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Green Landscaping: Greenacres

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Frequently Asked Questions  

Q: What is a native plant?

A: For the purposes of the materials on this web site, native plants are defined as all species indigenous to, or that originated in, a region at the time of European settlement. We are looking back and using this pre-European settlement snapshot as a model upon which to base our efforts to restore or replenish the land.

Q: I have heard that I should only buy plants or seeds which originated from my local area. Is this true?

A: Another way to phrase this question is "how native is native"? Though a particular species of plant may exist in prairies in both Iowa and Illinois, over time that species adapted in slightly different ways, adjusting to the different conditions in each of those areas. Utilizing plants which originated in a local area builds upon this unique adaptation, and is geared toward maintaining the integrity of the local gene-pool.

"How native is native", or how far away can a plant or seed come from and still be considered native to a local area, is a tough question. There is a range of opinions about what the answer should be.

One line of thought is that plants and seeds introduced or planted in an area need to come from very close to the area being planted. For instance, the North Branch Prairie Project in the Chicago area requires that the seeds used in prairie restoration originate from native plants within 15 miles of the restoration site.

Others believe that it is important to look at how each particular plant species naturally spreads their seeds. Following this reasoning, if a plant's seeds are naturally disbursed through the wind, plant/seed sources from a relatively wide geographic range are acceptable. If the plant's seeds are eaten and then deposited by animals with a limited range, sources for the plants/seeds would need to originate from a closer geographic area. 

Still others believe that as long as the native variation species originated in a specific type of ecosystem (e.g. prairie), the genetic variation is inconsequential. In their opinion, it is appropriate to use the plant/seeds in other similar ecosystems no matter where the geographic location.

Most of these "how native is native" seed source issues have surfaced around designing the restoration work for degraded natural areas. And while the scale for restoring ecosystems and planting wild gardens is certainly different, there are many similarities. Both are improving the environment. For a gardening setting, you need to decide, as steward of your land, where you lie along this spectrum of opinions. As a practical matter, you may find that there are not enough local seed sources to fill the demand from gardeners looking for native seeds. Whatever you decide, it is important to note that by planting native plants you will be providing a variety of vegetation for birds, butterflies and beneficial insects to find food and shelter in. As a rule of thumb, buy plants or seeds from garden centers or nurseries with seed sources that originated as close as possible to the area where you want to plant them.

Q: Should the native plants be raised in nurseries? Can they come directly from natural areas?

A: As important as it is to use plant stock from your local area, it is important that the native plants and seeds themselves do not come directly from the natural areas. Poaching of plants and seeds from wild areas will eventually deplete these areas of the seed stock they need to be self sustaining. Responsible nurseries and garden centers raise the native plants themselves, or otherwise ensure that the plants that they sell were not stolen from the wild. Often nurseries will receive seed stock from the stewards of natural areas. Plants from this wild seed are crossed with the nursery plants of the same species to ensure that the native plants sold remain strong and hardy. Many of these reinvigorated plants are returned to the natural areas where they originated. Others are sold for native landscaping.

Q: If I'm not going to use fire to maintain the native plants in my back yard, can I still use native plants in my landscaping?

A: Controlled burns are used to maintain prairies in natural areas. The fire serves to burn away all of the vegetative materials so that the bare soil can be directly warmed by the sun. Since it is not appropriate to set fire next to building structures or in enclosed garden settings, mowing your native landscaping will perform the same function as the burning. By mowing down your native landscaping in early spring, and removing the debris from the area, the exposed soil will be warmed by the sun, and thus mimic the natural fire cycle. Mowing can be done every spring, or you can rotate by mowing portions of your yard in the fall, or letting portions grow untouched for a few seasons. Each technique favors different plants, and thus encourages a variety of plants to emerge. Contact your local garden center, nursery, or other experts with experience in native plantings for specific suggestions appropriate for your yard.

Q: If I only want to use some native plants in my landscaping, are there certain non-native plants which I should be wary of?

A: Yes. A number of non-native exotic plants have become problems in our natural areas. To help slow the spread of these species, you should try to avoid their use. Some of these plants may start in flower gardens and spread to natural areas. They often squeeze out the diverse native vegetation, and do not provide the cover or food for wildlife. An example is purple loosestrife, which has invaded many of our wetlands, has little value for our wildlife. Some states have declared some of these plants as noxious weeds, and their sale is prohibited. However, such laws are usually enacted after the plant has already become a serious problem. Because it is difficult to list all the plants that should be avoided, you should contact your state natural resource agency or local conservation groups before purchasing plants. Better yet, just stick with the natives!

Q: What is meant by 'restoring an ecosystem'?

A: When restoring an ecosystem, we help the land to regain the balance of native plants that were originally found on the site prior to European settlement. With restoration, we are not expecting everything to be exactly as it was 150 years ago since we don't have all of the pieces. By removing exotic plants that have moved in and sometimes taken over an area, we allow for the conditions that let the variety of native plants, and the birds and animals which depend on them, flourish in balance. Once restored and properly maintained, the diverse web of plants and animals will remain stable for generations to come.

