Ah, spring! When the mind turns to gardening (that’s how we know we are getting older!).
Last weekend was the first snow-free weekend in months, and we started laying out the garden. We moved in last year, and this is the first time we really have had the chance or space for a garden. We dug up the lawn, dumped on a bit of topsoil and organic manure, and then stopped to think, “What are we going to plant?”
Our advice to you — think this out before you tear up some of your lawn. Our dilemma got us to thinking about what makes sense to plant. It really comes down to three things: 1) diversity; 2) native species; and 3) what you want from a garden.
There may be certain plants that you really love. One of us (not saying who) would gladly see the whole garden in daffodils. But there are good years and bad years for daffodils. Similarly, there are good years and bad years for the insects that pollinate daffodils and for the birds that feed on these insects. Having just one, or a few, types of plants in your garden makes for a fragile system. Having a variety of plants makes for a more robust, stable community that has a better chance of flourishing. In a year where daffodils fail, their pollinators and the birds that rely on them may have a better chance of survival.
In past articles we’ve talked about some of the risks of invasive species. When you plant something that has no native pollinators, or no native competitors, you may run into trouble. The plant may fail to thrive, or may out-compete natives and quickly spread beyond your garden — neither of which are good outcomes. Your neighbour may be less passionate about your plant and resent the spread into their garden, but more important the plant may wreak havoc on the ecosystem into which it escapes. Purple loosestrife, for example, was a very pretty ornamental when first planted in someone’s garden, but has since destroyed vast swaths of wetland throughout North America.
What you want from a garden may include food from a vegetable garden, beauty from a flower garden, or attraction of butterflies and birds. For many of us, we are looking for a combination, all of which can be attained with native species.
Some native plants you might consider include herbs such as rosemary, thyme and mint, which can be used for cooking and which will attract butterflies. You might consider perennials such as columbine, foxglove, fuchsia and dahlias, annuals such as four o’clocks, impatiens and zinnias, or bulbs such as gladiolus and irises, which have pretty flowers and are attractive to butterflies. To attract hummingbirds and song birds, consider planting snapdragons, morning glories, clematis, asters and coneflowers.
There are lots of good candidates among the native plants, so think about which ones might fit the bill. Remember that planting a variety of species will give some stability and can give you flowers throughout the spring, summer and fall. Whatever we settle on, it will be a step up from the monoculture of non-native Kentucky bluegrass it replaces.