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Landscape Design Palette: Native and Non-Native But Nice

There is a buzz in the landscaping world. It is an increased awareness of the negative impact of exotic and invasive trees, shrubs, and plants. Similar to the growing national interest in making more informed food choices to improve physical health, the trend toward native plant selections is yielding landscape plans where purpose, design, and nature align.

We are fortunate to live in a part of the world where native plantings provide a rich palette for both visual and functional appeal (see a few selections above). This palette can be supplemented with a hearty selection of Non-Native But Nice offerings that help homeowners round out their requirements, for ornamental value, four-season interest, and deer or disease resistance. These plantings may not fully support the local ecology, but they do no harm when planted in conjunction with native selections that meet the needs of the property's specific natural order.

Like the food choices metaphor, choosing native plantings simply makes sense. That leaves many with questions as to why exotic selections have come to dominate so many properties and nursery inventories. Below, are a few answers to help you understand how this all came to pass, and why native plantings are a great choice for your property.

Why have Exotic plantings become so prevalent in landscape design?

Human Nature

So, the funny thing is that the definition of an exotic planting is simply being non-native to the area. To put that in perspective, many of our stunning native New Jersey plants are considered exotic and cherished in the U.K. and France. Basically, we want our property to feel special and unique, and include something that sets it apart from the rest.

Retail Appeal

Many non-native plants are from similar climates around the world but are not always adapted to the local climate. Nurseries that want to capitalize on the Mother's Day spending spree are packed with these varieties as they are guaranteed to provide vibrant color to their displays in May. Retailers also want to deliver on consumer expectations of plants that bloom early in the spring and last long into the fall. It is simply more lucrative to stock plants that have these attributes than it is to educate the consumer on the benefits of native alternatives.

Supply and Demand 

Certain exotics can be planted across a broad range of plant hardiness zones. As with manufacturing, mass production of fewer types of plants is more economical than growing many different native plants that are specific to certain regions. Native plants are best planted when young and in pots and do not always fit the 'retail ready' profile at a young age. Exotics grow quickly and produce large inventory. However, they then grow to become high maintenance once planted in a landscape.

How do exotic plantings impact our local ecology?

Exotic plants evolved in their country of origin with the appropriate natural population control provided by insects and disease that are specific to that region. When a plant is introduced to a new region, many of those natural controls are not in place and it gives the exotic a competitive edge over our local plants. In addition, birds that are missing their local food sources from years of deer predation and habitat disruption take to spreading the fruits of these exotics, making them invasive.

What are the benefits to selecting Native and Non-Native But Nice plantings for your property?

Homeowner Benefits

  • Lower maintenance
  • Less use of pesticides & fertilizer
  • Less use of irrigation

Local Ecology Benefits

  • More resistance to and resilience from environmental impact (i.e. drought, disease, infestations)
  • Promotes environmental stability by supporting caterpillars, bees, birds, and butterflies
  • Will not risk introducing invasive plants to the broader landscape

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: If you would like further reading on the benefits of native plantings, I recommend, Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy