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Alternative Lifestyles: Planting with Nature in Mind

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For many gardeners, the term “invasive plant” spreads terror and discord, creating waves of anxiety and resentment. Currently, invasive plants are defined to be non-native, exotic aliens which reproduce furiously, replacing native plant species and complex self-sustaining ecosystems with, in some cases, biological deserts or monocultures.

The same qualities that make these plants invasive–they reproduce freely, grow voraciously and are virtually indestructible–ensure that they will become champion garden-trade species.

One way to think of invasive species is to think of all the weeds we do not want in our own gardens. The worst ones are those that creep in from our neighbors’ untended yards. Think “running bamboo,” and understand the feelings of those who are tasked with protecting natural areas. They are gardening with a “native-only” concept, and we are gardening with the “anything goes” model. This situation makes for uneasy neighbors, and opportunities for stress and discord.

Not all invasive species were introduced by gardeners or garden centers. Many simply hitched a ride on the bottom of a boot or in the cargo hold of a transport ship; even in the crates of packing materials we use to ship our consumer goods. But some, like kudzu, were originally introduced by the horticulture industry (1876), even though it took federal help to establish kudzu in our southern landscapes.

Callery pear hybrids abound in the mid-Atlantic region as a highly recognizable invasive species, and are still recommended by local government agencies (Prince George’s County tree) as a street tree choice, even though the tree is almost always a bad long term landscaping solution.

When choosing plants for your garden, you should know the needs of each plant you select. Does it need light or shade; what are the optimum soil types; how wet or dry is best for your species; and what are the potential impacts on your immediate and regional ecosystem? Using native alternatives to invasive plants reduces the environmental impact and allows you to concentrate on the right plant in the right place.

What are some of the bad actors and what can we replace them with? Lythrum, or purple loosestrife, is a spike-flowered invasive perennial which can be replaced in the garden by Liatris spicata (also known as gay feather or blazing star), an excellent native alternative. Liatris is easily grown in average, medium-wet, well-drained soils in full sun. Once established, liatris tolerates poor soils, drought, summer heat and humidity, but is intolerant of wet soils in winter. The two foot tall clump-forming perennial has long spikes of rounded, fluffy, deep purple flower heads, appearing atop rigid, erect, leafy flower stalks.

If you are seeking a long summer bloomer to match the floral display of lythrum, try hybrid hibiscus such as ‘Lord Baltimore.’ Huge flowers, reliably perennial and fast growing, this plant will fill the summer and fall garden with knock-your-socks-off beauty until frost. Although they prefer wet soils, I have seen them tolerate some fairly dry conditions. And since they grow so fast, they can out-compete many pests, such as another invasive species, the Japanese beetle.

Another bad actor is English ivy. Drive through Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC (or the grounds of my house, and probably your house, too), and the evergreen vine which is pulling off branches of the shade trees is Hedera helix. It is tough to beat English ivy for an all-purpose, practical, indestructible, inexpensive and easy-to-grow ground cover. You do not need to weed it, feed it, water it, mow it, trim it or think about it until it pulls down a major shade tree or your gutter system to your house.

A terrific alternative is Pachysandra procumbens, or Allegheny spurge. This plant is native to the eastern United States and is not to be confused with the evergreen pachysandra you are used to seeing everywhere; that one is not native, and shows up on some “good plants gone bad” lists. Allegheny spurge is best in rich, moist soils and grows to around 12 inches high. It will grow in shade to part shade. In mild winters it may be partially evergreen.

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Another great native alternative, Polystichum acrostichoides, Christmas fern, grows in the natural areas of the mid-Atlantic. An absolutely wonderful, shade loving, no-maintenance plant, it has the additional feature of being evergreen. It thrives under trees, and can often be seen in quite dry conditions. Planted en masse, this 24 inch tall species is a workhorse of the shade garden.

An added bonus is that the Eastern white-tailed deer, with its voracious appetite and very bad manners, will eat almost anything else before the Christmas fern. In fact I have a rule which states that deer eat five hundred dollar exotics first, followed by many rare and endangered natives second, and then pretty much everything else. The Christmas fern manages to find a way off of the dinner menu and thus is a perfect choice for a native, natural, and non-controversial landscape solution.

There are other Maryland natives which are easily found in nurseries and can be used as groundcovers, including Tiarella cordifolia, or foam flower, with white flowers and a preference for moist shade locations. Another is Phlox stolonifera, or woodland phlox, in pinks, blues, and whites, which rise to 8 inches tall when in bloom in April.

As a rule, vines are troublesome. Their rambling nature predisposes them to invasiveness. A list of vines which have gotten loose in natural areas is a list of the naturalists’ most abhorred. Consider porcelain berry, Japanese and Chinese wisterias, Asiatic bittersweet, Japanese or Hall’s honeysuckle: these plants terrorize natural areas and native ecosystems. But all is not lost, for there are many well behaved native alternatives such as Wisteria frutescens, or American wisteria, which produces a gentler, not-so-over-the-top inflorescence and a willingness to live with its neighbors, gently draping itself across lateral tree branches.

If you don’t mind dealing with its aggressive tendencies, then the native trumpet vine, Campsis radicans, is for you. Although aggressive to the point of being rampant, it provides brilliantly colored flowers which serve to attract hummingbirds. The orange, yellow or red flowers are true show stoppers.

Anotimg_5411.gifher great native alternative, Polystichum acrostichoides, Christmas fern, grows in the natural areas of the mid-Atlantic. An absolutely wonderful, shade loving, no-maintenance plant, it has the additional feature of being evergreen. It thrives under trees, and can often be seen in quite dry conditions. Planted en masse, this 24 inch tall species is a workhorse of the shade garden.

An added bonus is that the Eastern white-tailed deer, with its voracious appetite and very bad manners, will eat almost anything else before the Christmas fern. In fact I have a rule which states that deer eat five hundred dollar exotics first, followed by many rare and endangered natives second, and then pretty much everything else. The Christmas fern manages to find a way off of the dinner menu and thus is a perfect choice for a native, natural, and non-controversial landscape solution.

There are other Maryland natives which are easily found in nurseries and can be used as groundcovers, including Tiarella cordifolia, or foam flower, with white flowers and a preference for moist shade locations. Another is Phlox stolonifera, or woodland phlox, in pinks, blues, and whites, which rise to 8 inches tall when in bloom in April.

As a rule, vines are troublesome. Their rambling nature predisposes them to invasiveness. A list of vines which have gotten loose in natural areas is a list of the naturalists’ most abhorred. Consider porcelain berry, Japanese and Chinese wisterias, Asiatic bittersweet, Japanese or Hall’s honeysuckle: these plants terrorize natural areas and native ecosystems. But all is not lost, for there are many well behaved native alternatives such as Wisteria frutescens, or American wisteria, which produces a gentler, not-so-over-the-top inflorescence and a willingness to live with its neighbors, gently draping itself across lateral tree branches.

If you don’t mind dealing with its aggressive tendencies, then the native trumpet vine, Campsis radicans, is for you. Although aggressive to the point of being rampant, it provides brilliantly colored flowers which serve to attract hummingbirds. The orange, yellow or red flowers are true show stoppers.

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By: John Peter Thompson, for more information on invasive species and sustainable, conservation landscaping go to his web log, INVASIVE NOTES 

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