Tallamy said. But, he pointed out that his research showed that in 2012 only one person in the United States died from an accidental snakebite whereas many were killed by toasters, chairs and the common cold.
“We need to improve risk assessment,” he said. “The animals in our yards pose miniscule risks compared to everyday activities that do not scare us but kill us regularly — think: your car!”
If we make landscapes that support life, which is our goal, life will come. That’s a good thing.
Myth 8: Native plants are too expensive
It is actually great expanses of lawns that are expensive to maintain and start. They require large amounts of fertilizer; they must be mowed regularly in warm months; and some grasses such as fescue, a pasture grass with a normal height of 2 feet that is mowed to a height of 2 to 4 inches, require annual reseeding in the fall. Lawns are also susceptible to fungal diseases and damage from insects that don’t attract predators. Because trees have been removed and replaced with grass, lawns also act as heat sumps, absorbing large amounts of heat in the summer and increasing air conditioning costs.
Native plants, on the other hand, shade houses from the sun, reducing air conditioning costs, and are very low maintenance once they are established. Nature, after all, has programmed them to survive on their own.
Related landscaping stories on MNN:
- How to install a front yard vegetable garden
- 8 romantic garden and landscape walkways
- How to have a great lawn
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