Plan before you plant

With all of the plant choices out there now, things can get confusing. We see a shrub, tree or flower and decide we just have to have one in our garden. We should be doing more research into how a plant can help or harm our environment, instead of just looking for the pretty face to contribute to the landscape. Gardeners have an obligation to make sure their little corner of the Earth grows for its good instead of harm. One of the best ways we can do this is to make sure the plants we grow benefit the planet. Depending on where you live, a plant can either be an asset to the environment, or a handicap. It’s up to us to select the plants that enhance and help everything that lives there. We should do our due diligence when selecting plants for our gardens and avoid those that are invasive or pose no help to humans or wildlife and insects. So, with a little research, we can plant something similar to the undesirable species that is an asset.

broken bradford pear

Bradford pears are a no-no

The first undesirable plant that we should avoid is the Bradford or Callery pear. These trees are still very popular in the nursery trade and people love the clouds of white blooms every spring. They are short-lived and prone to splitting and damage every time the wind blows or there’s an ice storm. The trees also produce viable seeds and their children are invasive, clogging up vacant fields and fence rows. The saplings also sport long, strong thorns that can puncture a tire and there are no insects that use them as a host plant. They’re cheap and just about anyone can afford one, so they are seen in homeowner’s yards and commercial plantings. There are better choices that help the environment instead of doing it harm.


Serviceberrys are a great native alternative

The serviceberry (Amelanchier aborea) is a native tree that is an all-around benefit to the environment. The white blooms in the spring welcome the season and the berries are edible and make great jams and jellies. Birds love them as well and the trees are host plants for a number of different butterfly species. Why should you plant a tree that does no good for the Earth when you can plant a native tree that helps the birds, bees and humans?

redbud in bloom

Redbuds benefit wildlife and humans

Another alternative is the redbud tree (Cercis canadensis). This native tree blooms in early spring with bright pink blossoms that are irresistible to early-foraging bees. They provide nectar for the early butterflies and even migrating hummingbirds as they make their way north. They are also host plants for a number of butterflies and moths. The blooms even make a tasty jelly for humans, so it is an all-around beneficial tree for all parts of the environment. The blooms are edible and are tasty in salads and make safe floral decorations for cakes and pastries. A win-win for everyone.

Plant a redbud tree this spring

burning bush leaves in the fall

Please avoid the burning bush

Don’t plant a burning bush. It is highly invasive and even though it has a glorious scarlet autumn color, it isn’t good for the environment with seedlings choking out native species where the birds have spread them. They are still offered in the nursery trade, so don’t think something is non-invasive just because you see it for sale in the garden center. Educate yourself on the plants you think are attractive and make sure you aren’t introducing something harmful to your environment. There’s always an alternative.

fall color of fothergilla

Fothergilla showing fall color

viburnum showing fall color

Viburnum showing fall color

There are many native shrubs with beautiful autumn color

The native shrubs with great fall color is an impressive list. The dwarf black chokeberry is one that positively glows in the fall. Many viburnums have a great fall color as well and they are not used enough in our landscapes. Fothergillas also offer brilliant fall color and are also a good garden focal point when they bloom each spring. A number of these plants also produce berries that attract wild birds. Blueberries are surprisingly beautiful in the fall and it makes sense to let your landscaping do double-duty as a food crop instead of wasting the space on plants that do nothing for you or the environment. All of these shrubs are host plants for a number of butterflies and moths as well.

Get your own fothergilla shrub here

invasive wisteria

Wisterias are often invasive in the South

With perennials, it is all about where you live. Wisteria is a polite garden resident in some parts of the country, however in the warmer areas (zone 8 and upwards) it literally chokes the life out of any other plant or tree as it marches across the South. A drive down the interstate is beautiful in the late spring with the purple blossoms dripping from acres and acres of trees, that are slowly dying from the vines covering them. It is almost out of control even here in west Kentucky, but our winters snap the worst of it back each year. However we still have our spots where it drapes the trees and fields each spring. There is an American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) that looks almost identical to its Asian cousins, except it isn’t nearly as aggressive, so if you want the look of wisteria, choose the native.

ditch lilies by the road

Don't plant ditch lilies

Another invader that you should avoid is the common orange ditch lily. Unlike its hybrid cousins, it spreads with abandon wherever it lands and it is almost impossible to eradicate. While the hybrid cousins of the ditch lily aren’t invasive, why not plant something native instead? Nodding onion (Allium cernuum), wild false indigo (Baptisia) like in the header image, coneflowers (Echinacea), crossvines (Bignonia) and pipevines (Aistolochia) all provide nectar, pollen and host plants for many insects. Small, seed-loving songbirds also like coneflowers for the tasty seeds. Do a little research and you’ll find many native perennials that are an asset to the environment and wildlife instead of invasive plants that only take up space and multiply, choking out the natives.

Here's 1000 Echinacea seeds, plenty for you and your neighbors

Get a head start in the season with a Baptisia plant

nodding onion in bloom

Nodding onion

crossvine in bloom

Crossvine in bloom

Do your homework. It is all right there in the internet.

These are just a few examples of plant this instead of that and we should all take the time to make sure that what we are bringing in to our gardens is an asset. The time has passed where we can blindly grab anything that catches our eye. Even patio gardeners with just containers have a duty to make sure that whatever it is they are growing can’t escape and threaten natives. They can also choose native host plants and seed-bearing options. If you’re planning on a new tree, make sure it isn’t on your state’s Invasives List and that it provides shelter or food for the local wildlife or insects. The same goes for perennials and vines. Native habitat is quickly disappearing and it is up to us to try and bring some of it back. As spring arrives, we should all plant with a purpose. Encourage insects so the birds will have something to eat. They’ll leave if their food source is gone. Plant host plants for the butterflies. Replace non-native trees and shrubs with native fruit or nut-bearing options. Insects are responsible for pollinating about 70% of the world’s crops, so without them, food shortages will be a real thing. We need to take steps now to ensure that doesn’t happen, and that means using native plants, shrubs and trees that they recognize as food or as a host for their offspring.

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