Now that the seasons of colorful blooms are here, planting an eclectic variety of native plants in a front or backyard garden is an eco-friendly idea that is catching on.
"Today's gardens have moved so far away from gardens in the past. But now people are putting more and more color back in, and with that comes the butterflies, bees and other wildlife," says Patti Staley, head grower/horticulturist at the Oak Park Conservatory. "There is something to be said about our native habitat, and what these lands once were, so why not introduce the prairie plants back that once were here?"
To punctuate this point, last July the Oak Park Conservatory, 615 Garfield St., installed a serene spot, the Herbert M. Rubenstein Memorial Garden, a demonstration space with a blue stone patio and benches where plant lovers can view a variety of shade and sun-loving native and cultivar species that could work in a home landscape.
"Creating a whole bio-diverse ecosystem is one good way, especially if the system is balanced, for fewer diseases and fewer predatory insects that damage our plants," says Henrietta Yardley, manager at the Oak Park Conservatory. "You are also cutting down on some of the inputs. The native plants require less water, in that once they are established they do not need to be watered as much as, let's say, impatiens would or begonias or marigolds. They also require less in the way of fertilizers. Once they are established they will take care of themselves. So, again, you are keeping those chemical fertilizers, [and fungicides], out of the environment, which is very beneficial."
Outside, in view, for example, is mountain mint, a native that attracts pollinators, especially the butterflies and bees.
"The bees are all over it in the summertime. It is amazing," says Yardley.
In addition, Staley says that a few other sure-fire picks for home gardeners can range from flowering and fruit bearing shrubs such as Viburnum, to natives like Virginia Bluebells, Bleeding Hearts, Golden Alexander and False Indigo, to the bright or pastel hues of Black-eyed Susans, Cone Flowers, Coreopsis, Blazing Star, and the reds, oranges or yellows of Butterfly Weed.
"These are plants that can be put into a home garden very easily, as well as plants that encourage the insects and wild life in our community," Yardley adds.
Planting prairie grasses such as Big and Little Blue Stem, she adds, and leaving the seed heads on those and the dying off flowers over the winter months, tends to attract, and feed, a variety of local and migrating birds.
Yardley says that planting particular varieties of natives can also help control destructive plant pests by attracting more beneficial insects into a garden. But engaging in the practices of integrated pest management is all about achieving ecological balance.
"Certainly ladybugs are good, and praying mantis's, but the thing about a praying mantis is that it eats everything, including other beneficial insects, so they are good, but you don't want too many of them, or they will wipe out the population," she says.
Yardley hopes the conservatory's new native garden will help and inspire local gardeners to get started planning one of their own.
"It is going to look a little wilder than some of the more manicured gardens, because the plant material is not necessarily well-behaved, and over time the seeds are going to drop and sprout and spread around," she says. "So, a native garden will be a garden that changes from year to year, and we think that is good, a more natural way to do things."