OLG (Old Lady Gardening) #4 Native or Non Native Plants

Bleeding Hearts

We have reached June and the gardening season is in full swing. Flowers are blooming around the city and neighbors are spending Saturdays in their yards. It is fun to see what families are doing to improve their little piece of land. There are lots of veggie beds popping up in our area. There are also a few households trying to move past the “sea of green” lawns with a patch of wild growth (also known as weeds). Ok, most are trying to change over to native plants but the process is long, messy and the wild weeds are much faster at moving in before the clover or other native plants take hold.

I have been wrestling with this native plant decision for a few years now. As well as wanting to reduce the green grass in the yard but I can’t stand the mess of creeping charley, wild violets and all the other invasive plants that show up. I like the green grass to play in with Little Man and the grass to be able to walk barefoot in on hot summer days. So I am working to strike a balance.

My front yard has green grass but two medium sized flower beds that have both native plants and plants I love or have an emotional attachment too but are not native to this area. There are also four raised beds for veggies and herbs and a few flowers if I can squish them in between the veggies. I am working to keep the grass sections in my yard small and healthy without chemicals. (it is tricky for sure)

My yard is a good mix of native and non native plants. I am slowly moving to more natives as the years go on. But I love seeing the Balloon Flowers come up and bloom with little balloons that pop open. This plant comes from Russian Far East, China, Japan, and Korea. It also can be considered invasive. It was grown by my mother in her garden years ago. I keep it for that reason. I miss her and think about her when it begins to grow each spring. I just deadhead the flowers once they are done blooming to prevent self seeding and every once in awhile I dig up some of the plants and get rid of them to stop them from taking over. I have also planted natives close by and they are working to keep these guys in check. (I do think our long hard winters also slows this plant down from taking over.)

I also have things like Bleeding Hearts that are native to both North America and Asia. The one most of us know well is the Asian variety with the pink heart flowers that bloom in the spring (the one at the top of this page). There are the lilacs that I dug up at the family farm in Iowa. This common version Syringa vulgaris comes from Eastern Europe. There are lilacs with tiny flowers that come from Asia as well. I often see the Korean Lilac here.

It is interesting as I look into the plants I grow to find that most have come from other countries. The old family favorites may have been brought over on a boat – so many seem to have come from Europe and Asian countries. It makes me wonder why are native plants, the woodland plants got lost along the way. Why do we need to work so hard to bring them back?

My guess is that just like me wanting to bring a part of my family garden plants with me to my Minnesota home the long ago settlers may have wanted to bring a bit of their home with them as well. So seeds and bulbs and tubers were tucked into baggage and brought along to have a bit of home with them.

BUT – There was and still is the legal and illegal gathering of plants from other countries, like Asia, that started long ago. The high price sale of plants gathered from explorers who were not kind to native people in the lands they visited. The tulip has an amazing story of wild exploitation and high financial gain and failure. If you are totally crazy like me you might enjoy reading The Tulip Story by Anna Pavord.

This history of plants and their travel has more recently started to come to light for us home gardeners. It is helpful that many of our large private and public gardens are now acknowledging this long history and the valuable skills we in North America have learned from people in other countries. (Read here about this at Chicago Botanical Gardens –https://www.chicagobotanic.org/blog/learning/how_gardens_reflect_plants_and_people_asia)

So for me this wondering about native verse non native gardening has become a journey of learning more about the history of my plants and making choices about my garden with more knowledge and respect for the people who brought plants this way. I now look not only to what zone a plant grows in or the need for sun or shade but also what can this plant tell me about other people and cultures. I think about how I can be more respectful to our planet (what helps support the local ecosystem) but also how do I support other people who might be or have been marginalize over time.

Gardening just got much more complicated but also interesting as we/I learn respect and care of the world as a whole ecosystem in need of care for both plants and people.


About Joanne Toft

I am a retired Minneapolis Public School teacher. I walk, garden, care for my Grandson and write. Life is good!
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8 Responses to OLG (Old Lady Gardening) #4 Native or Non Native Plants

  1. NYOCW says:

    Golden line: “So for me this wondering about native verse non native gardening has become a journey of learning more about the history of my plants and making choices about my garden with more knowledge and respect for the people who brought plants this way.” You might like Alison Townshend’s new memoir. The Green Place. She wrestles with some of the same questions.

    Are violets invasive?

  2. I like how you are trying to find a balance, Joanne! it is hard, especially, I think, as an avid gardener. I like many native plants and we do need to add those back into the landscape – they are choked out by the invasives, unfortunately. But, I think if you enjoy a plant and have some history of it, as long as you work to keep it in check (not becoming invasive) as you are doing with the balloon flower, you are okay to keep some non-native ornamentals. I applaud your reduction of grass, even if it is only a small part. We will be leaving our large lawn when we move up North later this month and when we come back to the La Crosse area to build we will have only a small patch of lawn but a huge native ridgetop prairie! And, I cannot wait! I really enjoyed your post! Thanks!

  3. franmcveigh says:

    The lilacs from Iowa . . . I’ve never seen that color. Gorgeous!
    But this: “It is interesting as I look into the plants I grow to find that most have come from other countries. ” was surprising. And yet, if we came from other countries, wouldn’t we expect plants also to come from other countries as well? Just never thought about sourcing plants. I struggle to move beyond annuals and perennials and what exactly can I keep alive!

  4. Thank you for the good post 😊

  5. Yes! I am struggling with this now. We have sentimental connections to exotic plants. For me, I will always connect hydrangeas with my grandmother.
    Right now, I am focusing on expanding and diversifying native plants in my yard. As long as the existing exotic plants are not invasive and I have plenty of native plants to support or even enhance the environment, I am ok with keeping a few nostalgic plants around.

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