Living and gardening in a state such as Texas teaches you a few lessons about adaptability. Most important of these lessons is that growing conditions are never easy, so your plants had better be tough. Sometimes that means a native plant, sometimes it doesn’t.
Texas ranks first in the U.S. for its frequency and types of natural disasters. Drought may not be one of the quickest or dramatic of such disasters, but it plays the long game with long-term consequences. While the summer of 2018 wasn’t quite as dry as conditions during the intense 2011 drought, it broke many temperature records, and 62 percent of the state is officially back in an extended drought.
Many Texas communities were hitting severely low water reservoir levels by August — many of which also never recovered from the drought of 2011 to 2014. Water restrictions are still tight and getting tighter, and farmers and ranchers are taking a serious hit. We’re all hoping for a good El Niño year, with a return of some additional rainfall. Pretty please?
I realize for many people in other parts of the country, water limitations may not yet be central on your radar. I checked in with Candy Traven, co-owner of Peace Tree Farm in Kintnersville, Pa., to see if they’d seen an uptick in interest or demand for natives or drought tolerant plants.
“This year in the Northeast, we were needing aquatic plants, not drought-tolerant plants,” Traven says. “There are a number of our plants, though, that are drought tolerant.”
The takeaway: The heavy rainfall in some regions has growers and gardeners in those areas focused on other priorities. But as one garden center owner in Portland, Ore., said to me during an August visit, “Your Texas climate is coming our way.” The heat is on, even in traditionally wetter and cooler regions.So how do gardeners and garden centers adapt to changing environmental conditions? Native plants are commonly offered to consumers as the best solution for dry conditions and other landscaping struggles — but in a state as big as Texas for example, native status doesn’t always guarantee success. Native plants that thrive in West Texas often drown in many other parts of the state. Plants that thrive in tropical zones along the Texas coast freeze in Dallas winters. Many North Texas native plants fade away as you drive west.
I’m sure you would say the same for your region and most around the country (and the globe) where USDA zones, soil type, and topography vary widely within state borders. Gardening — and nature — is a local affair, after all. Human-drawn boundaries are only meaningful to humans.
Nevertheless, the focus on state-by-state native plants continues to sharpen. Eco-scaping is gaining in popularity as a landscape trend, and gardeners and property owners increasingly consider wildlife and environmental impact as they choose plants. Pollinator support seems to be front and center in consumer consciousness. But you might be surprised by how many people still don’t give a second thought to plant origin. There’s still lots of room for education and good marketing. We just need to make sure the information we provide about native plants is authentic and relevant.
“The awareness and demand for natives is growing but is not yet mainstream,” says Nancy Payne, landscape designer at Roundtree Landscaping in Dallas. “Still, the majority do not make a connection between natives and ecological benefits. What I do always find fascinating is the look in people’s faces when I explain what they can accomplish with natives — attracting lots of butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators — eyes wide open and a big smile.”
Whether you’re a native plant purist who believes there is no room for compromise when determining what plants are native to specific regions — or a generalist who believes more in well-adapted plant choices — the public buying your plants may or may not share, or care, about your opinions. We can pontificate about the environmental benefits of native plants all day long. It isn’t going to make much of a difference to most consumers unless — to Payne’s point — you can make those benefits relevant to their gardening experience. Not everyone likes or wants a native prairie style landscape. Yet many may still want to attract birds and butterflies. Obvious direct environmental and wildlife benefits aside, how do people buying the plant benefit because they’ve selected a native plant?
Traven says Peace Tree Farm prefers to take an approach that favors best performance, organic herbs and oddities, rather than focus on plant origin. “Alex (Traven, Candy’s son) has developed our pollinator plant program, which incorporates perennials and annuals that grow best in our region and provide a necessary food source for bees.” That seems to be what resonates with her customers, and their retail customers, more so than native plant status.
Native is good, no doubt. Depending on the plant and landscape situation, however, it’s not always the right solution for every customer. My recommendation for natives? Focus your retail native plant efforts on niche regional adaptability (rather than state-by-state), coupled with experiential benefits. Tighten your geographical range when selecting your natives, so they are plants that will really work for your local customers. Then be sure to sell customers on how their garden experience will be better because they’ve gone native.