purple coneflowers

Don’t plant invasive species

Let’s give nature a helping hand by growing these native plants in the cottage garden

There was a time when gardeners didn’t worry about planting invasive species. In Muskoka and elsewhere, we would happily fill our gardens and borders with anything that grew quickly, spread well, and didn’t have any pests. Purple loosestrife? Sure. Periwinkle? Bring it on. Norway maple? Why not?

Increasingly, though, home gardeners and professional landscapers alike have come to recognize that some plants grow just a little too well. Given the right conditions, they can escape our gardens and spread through the landscape, pushing aside native plants and making themselves at home. Japanese knotweed, goutweed, ox-eye daisy, and many other invasive species take up space that native species need. And a great many birds, insects, amphibians, and other creatures rely on those native species to provide homes and food, which the invasive plants don’t provide.

In recent years, many landscapers, gardeners, and ecologists have been focusing on alternatives to some of the more common non-native plants. The Ontario Invasive Plants Council, for example, is a coalition of many groups and individuals who work together to raise awareness of invasive species, find ways to combat them, and train gardeners and landscapers alike in alternatives.

Non-natives vs. invasive plants

It’s worth noting, of course, that there’s a big difference between “non-native” and “invasive.” We gardeners grow a great many plants that come from other parts of the world and will always continue to do so without any worries. In fact, our biggest problem with most of them is helping them to thrive!

And a plant that is invasive in one area can be used perfectly safely in another area. Kudzu, for example, is a notoriously fast-growing vine, spreading as much as 30 centimetres a day. A native of southeast Asia, it was introduced to American farmers as a way of controlling erosion, but quickly got out of hand and has since become a massive ecological problems throughout the southeastern US and in other parts of the world. But even in the face of climate change it’s unlikely that kudzu would become a problem in Muskoka, because our winters are simply too cold for this tropical vine.

There are other plants that can be used with caution, growing them only where they are unable to escape. That’s nothing new to gardeners, either: anyone who has planted mint, for example, soon learns that the best place to grow it is either in a contained bed or in a container. Otherwise, it’s going to spread like crazy and crowd out other plants.

Similarly, you may be able to quite safely grow a plant like periwinkle. It spreads by runners rather than by seed, so as long as it can be contained to a garden bed it may be problem-free. But planting it anywhere where it could get into the forest is just asking for trouble: a great many ravines and forested areas throughout Ontario now contain masses of periwinkle that have escaped from gardens, smothering out native plants like trilliums.

Non-invasive alternatives

Fortunately, there are a great many alternatives to these and other invasive plants. The Grow Me Instead guide contains a host of alternatives for ground covers, trees, shrubs, and aquatic plants.

Here are some of the plants worth considering.

Wild Geranium. A prolific ground cover and perfect for shady woodland gardens — something we often see at cottages in Muskoka — this native produces lovely magenta or pink blooms in late spring and summer.

Other ground covers to consider include:

  • Wild strawberry
  • Wild Ginger
  • Bearberry
  • Wintergreen
  • May Apple
  • Bunch Berry

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida). These are widely available in nurseries and garden centres, and with good reason: they’re drought tolerant, bloom prolifically, and have no insect pests worth speaking of. They’re also highly attractive to butterflies and birds. Oh, and did we mention that they’re also deer-resistant?

Other blooming worth looking at include Lance-leaved Coreopsis and Black-eyed Susan.

Feather-reed grass. A tall, clumping grass, this can grow to two metres in height, making it an excellent replacement for miscanthus or phragmites, both of which can be invasive. It also looks gorgeous in winter, tending to hold its shape even in heavy snowfalls like those we get in Muskoka.

Other grasses worth considering include:

  • Sweetgrass
  • Indian Grass
  • Big Bluestem

Saskatoon berry. There are varieties of saskatoons that will thrive on the northern prairies, so they will certainly handle the cold winters and hot summers of Muskoka. They grow as shrubs or even trees up to 8 metres tall, and produce masses of sweet berries, which you and the birds can both enjoy.

Other native fruits to include are:

  • Common elderberry
  • Alpine currant
  • Raspberry

This is just a sampling of the planting options. If you want to include plenty of native plants in your gardens and landscaping, we’re happy to discuss more ideas.

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Posted in In the Garden.