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Resolve to add native plants in 2014 [Commentary]

The holidays are over. The Ravens are sidelined for the season. Most of winter lies ahead. Many Marylanders are turning for warmth and hope to the gardening catalogues now arriving in their mailboxes.

In 2014, it's time to think outside the boxwood. Over the decades, Americans have lost sight that our gardens and yards are living, breathing ecosystems that can contribute to or degrade our natural environment. Consequently, many of our most familiar plants have little value to wildlife, and our yards are squandered opportunities. This year, do yourself and the planet a favor and resolve to make your garden much more than a decorative extension of your house. Add native plants to your landscape.

By planting perennials and woody plants that are native to Maryland, you'll reap beauty, save gardening effort and — best of all — provide the food and habitat needed for our region's birds, bees, butterflies and beneficial insect populations to thrive.

Simply put, the songbirds and butterflies most people love need native plants. While a butterfly can nectar on a non-native ornamental, its caterpillars can only feed and survive on specific native host plants. The chickadees, cardinals and other songbirds you watch at your feeder in winter will need thousands of insects and caterpillars from native plants the rest of the year to sustain themselves and feed their young.

The old punch line has it that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. Fortunately, beauty and benefit from native plants can be closer at hand. Here are steps to get started:

•Put aside the catalogues that feature plants with roots in other continents and visit a local park, arboretum, nature center or native plant website to read up on Maryland's native plants. Locally, Oregon Ridge Nature Center and Irvine Nature Center as well as Adkins Arboretum on the Eastern Shore are among those offering excellent libraries and resources. On the Web, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Pollinator Partnership and The Xerces Society provide regional guides useful for Maryland gardeners. Also, by following native plant-related social media, you can easily receive a stream of timely information and tips.

•In the spring, visit local native plant nurseries or sales and prepare to be amazed by the beauty and variety. You will find knowledgeable staff and volunteers, and you can have confidence that the plants you see are suited to this area and are free from harmful pesticides.

•Start small by adding a cluster of one highly beneficial native plant, such as pink milkweed, aster or goldenrod. (A few of one species is better than one each of several.) Or think bigger by creating a butterfly-, pollinator- or bird-friendly garden with a sequence of blossoming flowers and shrubs. Once you experience the wonder of butterflies, caterpillars, pollinators and songbirds in your garden, you'll want to learn and do more.

And there's a bonus. Because native plants are acclimated to local conditions, they typically need less care and less frequent watering than introduced species.

There's still room for favorite flowers. Wildlife gardeners recommend a native plant pyramid akin to the food pyramid — with canopy trees forming the foundation, followed by shrubs and understory trees and a variety perennials and grasses, with non-native plants and lawn grass contributing the smallest fraction of the landscape.

If this year's alarming decline in Monarch butterflies returning to their wintering ground is any indication, we may be facing this generation's Silent Spring. While researchers figure out the factors contributing to the Monarch and similar declines, anyone with a patch of earth can step up. Adding even a few milkweed plants — the Monarch caterpillar's sole host plant — can help.

For me, shifting to a more wildlife friendly landscape is a journey that has just begun, one that I wish I had started years earlier. But the payoff in plant and wildlife variety in just one growing season has been a delight.

So, join me in resolving to add wildlife-sustaining native plants to our gardens this spring. You will see results in 2014 and know with every caterpillar, butterfly, katydid and bumblebee you see that you are contributing to a healthier environment. And, go ahead — plant that tree. Oaks, supporting an astonishing 534 species of butterflies and moths, make an excellent choice.

Martha K. Johnston is a volunteer master naturalist at the Oregon Ridge Nature Center. Her email is Elevation401@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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