Going Native - Gardening with Native Plants

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It's spring and gardeners everywhere are out most weekends in search of new plants. But this isn't your ordinary plant sale. Here at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, many people are looking for something you can't find just anywhere - they're looking for native plants.

Frances Hatzo: I'm Frances Hatzo, Shaker Heights. We're beginning gardeners. We garden when we have time. We like the idea of buying things that sort of fit with the environment.

Horticulturist Craig Limpach of Elyria, who rescues many of the native specimens sold here from construction sites, says the average garden harbors plants like roses, tulips and chrysanthemums that are actually world-travelers.

Craig Limpach: Your typical garden has a collection of plants from all over the world. And they can cause big problems, too, because a lot of them escape into the wild. You know purple loosestrife was originally a garden plant. And it's a huge problem now. Millions of dollars, tax dollars being spent to eradicate it.

Limpach says escaping garden plants can crowd out native species. Even exotic imports that stay where you plant them can sometimes take a lot of pampering. But Limpach says a native plant is one that grew up right here and as such has some distinct advantages, especially for beginning gardeners. And he says the choices are almost limitless.

Craig Limpach: These guys don't need any fertilizer, any extra water, any extra attention - as long as they're panted in the right place. We've got wild ginger, blood root, white wood aster, ladyferns, blue cohosh, fall solomon's seal. hypatica, later trillium, wild-leaf sedge...

Beth Cagan: It took a while for me to be convinced that you could have flowers that were really bright and colorful and interesting of shape, different sizes.

Cleveland Heights resident Beth Cagan and her husband Steve have spent the last several years converting their small perennial garden into one that boasts mostly native plants. While both like the idea of plants that don't require chemicals that can harm the environment, Beth also had other priorities.

Beth Cagan: Most people pick flower gardens on the basis of... aesthetic concerns. And the perennials that are not native are very beautiful. The native flowers we would see in the woods were much more subtle in their colors and a bit less showy.

But Beth was sold when she saw the wildlife that flocked to their garden.

Beth Cagan: This is where the goldfinches feast every day. Those tall ones on the left is a cup-flower. And the other one is a joe-pye weed. And they grow very large and they're lovely to look at and the birds just love them.

Steve Cagan: We're not zealots, we don't tell people they must change their gardens, but we'd like to see more people doing this. I think every homeowner who moves his or her property into native plants is taking a step back towards some environmental balance.

But one person's wildflower can be another person's weed. Across town in the city of Beachwood, homeowner Richard Hyams is having (just such) a disagreement with a neighbor who objects to the tall stands of purple asters and goldenrod in his fall front garden beds.

Richard Hyams: One neighbor in particular. The other neighbor doesn't mind. I did try talking to her, but I didn't get a very civil response. And I think they look really nice.

Hyam says he was cited a couple of years ago over a city ordinance that restricts the height of floral displays. Later he says he got a letter from the city congratulating him on beautifying the neighborhood. That mixed message is one Oberlin College biology professor David Benzing says is still common when it comes to gardening with native plants. At the eco-friendly building that houses the Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, Benzing says he's extended the teaching lesson about sustainable design to the center's exterior landscaping.

David Benzing: Here's the wetland that does offend some people. And as you can see, it is pretty natural-looking. And I'm sure that people who've gone by here and have looked at this site have thought to themselves... wow, I hope this doesn't turn off too many of our parents of students or visitors, prospective students.

But Benzing says no matter whether a garden is wild or well-kept, mimicking the natural ecosystem by adding native plants can teach anyone a greater respect for the environment. And he believes that's a lesson worth learning. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

Native Plant Book Suggestions
by Craig Limpach, Genius Loci - Native Landscape Design (Elyria)

* The Native Plant Primer, Carole Ottesen, Harmony Books, New York, 1995
* The Natural Habitat, Ken Druse, Clarkson N Potter Publishers, 1994
* Landscaping with Native Trees, James Wilson and Guy Sternberg, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996

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