Reimagine Gardening with Natives!

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoying the nursery stock.

“Native” is becoming a buzzword these days. But that’s fine with me – I actually think it should be a bigger buzzword. Native plants are important! Today I’m going to tell you why.

This may be one of the most important blog posts of the year. I hope you’ll read till the end.

As human activity increases, land for wildlife decreases. As new business and housing plans go up, wild habitats for native plants and animals are eliminated. Pittsburgh, Monroeville, Murrysville, and Plum are no exception.

An in depth 2019 Smithsonian study revealed that bird populations have plummeted by a third since the 1970s. Scientists, greatly concerned about the dwindling firefly populations, have launched “Firefly Watch” with Mass Audubon. The Xerces Society reports that the Monarch population is down 53% from last year, with a 97% drop from the 1980s. The Center for Biological Diversity has reported that of the 4,000 native bees in North America, more than half with sufficient data reveal a decline.

Nestling American Robins at home in the nursery stock.

Let’s face it, the majority of this is due to human activity. All of us contribute to it. When we raze woodlands and drain wetlands to build, and send waste to landfills, we take away habitat from the creatures in our local biomes. When we use insecticides and herbicides carelessly, we disrupt insect populations and food chains. When we leave porch lights on and utilize uplighting on our homes, we disrupt communication between nocturnal insects such as fireflies and native moths.

I love the planet we live on. I love the Greater Pittsburgh area and southwest PA. It makes me sad to hear these statistics. This is worsened with the continual encroachment of invasive plants, animals and fungi, such as Japanese Knotweed, Emerald Ash Borer, and Chestnut Blight which are further choking our local ecosystems. Walking various trails at Frick and Schenley tend to make me more melancholic than anything with the amount of invasive flora that has smothered out the forest floors. I’ll admit I’m a tree hugger…but maybe that means I’m in the right industry.

Even our state animal, the graceful White Tailed Deer, has become a hindrance to healthy biomes. With human activity, their predators have diminished, thus leading to abnormally high deer populations. Their feeding habits have slowed forest and meadow regeneration throughout Pennsylvania, and they now have moved into suburbia.

This post might be seen as gloomy but it’s intentional. Sometimes the truth hurts and the truth is that our activity has caused a lot of damage to the beauty of the natural world. With that said, we won’t end on this note. There is a big way for us to help.

The way to do this is to plant more native plants in our landscapes!

An American Robin enjoying ripening serviceberries at Carnegie Mellon University.

You see, native plants invite native, beneficial insects. These insects, while wonderful in their own right, make up the base of local food chains. They are critical for bird populations, which feed their young a diet entirely of insects – including hummingbirds! Additionally, many of these plants entice birds themselves with nutritious berries and attractive nesting sites. I think we’d all like to see more pollinators and birds, right?

A Monarch butterfly enjoying the nectar from a wild native aster. Asters are great fall flowering perennials to add to the garden.

We have an opportunity to give back to our local ecosystem here in southwest PA. If we take land for our homes and businesses, the least we can do is plant appropriate plants that re-invite displaced creatures back in. We should not try and dominate our local biome; we should live in harmony with it.

For much of gardening history, planting exotic and foreign plants have been the desire of most horticulturalists and amateur gardeners. Certainly a Japanese cherry or a Grandiflora rose are a delight to have in the garden!  By the mid 20th century, expansive lawn became explosively popular, which are a food desert for pollinators. But now it’s time to re-imagine gardening. It’s time to re-imagine gardening with the native plants we have had in our local ecosystems all along.

The Smithsonian study estimates that to sustain current bird population levels, our gardens and landscapes need to consist of at least 70% native plants. So I go by this recipe. Keep your Japanese maples and your showy roses. Keep your grandma’s azalea and mom’s hydrangea. But plant at least 70% native plants.

The Pennsylvania Native Plant Society says a “native plant is one that occurs naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without direct or indirect human intervention.” This begs the next question; how do you figure out what’s native to your area?

Smooth Hydrangea (H. arborescens) is a native shrub to our area. Proven Winners has several cultivars available, including Wee White® which is a great plant for small spaces and perennial beds.

Native Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) is loved by hummingbird flowers and is a semi-evergreen perennial.

Two organizations can help with this. Both the Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation have a tool on their websites where you can type in your zip code and a list will be generated on what plants naturally grow in your locality. While there are many plants that are native across the whole state, this “search by zip code” is important as there are some plants that eastern PA has that are not native here, and vice versa. I especially love the Audubon’s tool which allows you to search through different categories, including shrubs, trees, perennials, and grasses. Their tool also has a “top results” section which allows you to find plants that are likely the most obtainable and aesthetically pleasing for gardens.

We carry many native plants in the garden center. We also carry many “nativars” as well. A “nativar” is a cultivated variety of a native plant. An example would be Hello Yellow Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’). Hello Yellow was bred in a nursery for yellow flowers while only straight orange flowering Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is what you find in the wild.

