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Natives Vs. Exotics

Nutrition in the Landscape: Native Vs. Exotic Plants

I’m not an expert at this stuff. I’m a layman. I’ve been growing things in Chatham for the past thirty years—failing mostly. But I have noticed some things along the way. And I have asked the experts.

Expert Number One: Joanie McLean of Mellow Marsh Farm. She’s a botanist. And a poet. And she and her partner Sharon have forgotten more about native plants than anyone I know.

Joanie has offered me wise council on variety selections both at the Plant and at our place in Moncure for years. I’m guessing her heart drops when she hears my voice on the answering machine. “Just wondering if you could stop by and look at this ditch—that I was thinking of planting up…”

She’s been exceedingly patient, and generous with both her time and with plant material. I love Joanie. She’s been my secret weapon over the years.

I bought a truckload of plants from Mellow Marsh and put them around our pond in Moncure. All was well.

Expert Number Two: Will Hooker, North Carolina’s legendary permaculture expert. One time Will invited me to be the guest lecturer for his class at NC State. At the time I was busy sucking grease out of dumpsters and making it into biodiesel fuel. He introduced me to the class as “The most marginal person I know.” Which was a compliment. In permaculture, the action is in the margins.

Since most of my gardening endeavors have lead to failure and or disaster, I hired Will to draw up a schematic for our place in Moncure. He came out with one of his graduate students. They surveyed, took stock of existing plant material, and drew up a plan for us.

I happily proceeded down the path, planting everything they recommended, until I hit “elephant ears.” I wasn’t sure about that one, so I Googled it. Exotic. I freaked out. Surely Will Hooker was not on the “wrong side” of the Native Vs. Invasive debate.

Having already installed a truckload of native plants from Mellow Marsh, I paused. I worried about what Joanie would say if she found out I planted some exotics in our scene.

When I asked Will about it, he said it was too late to worry about it. Time now to worry about nutrition in the landscape. Will would know. He famously produces a massive amount of calories for his family on a postage stamp sized yard in Raleigh.

Expert Number Three: Debbie Roos

. She’s our Agricultural Extension agent with a passion for natives. She landed a grant from Rural Advancement International that was targeted at pollinators, and she installed a mountain of plant material at the Plant.

It left me confused. I’ve invested in natives—but please don’t take my Japanese Maple away. As a former beekeeper, I have a deep relationship with honeybees, which are not native, yet responsible for one of every seven bites of food we eat. As a former promoter of vermiculture, I have a deep relationship with worms. Another exotic upon which we have come to depend.

As I was blundering along, planting things, transplanting things, propagating things, editing my landscapes, I was super fortunate to take up the conversation with Farrell Moose—who at the time was working for Mellow Marsh.

He was “working the booth” one day at an event at the Plant. Had a bunch of plants for sale, and was hanging out educating people.

He spit it point blank. For him there was no debate. His argument went something like this: Insects are the base of the web of life. They have co-evolved with plants, which provide them with the necessary nutrition. By planting native plants we support insects, which in turn support plants, birds, mammals, and humans. Done. Stop being stupid, and plant natives. Got it.

Ever since my conversation with Farrell I have been unswervingly committed to natives. Except for pears. And Chinese Chestnuts. And Japanese apricots. And forget it. I’m a “native plant” failure.

Which takes me back to Will Hooker. I’ve decided to err on the side of nutrition. All ornamentals should be native. With edibles I’m going for maximum calories with zero chemical assistance. And I’m going to use the same criteria when it comes to eradication.

I’ve noticed that when the waxwings and robins stop by on migration they denude the native cedars of their berries. They leave town without touching the privet berries. All privet must die.

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