Think native plants are too messy for your garden? A Lakeville author explains how to choose the right native for the right spot.
Master gardener Carolyn Harstad has been a fan of native plants since she first fell in love with wildflowers a few decades ago. She has a lot more company now.
When she published her first book, “Go Native!” in 1999, native plants and resources on the subject were relatively hard to find, she said. But in recent years, interest has exploded as more home gardeners have become aware of the ecological benefits and low-maintenance attributes of native plants.
Harstad’s latest book, “Got Sun? 200 Best Native Plants for Your Garden” (Indiana University Press, $28), offers a guidebook to help gardeners select the right natives for various spots in their landscape, whether they’re looking for a shrub, a vine or a low-growing perennial for a border. We caught up with the author and nature photographer at home in Lakeville.
Q: What are the biggest misconceptions about native plants?
A: One of the biggest is that they look horrible and messy, that they’re weed-like. Some of them are. But there are beautiful natives that you can use in a perennial border. A lot of native grasses are really fun, like Indian grass and little bluestem and switchgrass. The really tall plants, like silphium, cup plant, I don’t recommend. It gets too tall. It catches water, which is great for little birds and insects, but it’s a prairie plant and probably not a plant for a suburban front yard.
Q: There’s a lot of debate in gardening circles about what is truly a native plant — how do you define it?
A: I’m not a purist. I did include cultivars and hybrids in the book. Some purists will take issue with that. But it’s a book about gardening, not restoring a prairie. People think of native plants as weeds, and cultivars are plants that hybridizers worked really hard on, to get bigger flowers, for example. My big premise is to go ahead and include some natives, for butterflies and birds. Native plants are just more friendly for the environment and restore some of the ecosystem we’ve lost.
The biggest problem here [in the United States] is turf grass. It’s wall to wall. Not a lot of people have gardens.
Q: How did you first get interested in native plants?
A: When we lived in Iowa City in the ’70s, a friend of mine lived in the country and had a lot of wildflowers. I started transplanting them, rescuing them from construction sites. Then I started photographing them and lecturing to garden clubs.
Q: Do you feel validated, now that more people seem to be appreciating native plants?
A: I’m absolutely delighted! It’s wonderful to walk into a nursery and see a whole section of native plants. When I first came here in 2003, I tried to find a shrub, New Jersey tea. It’s a really nifty plant, only about 3 feet tall, with pretty little white flowers. I went to a major nursery, and they didn’t have it. They said they used to have it, but nobody bought it. The problem with natives is that people are not familiar with them. People thought buckthorn was going to be this great hedge plant, and look what happened. That’s the problem with so many of the exotic plants. They get carried away and displace native plants. I’m gratified to see a shift back. There are lots of seminars and meetings and talks about it. Ten years ago, that was not the case.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?