Generally speaking, “nativars” are just as good for native plant gardening as the original species. Often, nativars are bred for more floriferous or compact habits so they are more desirable in the garden. But there are exceptions. A double flowering coneflower, for example, will have less accessible nectar and seed than ones with a simpler bloom. If you have specific questions about a nativar, shoot us an email or come in and we will help you out.

Viburnum nudum ‘Brandywine’ has outstanding fall color and pink to blue ornamental fruits.

Now, let me share a few of my favorite native plants with you.

Possumhaw Viburnum (Viburnum nudum) is a medium sized shrub that is good for a border. It hosts wonderful white flowers, glossy green leaves, fantastic red fall color, and fall ornamental fruit. It has excellent cultural durability and superb deer resistance. We usually carry the cultivars ‘Winterthur’ and ‘Brandywine’ which are smaller and more compact.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a medium to large shrub that is superb for that stubborn wet spot in the landscape. It hosts unique summer flowers  (which look like the depictions of the coronavirus!) which pollinators love, and creates a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and yellows in the fall. The butterflies love it and it serves as host plant for some majestic, native moths. We carry a Proven Winners cultivar called “Sugar Shack” which is a dwarf and a good foundational plant.

Sugar Shack® Buttonbushes is one of my favorite shrubs, with lush green foliage spring through summer, and great fall color.

Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) is our largest native pine. The cones of this graceful tree provide seeds for birds and chipmunks, as well as nesting sites in spring and cover in winter. We also carry specimens such as the Weeping White Pine (Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’). This tree needs some room to grow but is absolutely garden worthy!

Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) is a native species of phlox that thrives in semi-shaded areas although I have seen it grow in sunnier spots. This species is a groundcover much like the more commonly planted creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), which is also native.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) is an underappreciated but lovely garden perennial. It blooms at a time when many others are not, providing nectar for pollinators at the end of the season. Deer don’t bother it and contrary to popular belief, is not responsible for allergies. There are several native species to our area. I like Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’, with panicle-shaped blooms that resemble golden fireworks.

Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’. A show stopper when planted in clusters.

Keep in mind, however, that more than blooms alone are required for pollinators. Monarch butterflies do enjoy butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.) but their young require native milkweed to feed on (Asclepias sp.). All insects require host plants for their young and many times they aren’t as show or as floriferous. More beneficial insects means more birds!

A Monarch butterfly caterpillar eating milkweed (Asclepias sp.) in my garden. If we want to see butterflies and other pollinators, we have to embrace caterpillars.

Every year, birds make nests in the nursery stock. This year a mama Robin made a nest at eye level in a Vanderwolf Pine (Pinus flexilis “Vanderwolf”). It was fun to see her constantly fly away and return to the nest with food for her two nestlings. Customers enjoyed seeing them too and I always appreciated their willingness to select other pines from the stock, leaving the pine with the nest be until they flew away.

Sleepy nestling American Robins in the Vanderwolf Pine.

Birds are amazing but there are other important animals too. Reptiles and amphibians need help as many of their populations are at risk. I’m always delighted to see Eastern American Toads at the nursery. In my last post, I encouraged people to add a water feature to the garden. A pond or a low basin is a great way to invite these incredible animals to your garden.

As I noted above, lawns are a food desert for pollinators. They provide little food and shelter for insects, birds, or other native animals. And in my opinion, from an aesthetics point of view, they are often wasted potential where otherwise beautiful low-maintenance plants could flourish. Although they might be good for active children to play on, I often consider lawns to be a bad habit. People desire them because everyone else has them. It’s a habit that deserves an upgrade. At my house, the lawn is being reduced to become garden pathways.


An Eastern American Toad sunbathing in the sun shrub area at the garden center.

Last year, I attended an event for a new local environmental initiative called “ReImagine the TurtleCreek Watershed and Airshed Communities.” This group is a community led initiative aimed to foster a greener future for southwest PA. It is filled with inspiring people and the word “re-imagine” has since resonated with me. I feel this is a perfect word for how we should approach gardening. For too long many have thought of natives as ratty or ugly while favoring gaudy exotics. While I believe the former statement is simply inaccurate, I think in regards to the latter, it’s time we re-imagine gardening.

An Eastern Milk Snake (non-venomous) hiding in a flat of annuals.

Keep your Japanese cherry, your azalea, and your hydrangea. They’re lovely. Keep your boxwood hedge and your topiaries. I’m not suggesting you remove beloved plants that are healthy and happy. But we do need a paradigm adjustment. Perhaps start with reducing your lawn and adding some more planting beds. Let’s re-imagine gardening from garish exotics and lawn alone to including our simple yet refined natives. Here at Plumline, we can help you do just that.

Stay tuned for my next post which will outline hardy native alternatives for many mid-century garden plants, plus more of my favorites!

A native rain garden at Carnegie Mellon University, visible from Forbes Ave. Most visible are the flowering Baptisia and the stately Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica).



Photos provided by Proven Winners and the author.