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The case for growing native plants in your gardens and pots

They make a great low-maintenance garden and the experts say they come with lots of benefits

Three pictures of flowers.

They make a great low-maintenance garden and the experts say they come with lots of benefits

Photo: (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)


As gardening season blooms and you make your plant list, consider adding native plants to your gardens and pots this year. Carolinian Canada (new window) defines native plants as "plants that existed in our region prior to European settlement; they have evolved alongside our native insect, bird and other animal species." Each province will have its own list of native plants, though there's a lot of overlap across the country.

Garden centres are stocking more native plants these days, and there are even nurseries devoted exclusively to carrying them. A growing number of books, Facebook groups, websites and garden clubs are contributing to the conversation about their benefits. They can be the foundation of a more low-maintenance garden — and there are scientific benefits of incorporating them in your gardens too. 

Ryan Godfrey, community action specialist at World Wildlife Fund Canada (new window) said that, Native plants form the foundation of healthy ecosystems and they are the best source of food and habitat and shelter that's available for, particularly, our native wildlife and pollinators. He says a second benefit is climate change mitigation and a third is that they don't require as many inputs, like water and fertiliser, since they're more resilient to climatic changes. As such they could help save you time and money, when compared with traditional gardens. 

Besides attracting pollinators and encouraging biodiversity in gardens, many native plants are great drought- and heat-resistant candidates, perfect for urban gardens. I've started to include more native plants in my own gardens (a native plant of the month club organised by Green Venture (new window) introduced me to some fantastic options), and I'm working to add more. This spring I'll be receiving an order of elderberry, lowbush blueberry and purple flowering raspberry plants that I ordered from Ontario Native Plants (new window) for a new garden.

What if you don't have a traditional backyard? Godfrey gardens using native plants on the sixth floor balcony of his apartment building and knows someone who successfully gardens on the 19th floor. I wanted to grow perennial plants on the balcony and I wanted them to come back every year, he said. Everyone told me I was silly; I've now had plants growing for eight years in a row and they keep coming back! 

Understanding your growing conditions

The key to growing native plants is understanding the growing conditions of your garden — like how much sun the area gets in a day, or whether the soil is well-draining or moist. Your garden site might mimic the conditions of a local woodland or a sunny meadow, places where native plants typically grow — or used to grow before development encroached on their home. We call that an ecological reference, said Jonas Spring, owner of Ecoman Residential Landscaping (new window). "What you're looking for is an ecosystem that exists nearby that has similar dynamics to your garden."

What may be surprising is this can also apply to urban areas with lots of concrete. Buildings are cliffs, so when you're thinking about native plants, you don't have to confine yourself to the historical ecosystem that existed in your area, he says. 

In his urban plantings for containers, walkways, walls and green roofs, Spring sources hardscape plants that include cliff and alvar plants (an alvar being a more dry, open space with little to no soil and limestone or dolostone). 

I'm on the edge of a cliff,  Godfrey said, describing his urban balcony. He uses containers larger than 35 cm in length and width and 20 cm deep, and is careful not to plant certain specimens that need to root more deeply to survive. 

Plant recommendations

Recommending native plants can be hard, because some plants are very geographically specific. But here are a few. 

I love Eastern White Cedar because it grows for 1,000 years on the cliffs of the escarpment, said Spring. People don't give it credit for how long it lives, supports wildlife and how well adapted it is to an urban environment. Spring is also the owner of Toronto Plant Market, which sells native plants to the general public, and he recommends the native annual Rock Harlequin (Corydalis sempervirens). "It has a beautiful flower, almost a bleeding heart shape," he said. "It's a crossover plant and it has appeal for people just getting into native plants and experienced gardeners also."

Everybody has to try Wild Columbine, said Godfrey. Within your region there will be a native species that makes sense for you. He also mentions Wild strawberry as a good groundcover and a goldenrod that blooms late in the season called Blue-stem Goldenrod. It has a hyacinth-like fragrance. Try a native bunch grass, they're so much fun, he added. My favourite genus are wild ryes. I have one that I grow called Canada Wild Rye. The seed head looks like a fuzzy squirrel tail bouncing around in the wind.

A new favourite that I planted in my dry front yard garden is Prairie Smoke (new window). The pinkish red flowers are a bit bud-like, but the seed heads are these wispy red, pink and white tufts that add interesting texture to a spring garden. 

If you're concerned about your garden not being all native plants, Godfrey says not to sweat it. I don't know a single person who has a one hundred percent native plant garden, he said. If you have favourite ornamentals and you love them and they bring you to the garden, that's your pleasure and your choice, he said. If you can get up to 50 per cent native cover, there's good evidence pollinators benefit from that. 

Native plant resources

For information about which plants are native to your area, check out Lorraine Johnson and Sheila Colla's new book A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat for Native Pollinators (new window). Also worth consulting is the Network of Nature (new window), a directory of native plant and tree species. You can use filters like soil, light, and moisture requirements to refine your search, and even discover plants that are salt and juglone tolerant. You can search for native plant nurseries across the country too. WWF Canada has also started a how-to site for growing native plants called re:grow (new window).


Tara Nolan (new window)

Tara Nolan is the author of Gardening Your Front Yard and Raised Bed Revolution. She is also one-third of the popular gardening website Savvy Gardening.