The question of native plants versus ‘exotics’ in landscape design is still academic, but is also a practical question for landscape designers and landscape architects to answer as the increased use of native plants becomes more noticeable in our gardens.
Many landscape architects and contractors are now on the native plant bandwagon. But a native landscape with native plants may not and probably is not the answer for most residential landscape design within the confines of neighborhoods and subdivisions as we know them today.
Why is it rarely a good design solution in a residential setting? Well, the number of native soils available in a residential environment is almost non-existent. The soils have been altered or corrupted so that a native plant community will probably not thrive without an incredible amount of prep work.
Installing native plants in amended or altered soils will almost certainly be a recipe for landscape disaster in terms of maintenance and performance in a residential landscape design. Understanding native plants, neo-native soils and their performance is for experts in that design niche. Good landscape design works for the homeowner and their specific environment.
In my home state of Indiana there are only two areas in the entire state which are defined as ‘virgin prairies’. The plants in those ecosystems are growing in soil that has never been disturbed or altered. The plants are progeny of their ancestors who adapted to those soils. They are in an environment conducive to optimum performances for them. They would probably not fare well in my suburban back yard.
One of those virgin prairies is where Griffith, Highland and Schererville, Indiana border each other and about five minutes from where I grew up. I stop once or twice each year at the Hoosier Prairie after visiting my mom and soak in the natural beauty of the space as the oak savannah transitions to prairie. It truly is a beautiful space to stop and relax.
Briefly, I feel guilty that I am not on the native plant bandwagon. Then I drive home and enter the casual, yet tailored space of my own landscape. And then the reality of committing to native planting hits me. Designing with native plants at my home or the home of my customers would be a landscape design and practical nightmare. The simplicity of my landscape design involves grasses, masses of perennials and a few trees for shade and ornamentation.
I designed it for the homeowner (me) to be maintained with relative ease. In this case, the ease of maintenance was part of the process based on my heavy work schedule. A spring and fall clean-up are the only routine maintenance functions. Other than that there is limited pruning and weeding.
If I had a landscape full of native plants it might not be quite that simple and the neighbors might not appreciate my return to nature as part of their view. Plants for my home were selected based on durability and reliability. Native plants would probably not be durable or sustainable in my landscape.
My exotic plant selections are more consistent with the reality of my soils and my neighborhood.
And what are defined here in Chicago as exotics? At my home even the Hydrangea and Hosta would qualify as exotic, yet they are tried and true components.
Plants selected for use in residential landscapes should be selected based on their ability to perform in the existing or supplemented soils available. They should not be selected based on trends or the whim of the moment.
So the native planting trend, while a great idea in larger spaces, may not always translate effectively into good residential landscape design. Planting the most durable and practical components based on soil conditions, hardiness zones and design needs makes for a healthier, happier plant environment in your backyard and mine.