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Environment

Thinking About Your Garden? Try Including Native Plants

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Denise Wilson
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Garden of Colorado Native Plant Society Member Donna Baker-Breningstall.

Back in March, a Senate resolution designated April as National Native Plant Month. The resolution was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. It aims to recognize the benefits that native plants have on the environment and economy of the United States.

But what exactly are those benefits? We asked Denise Wilson, marketing and events coordinator for the Colorado Native Plant Society, to tell us more.

Interview Highlights:
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: I know there's a month now for everything. Why dedicate a whole month to native plants? And what is the definition of native plants?

Denise Wilson: Well, 'native' means it has occurred naturally in a particular region or ecosystem without human intervention. Native plants are important because they've coevolved with the other organisms that are present, such as mycorrhizal fungi, microbes in the soil, insects, pollinators, amphibians, reptiles, rodents, mammals and all the way up the food chain.

I've heard that when we talk about native plants, we're not always Colorado-specific. We think of plants that might be native to the Midwest or to the East. Why does this happen — where plants that are native to other parts of the country are prioritized over or confused with plants native to our environment?

I think that's because so many Colorado folks here grew up in other areas of the country where there's significantly greater rainfall. Colorado has about 14 to 15 inches of rain per year. We are a high desert, but many people are enculturated with the English garden. But if you try and grow plants from that kind of an area, you're just causing yourself more work. You'll have to water, and then the soils add fertilizers, which adds too many nitrates to our waterways, and then you get more weeds and then you have to add pesticides and herbicides and those are toxic to the pollinators.

What are some plants that are native to this area, and is there anything we should incorporate into our gardens this year?

Yarrow, Sage, Milkweed, Harebells, Bluebells, Gayfeather, Evening Primrose, Black-Eyed Susan, Goldenrod, Columbines. They're all beautiful, drought hardy, cold tolerant and they grow in poor, well-drained sandy soils like we have here in Colorado. It's the Rockies with decomposed granite.

Can you summarize for us the benefits of native plants, not only to our individual gardens, but to our ecosystems at large?

Well, other people may look at it from an economic standpoint, but I look at it from an ecological standpoint, in that all of those organisms depend one upon the other and they create a food chain, continuous. And when we take a piece of Kentucky bluegrass lawn and instead put in native plants, then what we're doing is we're creating small, contiguous patches of native plants and we're contributing to a sustaining corridor, creating landscapes for those pollinators. We're creating climate resilient areas. These patches cool the ground, they sequester carbon, they provide oxygen —all the good stuff we need to survive, too.

The economic incentive here is conserving water and keeping down the invasives, because those cost billions of dollars to control. And we don't want the nitrate in the water system either — for Colorado, that's not a good thing. So you want a plant that grew up here because those genes are the genes that are going to make it successful right here.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for April 21. You can find the full episode here.

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