Q: What is the difference between using native plants in my garden and restoring an ecosystem?

A: Restoration work involves working with the seed bank in the soil of natural areas or replenishing that seed bank with native plants in order to reestablish the original functioning ecosystem - the web of life. Through restoration work degraded areas will return to the self sustaining areas that they were.

Garden situations are different. The soil in residential areas is often imported from else where, or so disturbed that it no longer contains the seed memory which it originally held. Though it is not possible to recreate the complex ecosystem which originally inhabited the area where your garden now stands, planting native plants will help improve the environment. For instance, by planting certain native flowers, you will signal to the birds and butterflies to return to the area. Also, since the native plants had originally adapted to the soil and climate conditions in your area they will be very hardy and tolerate heat and drought well.

Q: What is biodiversity? Why is it important?

A: Biodiversity, also called "biological diversity" or "ecological diversity", refers to the variety of life on earth. Biodiversity is often looked at on three levels - the ecosystem level, the species level, and the genetic level. An ecosystem includes all the plants and animals in an area, together with their physical-chemical environment. Examples of ecosystems include prairies, forests, and wetlands. In each ecosystem there are populations of individual species, such as purple coneflowers. These individual species are only found in specific types of ecosystems. At a genetic level, the gene pool found within groups of purple coneflowers in different geographic regions vary slightly because they have adapted to the different environmental conditions.

In order to be healthy and sustainable, an ecosystem needs to be filled with a wide array of plants and animals indigenous to the area. In addition to providing food and shelter to birds and animals, a healthy ecosystem provides many services to society. For instance, a healthy forest ecosystem can prevent soil erosion, reduce flooding, detoxify chemicals in air and water, improve the local climate, and sequester carbon that would otherwise contribute to global climate change. Also, the genetic material in wild plants and animals may have great potential value in medicine and industry.

Q: What is the difference between natural landscaping, native landscaping, and beneficial landscaping?

A: These terms are used somewhat interchangeably. For the purposes of this Internet homepage, we are defining the terms as follows. Native landscaping refers to the use of plants - for example, prairie grasses, woodland and wetland plants - that flourished here prior to occupation of the region by settlers from eastern North America and Europe.

Natural landscaping implies the use of native plants but has slightly broader implications because it also suggests landscaping to give the "look" of the landscape that existed before the mid-1800s." With natural landscaping native plants will be used; there may also be an attempt to restore or reconstruct the landscape to look and function more as it did prior to settlement.

Beneficial landscaping applies to a whole array of landscaping techniques that help retain natural landscape features of the undeveloped site (including wetlands, woodlands, and natural drainage features), reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizers, reduce the heating and cooling needs for buildings (shading, windbreaks), and reduce the need for internal combustion engines to drive landscape maintenance equipment. It also includes designing the site to incorporate natural drainage approaches such as swales and vegetated "filter strips" in contrast to storm sewers and artificial drainage channels. Both native and natural landscaping fit into this category.

These terms are relatively new. It can be expected that their definitions will be fluid. None of these definitional problems should obscure the basic concepts. (Refer to the Tool Kit for Local Governments.)

Q: Will native plants attract rats?

A: No. Actually, natural vegetation does not provide the sort of food in quantities required to sustain a population of vermin. Some small mammals like mice, gophers and moles live in grassy areas, but do not pose a health threat. You may want to leave a mowed strip of two to three feet around your house as the weather turns cold to discourage mice from having easy access to your home. Moles and gophers do not enter homes.

Q: Will native plants encourage fire?

A: Fires, or prescribed burns, are necessary to maintain natural prairie systems. In areas where burning is not practicable, such as in an urban garden or next to buildings, mowing will serve the same maintenance function as fires. By mowing and removing the plant debris from the site in the early spring, you will expose the soil to the sun's warming rays and thus promote growth of the native plants. An interesting fact about fires: Plant fires, such as prescribed burns, can only sustain high heat for about 20 seconds. In order to ignite wood and sustain a fire that could damage a home, the fire would have to burn within four feet of the structure for seven and-a-half minutes.

Q: Will native plants attract or allow mosquitoes to breed?

A: No. In fact natural landscapes (other than recreated wetlands) discourage the pools of standing water that are required for mosquitoes to breed. Mosquitoes require 10 days of standing water to complete their life cycle.

Q: Will native plants increase the pollen and my allergies?

A: Probably not. While there are few native plants that give off the allergic-type of pollens, most of the native plants are insect pollinated, not air pollinated. It is the pollen in the air that triggers allergic reactions. The plants responsible for most pollen allergens are not native to the Great Lakes such as, ragweeds (Ambrosia spp.), pigweeds (Amaranthus spp.), a few species of goosefoot (Chenopodium), and unmown nonindigenous turf and pasture grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass, Bermuda, orchard grass, redtop, and timothy.

Information based on: 1. The Wild Lawn Handbook: Alternatives to the Traditional Front Lawn. Written by Stevie Daniels. 2. Wild Ones: Natural Landscapers, Ltd.


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