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Native plants, pollinators, and the elusive low maintenance garden

I am in the midst of a hard-learned lesson in my garden. You would think the friendly local Extension Horticulture Educator would do her homework on each plant before planting in her garden. Well, think again. I have made my fair share of gardening mistakes, planting plants that have either failed to thrive, or worse-- have threatened a hostile takeover of my garden beds.

One plant that has earned a spot on my "garden thug" list is garlic chives, Allium tuberosum. I grew this herb in my parent's garden when I was in high school without issue. Flash forward a few years, and this herb has re-seeded all over since I first planted it in my herb garden. I think it never caused an issue at my parent’s house since it was on the edge of the vegetable garden and my dad tilled the garden each year, destroying any stray seedlings. It looks innocent enough, like a tuft of wide-bladed grass, but it is impossible to pull. It must be dug out.

I did a decent job of staying ahead of the garlic chive invasion until my son was born in the spring of 2013. Since then much of my garden has been an experiment in the survival of the fittest. Incidentally, the garlic chives have thrived in my absence.

The garden bed outside my kitchen door looks especially terrible. Maybe it's because I see it all the time, but nonetheless I resolved that this year I would renovate the bed and plant some lower maintenance plants. What had been in that bed prior to the great garlic chive invasion was a mix of some resilient perennials like asiatic lilies, coreopsis and sedum. But more than half the bed had some more temperamental plants like orange and red flowered coneflowers, variegated coreopsis, and variegated sage. In my experience, and the science backs me up on this, the more unusual the plant in terms of foliage variegation, flower color, size, shape, etc. the more likely it is to be a high maintenance plant.

Genetically, these plants are mutants— sometimes mutations don’t make much difference in how the plant functions physiologically, but sometimes mutations make a plant less vigorous and less able to withstand extremes in environments. With the exception of one unusual coneflower (‘Tomato Soup’), all of the unusual perennials in this garden bed petered out in the last two years. We have had some extreme cold the last two winters, but these plants also had little or no added water or weeding. They were fending for themselves and the garlic chives won.

Last summer, a plant sprouted in this garden bed that I didn’t recognize at first. As it grew, I recognized it as Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. It was in a really good spot at the back corner of the garden, so I let it grow. It has gorgeous flowers that attract pollinators like bees and butterflies in droves. The seed pods that formed provided great winter interest. Some people warned me that the milkweed would reseed and the original plant would spread everywhere. So far what has spread was very easy to pull, and I have not seen any plants reseeded in the garden.

Since Common Milkweed is a native plant, it is very well adapted to our soils, temperatures, and rainfall. I literally did nothing to this plant all summer and it looked great. It attracted lots of interesting insects while in flower and afterwards. It is the host plant for Monarch butterfly larvae, and I did find a few larvae made a home on my plant last summer. I started thinking that maybe native plants could be the answer to creating a lower maintenance garden.

Memorial Day weekend I set out to rid this bed of garlic chives and stray turfgrass. It took about 10 hours of digging and pulling to achieve this in about a 6 foot by 8 foot area. After the bed was cleared, I discovered some butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, another native plant, had re-seeded from elsewhere in my garden. I also discovered anise hyssop, Agastache foeniculum, another native that re-seeded. Both are attractive to pollinators as well. I also found some remnants of ‘Fireball’ bee balm, Coreopsis ‘Baby Sun’, mums, Asiatic lilies, Sedum ‘Golden Carpet’, Echinacea ‘Tomato Soup’, Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum)  and Gaura ‘Siskiyou Pink’ that I decided to incorporate into the new garden since they had survived all this time despite my neglect.

I added a few new pollinator friendly perennials to the bed, including:

·          Geranium ‘Max Frei’—low mound of finely textured leaves and purple flowers;

·          Knautia ‘Red Cherry’— low mounding perennial with tufted red flowers held high on slender stems; some sources say this plant is drought tolerant, some say it needs moist soil. Time will tell which is correct.

·          Phlox ‘Starfire’ and ‘Double Hitter’—pink flowered tall phlox

·          Baptisia ‘Vanilla Cream’—new yellow-white cultivar reportedly as hardy as the purple-flowered species

·          Roman Chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile— low growing perennial species of popular herb used for tea

·          Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata—leaves are much more narrow than Common Milkweed; prefers average to moist soil


·          Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica ‘Silky Scarlet’ and ‘Silky Gold’— red and yellow flowered cultivars not hardy in our Zone 5b climate. Should fill in empty space for this year until new perennials gain a foothold.

·          Cleome ‘Rose Queen’— large (4’) annual with arching pink flowers some describe as appearing spider-like.

With the exception of the Roman Chamomile and the Cleome, all of these new additions are plants I have never personally grown before. I’m taking a leap of faith in some respects, hoping they will perform as well as what I’ve read.

Hopefully the introduction of these plants to the garden will attract more pollinators like bees and butterflies to the garden. Not only are they fun to watch, but they do help carry pollen between flowers. This may not seem like much, but in the fruit and vegetable garden, pollinators can make an enormous difference in yields of crops like fruit trees, berries, cucumbers, melons and squash.

Some purists would argue that a pollinator garden should contain only native plants, so my garden definitely fails if viewed through this lens. But my first goal with this garden was to create a bed with lower maintenance; incorporating native plants was one way to achieve this goal and attracting pollinators will be a nice side effect!


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