Wary readers may wonder what exactly I mean by the title's phrase "easy-to-grow." Anyone who has been stung by another gardener's insistence that triple-trench-digging an acre and a half is "easy" will recognize that facility is a relative concept. So I'd like to put it in context.
My small backyard garden (16 by 10 feet/4.8 by 3 m) is a native plant meadow (though there are a few non-natives -- for example, a lilac bush, a concession to my partner, which seems only fair, since I've monopolized the rest of the garden!). Recently, I was asked to be part of a study to assess the amount of time and inputs (water, fertilizers, etc.) various types of gardens require. In addition to my native plant meadow, the survey looked at a typical lawn and a conventional flower garden, among other landscape styles. For the whole growing season, I kept a logbook itemizing exactly how much time I spent working in my garden -- that is, how much watering, fertilizing, weeding, mowing I did. I also kept track of exactly how much in the way of material inputs went in to the garden -- the survey people asked me to measure water by the bucketful, chemicals by the ounce, gas for the mower by the gallon, expenses by the nickel, and so on.
I've always known that my garden was a low-maintenance project and that I spent far more time sitting on the patio than weeding on all fours, but when I tabulated the results of my season-long record-keeping, I was shocked to discover just how low maintenance it is. The grand total of time I spent on garden maintenance from the spring through to autumn: 3 hours and 15 minutes. Total. That includes weeding, watering, pruning, dead. heading, digging, dividing, transplanting... everything. When I say "easy-to-grow," I mean it quite literally.
This is not to say that I couldn't have spent more time working in the garden had I chosen to. The lilac certainly would have benefited from being liberated from its native clematis vine (Clematis virginicina
) shroud; by mid-summer, the vine had covered the shrub and I should have done some hacking. And had I done any weeding in early spring, I'm sure I could have trimmed back on my grand total of weeding time in mid-summer (45 minutes). And perhaps I should have watered the thirsty Joe-pye weed during the August drought. But other pleasures beckoned, and 3.25 hours of allround garden maintenance it was.
There have been no dire consequences from my season of sloth. The Joe-pye weed perked up after a good rain. Underneath a billowy cloud of clematis flowers and seedheads at the end of the season, the lilac leaves looked green, a sure sign of life. And all the spent blossoms of the ironweed and cup plant that I didn't bother deadheading went to seed and fed the birds. In other words, not only did nature facilitate my laziness, but nature also redeemed it with reward, too.
Perhaps this is one of the main lessons to be learned from the native plant garden. Nature is pretty much in control of things. Sure, the gardener can tinker away, as temperament and the need for soothing work-time in the garden demand, or the gardener can take low maintenance to the extreme outer reaches (as I seem to have done that summer), but at the end of the day the native plant garden continues ... on its own steam.
Which explains my survey results in the "input" categories. Water? A total of 30 liters (about 8 gallons) directed exclusively at four seedlings I put in in the spring and needed to water until they got established. Other than that, the rain did my watering work -- even during a very dry summer. Gas? No lawn, so no endless mowing and no fossil fuel or electrical energy use. Fertilizers? The meadow plants don't need any. (Indeed, I wouldn't want my 10 foot/3 m-tall cup plant and 8 foot/2.4 m-tall sunflower to get any healthier! They'd be giant genetic monsters if I fed them any fertilizers.)
Chemicals? Zilch. My garden is organic on principle and organic in practice, and through its life, I've yet to encounter a pest problem that couldn't be dealt with using soap and water. Most other native plant gardeners I've talked with across North America report the same thing. It's the adapt or die principle in action -- native plants have evolved over thousands of years to the conditions found in their home range, so they don't succumb to pest attack with the same regularity as exotic plants. Anyone who doubts this should plant a native woodland groundcover beside a hosta, which is non-native, and see which plant the slugs devour. The exotic hosta, guaranteed. Actually, my neighbor and I enact this experiment every summer. He pours on the slug poison and I pour on the native seeds, five feet (1.5 m) away. The slugs in my garden are more than happy to ignore my natives and instead spend their lives in the compost bin (where they're useful); my neighbor's slugs, on the other hand, are happily munching their way through a third expensive hosta planting. (My neighbor is now at the point where he hides the chemicals as I walk up the drive -- I think he's starting to see that there's something, well, deeply humiliating about battling a slug.)
In case this is starting to sound like unseemly gardener-one-upmanship, I should note that my neighbor has a lovely garden, and that my meadow is not to everyone's taste. No single garden ever is. Anyone with claustrophobia would find my towering plants dizzying, and even in such a small plot, one could get lost in foliage on the trip to the compost bin. But the look of my garden is dictated by my particular choices of native plants, not the fact that I've chosen to garden with natives. If I wanted a more restrained style, I could easily choose from the dazzling array of natives with more compact growth. And that, essentially, is one of the beauties of native plant gardening: the incredible diversity from which to choose. Whatever your conditions -- shady, sunny or somewhere in between -- and whatever your desired style -- formal, informal, or a mix of the two -- you can find many natives to suit your needs and achieve your goals.
The hundred easy-to-grow native plants detailed in this book (and the dozens of others referred to in various sections throughout) represent just a fraction of the native plants appropriate for the garden setting. It was next to impossible (and more than a little heartbreaking) to limit my choices to a hundred. I was guided, however, by the principle that, along with being easy to grow, all should be relatively easy to find in the nursery trade and most should be ones I'd actually grown. My own experiences in cultivating these plants have been supplemented by many fruitful exchanges with dozens of other native plant gardeners across North America who have so generously shared their adventures with me.
One final word about the hundred. Readers alert to mathematic precision will note that there are actually 101. Consider it the baker's dozen principle. Or the gardener's guilty pleasure principle: there's always room for one more.
I neglected to mention one personally significant finding of that survey. The money I spent on my garden all summer? Not a penny.