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Why Go Native

By Cinny MacGonagle, Master Gardner

You may have noticed the plantings that have been popping up this spring at the MWA's River Resource Center. All of the species of trees, shrubs, perennials, vines, ferns, grasses and groundcovers that we have planted here are native, that is, they are species that have co-evolved with other plants and animals from our region and are specifically suited to this habitat. The MWA has chosen to "go native" since these plants all provide benefits to the river, the human residents of the watershed, and the wildlife species that live here or visit on their migratory journeys. The MWA recognizes that we need native plants to support the diverse and balanced food webs that are essential to our sustainable ecosystems and we have made an effort to establish plantings that will demonstrate this interaction.

​Planting riparian buffers with natives provides numerous benefits to rivers such as the Musconetcong and its tributaries. Shade from trees and shrubs lowers the river temperature for trout and other species that thrive in cool water. Buffers provide habitat as both cover and homes for aquatic organisms that live in and near our waterways. The plants are able to withstand high water velocities and prevent erosion and silt from building up in the riverbed. Native plants are excellent filters of pollution and help keep our rivers clean. Planting natives also reduces contamination in our water bodies since there is little need for pesticides and fertilizers for plants that are adapted to our local conditions. Native plants help recharge groundwater that supplies our aquifers. Natives have low water requirements, decrease the need for irrigation, and thus, increase the availability of water in our streams. Native plants help protect the water quality in our streams, rivers and ponds.

In addition to providing visual pleasure, native plants are drought-tolerant and pest-resistant and have valuable advantages to humans. They have the genetic variability to fight disease and survive drought and deluge. Native plants are economical since there is little or no need for fertilizers or pesticides. Less pollution from these chemicals in our gardens ensures health benefits for all of us, particularly our children and pets. Runoff with fewer chemicals protects our drinking water. There is generally no need to water natives between rainstorms once plants are established so water savings are considerable. Time on maintenance is greatly reduced since natives can withstand our region's periods of drought, hot summer temperatures, and soggy cool weather soils. They are adapted to local soils, and so require less site preparation. Natural pollinators for many of our food sources are attracted to natives for food and shelter. Native plants are a feature of the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, from which the MWA's River Resource Center will receive certification. The subtle beauty of a variety of textures and changing colors make natural landscape appealing and interesting for all of us.

Native plants are essential to the wellbeing of our wildlife. The berries, nuts, flowers, nectar, stems and leaves of native plants are an indispensable food source for hundreds of species of insects, birds and other animals. Native plant habitat provides homes and shelter for numerous species. Grow native plants for birds and they will return the favor by dispersing seeds. Migratory birds consume huge quantities of food from natives to stock up on their long seasonal journeys. Our songbirds need natives since they depend upon native-eating insects for protein to feed their young in spring. As Douglas Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home reminds us, most native insects cannot, or will not, eat alien plants. When these insects disappear, this impoverishes the food source for our birds and other animals. While some animals have a varied diet, others are highly specialized and dependent upon certain plant species for food. Planting natives will help to ensure their survival.

Many of the native flowering perennials at the RRC appeal to hummingbirds and butterflies. Attract hummingbirds and they will provide essential pollination services. Natives are host plants that offer both food for the caterpillars in their larval stage and nectar for the adult butterflies. A few chewed leaves are a sure sign that butterflies and moths have found food and a home from egg to adult. Native plant species provide the food and shelter that are essential for future generations of our butterflies, as well as for other insect species and birds.

When we favor native plants, we can provide a sanctuary for birds, insects and wildlife of all kinds. Scouts and other volunteers are making the RRC property more welcoming to wildlife with the addition of several types of houses and birdfeeders. They have erected bat houses, bluebird houses, wood duck houses, birdseed feeders, hummingbird feeders and bird baths - both around the RRC and on the trail along the river.

Come visit the native plantings at the RRC, or better yet, come help us out with the plantings. We always need volunteers for planting, weeding, mulching and other chores. Natives require less maintenance, but some care is still required! Donations for more plants are always needed. We have an extensive wishlist for this project. When you are cleaning out your garage or garden shed and find extra tools, please remember us. We can always use items such as wheelbarrows, rakes, shovels, spades, pitchforks, cultivators, clippers, loppers, trowels, hoses and watering cans. We would welcome additional structures for attracting wildlife such as bird feeders, a bluebird feeder for mealworms, hummingbird feeders, assorted birdhouses, a purple martin house, and birdbaths, as well as bird seed and mealworms for our hungry avian visitors.

By planting natives, we all have the power to make a significant contribution toward sustaining biodiversity and protecting our native heritage. The MWA will be providing additional information about native plants in the coming months, including lists of plants and local suppliers where native plants are available. When you purchase natives, please go to reputable nurseries and never collect plants from the wild. Stop by the RRC to see our plantings, and look for updates on native planting soon at the RRC and on our website.

Doug Tallamy, Professor and Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, at the University of Delaware reminds us that we share the places in which we live with the plants and animals that evolved here. If we use plants that developed with our local animal communities, we may be able to save much of our biodiversity from extinction. We will coexist with nature rather than compete with her. The Musconetcong River watershed seems like an ideal place for us to try to do just that – by growing plants that are disappearing from the wild.


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