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Why gardeners should read-up before digging in

Plant ecologist shares tips to grow a beautiful, wetland-friendly garden

May 02, 2016
Why gardeners should read-up before digging in
April showers have given way to May flowers. It’s time for gardeners across the country to begin thinking about what plants will be making their way into the flower bed. Staff at Native Plant Solutions suggest that a little bit of research at the outset, will help produce stunning and sustainable flower gardens that will benefit wildlife, and wetlands. © DUC

The days are getting longer, and warmer. It’s official: spring is in the air. And green thumbs across Canada are itching to dig deep into the soil, and begin planting.

But before you visit a local garden centre, it’s important to do your research, say the folks at Native Plant Solutions (NPS), a business line of Ducks Unlimited Canada, specializing in wetland construction and native prairie installations.

Just because a plant is for sale doesn’t mean it’s safe for your flower patch. In fact, it may be an invasive species or noxious weed. One common example: the beautiful yet destructive, purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).

“You should be aware and familiarized with plants that are of concern,” says Jade Raizenne, a plant ecologist at NPS.

So how can the average gardener do their part to ensure they’re planting a healthy, sustainable garden? Raizenne offers the following tips:

Always look for the scientific name of a plant

“When buying plants or seeds make sure the species’ name is advertised, and it’s not just the common name,” she says. This is important because there can be many different common names of a plant while there is only one correct scientific name. By being aware of a plant’s scientific name, you can avoid purchasing invasive species that may out-compete native plants for resources.

Be wary of ordering online

Lower prices and exotic options may attract some gardeners to shop online. But proceed with caution, says Raizenne. “Make sure they’re coming from a reputable source,” she says. Invasive species are often introduced from other areas. Plants can be native to one area and invasive in another. Knowing a species’ scientific name and country of origin will help you determine if the plant belongs in your garden, or if it should remain unpurchased in your virtual shopping cart.  “There are some seeds that are sold online as a wildflower mix. It sounds really nice, but the contents may not be listed correctly by their scientific names. Some seeds in the mix could be exotic weeds,” warns Raizenne.

Flower garden
Be wary of common plants that include local geography in their name. “A plant may have ‘Canada’ in its common name but that does not necessarily mean it’s native,” says Raizenne. One example is Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), which is native to Europe and northern Asia.

Achieve the look without the fallout

Do you like the appearance of invasive flowers but want to forgo the risks associated with planting them? There’s an easy solution, says Raizenne.

“If you like the look of a plant like purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), a good alternative could be meadow blazing star (Liatris ligulistylis).” Unlike purple loosestrife, meadow blazing star is local to the Canadian Prairies and will attract monarch butterflies, bumblebees and hummingbirds to your flower garden.

Other popular, non-native plant species popping-up are ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and scentless chamomile (Tripleurospermum inodorum). Daisy-like in appearance, these weeds are also invasive. “If you like the look of those particular plants, a nice substitute would be the flat-top white aster (Doellingeria umbellata),” says Raizenne.

Flower garden
Avoid aggressive invasive plants like purple loosestrife that will out-compete native plants, in favour of the equally striking and monarch-friendly meadow blazing star (Liatris ligulistylis).

Benefit wildlife, insects and wetlands

By being an informed gardener, not only will you be helping your local ecosystem by providing food sources to wildlife and insects, but you’ll also be safeguarding wetlands.

To show the connection between urban gardens and rural wetlands, Raizenne goes back to the example of purple loosestrife. Since being introduced to North America from Europe in the 1800s, the plant has made its way across Canada via waterways.  “If a gardener in an urban area were to plant purple loosestrife, and the seed blew off in the wind and went into a drainage ditch or a river, the seed will be carried downstream,” explains the ecologist.

While pretty, purple loosestrife is a noxious, non-native plant capable of overrunning wetland areas and out-competing native plants that wildlife depends on to survive. Extremely prolific, each plant is capable of producing as many as 2.7 million seeds per year.

Final step: have fun!

The final tip is to have fun with your gardening. Once you’ve done the research, it’s time to get outside and get your hands dirty. To help you get started, NPS shared this list of native plants that you can incorporate into your flower patch.

Selection of Common Native Plants for Gardeners (Scientific/Common name):

Upland grasses: suitable for dry to medium soil conditions.

  • Andropogon gerardii – Big bluestem
  • Bouteloua gracilis – Blue grama
  • Bouteloua curtipendula – Side oats grama
  • Koeleria macrantha – June grass
  • Schizachyrium scoparium – Little bluestem
  • Sorghastrum nutans – Indian grass
  • Elymus canadensis – Canada wildrye
  • Panicum virgatum – Switchgrass

Upland forbs: herbaceous plants with attractive flowers and foliage.

  • Achillea millefolium – Yarrow
  • Echinacea angustifolia – Purple coneflower
  • Geum triflorum – Three flowered avens
  • Linum lewisii – Wild flax
  • Monarda fistulosa – Wild bergamot
  • Ratibida columnifera – Coneflower
  • Solidago nemoralis – Showy goldenrod
  • Symphyotrichum laeve – Smooth aster

Wet meadow to low prairie: native options suitable for wet soil conditions.

  • Hierochloe odorata – Sweet grass
  • Mentha arvensis villosa – Wild mint
  • Spartina pectinata – Prairie cordgrass
  • Beckmannia syzigachne – Sloughgrass
  • Calamagrostis canadensis – Marsh reed grass
  • Deschampsia cespitosa – Tufted hairgrass
  • Asclepias incarnata – Swamp milkweed
  • Eupatorium maculatum – Joe pye
  • Iris versicolor – Wild iris
  • Verbena hastata – Blue vervain
  • Symphyotrichum novae-angliae – New England aster