Monday, July 10, 2006

Natives vs. Water-Wise

Water restrictions and drought conditions have compelled many of us to rethink our approach to gardening. Residential customers are losing plants, or they fear their plants will die. Landscapers, irrigators, lawn maintenance techs -- many others in this industry are promoting drought-resistant plants or 'water-wise' methods. Municipalities and other governmental entities are doing their best to educate all these people. Growers and nurseries are shifting to meet the changing needs of the public. Hats off to everyone for their urgency during these record-breaking times.

One question that continues to pop up is why natives? There are plenty of suitable water-wise plants, like Nandina and Crepe (or Crape) Myrtle -- why do we limit ourselves to native plants and a few 'unusual' adaptable species? I guess the clearest explanation is that our mission isn't limited to just conserving water. Water is only one of our natural resources, and our approach is more of a 'big picture' perspective. Water-wise plants, certainly, will help us slow our consumption and reduce our water waste. But that's just a band-aid cure for a cultural 'ailment.'

Take Privet (or Ligustrum), for example. Drought-hardy, evergreen, grows well in our climatic conditions. Easy to grow, too easy, in fact. If allowed to grow naturally (though most in this area are sheared and clipped into geometric shapes) it will produce plentiful berries that attract birds. Another plus, right? Before you answer, consider this oversimplified scenario: the birds who eat the berries must digest and expel them somewhere. This process scarifies the seeds and promotes their germination. Often these 'volunteer plants' are started in natural areas, therefore the Privet is allowed to grow naturally, produce berries, attract birds, and, eventually, more volunteer Privet. Wow, a forest of free shrubs. Sounds wonderful, right? Wait. If this quick-growing, easy-to-volunteer evergreen shrub is not maintained, it must be enormous. What happens to the native, low-growing vegetation? This diverse food source for native birds and other wildlife? What happens to those species of animals that depend on native vegetation for their habitat, as well? Sadly, all succumb to the invasive Privet.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept includes Privet on their 'do not plant' list, yet it is still being grown, sold, planted and recommended by others within our industry. It's a beautiful plant, but in our climate it becomes exotic invasive and chokes out our natural beauty, altering our ecosystem. We do not plant it, and frankly, take great joy in making mulch of it at every opportunity.

Being water-wise is important but is only one facet of resource management. Native plantings help to achieve this larger goal. Following are just a few of the benefits, and the reasons we do what we do:
  • Not only do native plants help to reduce water consumption, they help to keep our local resources clean. Natives thrive without synthetic chemicals, most of which linger in your lawn and planting beds and are leached into our local creeks and streams by way of runoff. Polluted waterways = contaminated water source for local wildlife.
  • No chemicals means healthier soil.
  • When natives are used properly, e.g. the right plant for the right place, they require very little maintenance. Several resources are affected:
  • Air -- no geometric shapes, so a reduction in gas-powered equipment. Less frequent use of this equipment means fewer unregulated contaminants are released into the air we breathe.
  • Gas -- Also, less frequent use of this equipment means less dependence on natural gas/oil.
  • Money -- Fewer plants must be replaced each year (because the natives will either return as perennials or reseed as annuals); none will be spent on synthetic chemicals (unless you have a nut sedge grass problem, which is a post for another time) or trimming shrubs; and much less will be spent on gas and oil to operate your maintenance equipment.
  • Time -- Less time spent struggling with high-maintenance plants means more time spent picking flowers, engaging in hobbies or enjoying family and friends.
  • Natives provide food and shelter for many native species of birds, butterflies and other wildlife. Without natives, these species must adapt, move along to other communities who have embraced natives, or die. And without them, our ecosystem will be out of balance.
  • Natives establish a regional identity. Californians boast of Redwood Sequoia forests; Iowans are proud of their Buckeyes; Floridians champion their palms. Which plant screams 'Blackland Prairie'?

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