by Guest Ranter David Schmetterling of Montana Wildlife Gardener

It is wonderful that native plants and landscapes featuring native plants are gaining popularity.  This departure from conventional landscape design and plant selection has been in part spurred by the economic downturn and our nation’s increasing awareness of the effect of our lifestyle on our environment.  Indeed, the economy has inspired many to reevaluate their lifestyles and expenses, especially for ornamental gardens.  Converting lawn to native plant garden beds or to a vegetable garden is wonderful and will ultimately pay huge dividends to homeowners, their families and to the environment.  Although it is fantastic and encouraging to see native plants getting some attention and respect, unfortunately many are choosing native plants primarily because of the reputation that they do not require care or maintenance.

Too often I see native plants advertised as “low-” or “no-maintenance”. When teaching workshops I hear
people saying they want to plant natives because they heard they do not have to care for them or they can just plant them and ignore them.  Unfortunately, through neglect, plants die, weeds take their place and people are disillusioned by the promise of native plants and think that native plants are overrated or not as durable as exotic cultivars. 

You need to care for native plants, especially while they get established.  Inherently, periodic care, cultivation
or just maintenance define a “garden” and distinguish it from a natural area. Perhaps instead of “maintenance-free”, native plant gardens should be thought of and referred to, as “less resource-intensive”. This is probably a
more accurate and appropriate descriptor, since, in their native environment, native plants do not need soil amendments, fertilizers, pesticides, protection from hot summers or cold winters, and additional water (once established), but they do require care.

Unfortunately, failures in one’s yard can have cascading trophic-level effects (I love the opportunity to
use that phrase).  That is, the effects of poorly maintained and planned native-plant gardens can have consequences outside the owner’s garden- it gives native plants a bad name.  To paraphrase an expression, “hate the planter, not the plants”.   The lack of attention people pay to native-plant gardens does a disservice to promoting native plants as landscape alternatives, especially when the aesthetic of a native-plant landscape is a departure from the accepted norm (the norm being the French or English garden of a manicured lawn, and a few
specimen trees).  In the dry intermountain West, one of the challenges is to get people to look beyond the conventional, unsustainable landscape norms, and embrace xeri-scape aesthetics, and the aesthetic of the natural plant communities of the region (short grass prairies, in particular). 

In my area, “Trout-Friendly Lawn” signs (don’t get me started on this, inherently a “lawn” in Montana is not trout
friendly, and not just because trout don’t use lawns), and “Pesticide Free” signs abound, and have become a sort of status symbol (almost as common as a catchy, eco-something bumper sticker on a Subaru Outback).  When I see one of these lawn signs on lawn-alternative landscapes it practically signals “that is my excuse for bad garden design and laziness”.  I am reminded of the phrase, “good intentions are not good enough”.

As I have mentioned (read: ranted) in past posts on my blog, native-plant gardeners need to be thoughtful and consider the same design elements as for any landscape. Having a native-plant garden is not an excuse to have an unkempt garden.  Maintenance for a native-plant garden may be for a variety of reasons including: aesthetics,
“tidiness”, to promote undergrowth, to deadhead and prolong the bloom (though this is not very effective in our climate since we do not water), to maintain diversity of plant species and structure, or so some flowers don’t set seed.  As I often remind people, it is “xeri-scape” not”zero-scape”.

David Schmetterling is a wildlife biologist and avid native-plant and wildlife gardener.  David’s blog Montana Wildlife Gardener chronicles his
home garden on a small city lot in the middle of Missoula, Montana.