Gardening in Ohio: What will thrive, what won’t
By Dayle Davis
GREATER AKRON — When planning a garden, one of the best bets for success is to incorporate plants native to our region into your mix.
Here are some excerpts about native plants in Ohio from The Ohio State University (OSU) Horticultural Extension Web site:
We have a great diversity of native plants to choose from in Ohio, including many that thrive under adverse conditions. Native plants can be found to suit a variety of sites: wet or dry, sun or shade, high or low fertility and different types of soils. When used correctly, native plants may be better adapted to local environmental conditions; be used to solve landscape problems like shady or wet areas; be of increased value to wildlife; require less maintenance; provide four-season interest; be a good choice for an informal landscape; preserve native species; and add a local accent to the landscape.
What is a native plant?
All native plants once grew in the wild, but many plants currently found in the wild may not be native. The following general definitions clarify the difference between native plants and others:
Native plant: a plant that grows in the wild without human intervention.
Exotic plant: a plant that was introduced by human intervention from another area or country (accidentally or purposefully).
Naturalized: an exotic plant that has escaped from cultivation and now grows in the wild.
Wildflower: any flowering plant, usually herbaceous, that grows in the wild (native or naturalized).
Invasive: a plant that competes vigorously and takes over habitat.
Noxious: a plant that is so invasive it is regulated by state or federal laws.
The key to using native plants successfully is carefully choosing plants that will match your site conditions. While some native plants are tremendously adaptable to a wide range of environmental conditions, many are quite habitat-specific. Before you start selecting plant materials, know your site, including the exposure, soil texture, pH, fertility, moisture conditions, weed problems and the history of use.
It is important to understand that most residential landscapes do not resemble any natural habitat. In these situations, the soil has been disturbed, natural vegetation has been cleared and the microclimate has been changed. Further, stresses such as compaction, pollution, salt runoff and more can have a negative impact on native trees and shrubs already in place. The survival and growth potential of native species in these conditions may be no better or worse than exotic species.
Many plants that are native to river bottomlands are surprisingly adaptable to urban conditions. In their natural environment, these plants experience extreme fluctuations in soil moisture and oxygen. Researchers have found that these plants often can adapt to compacted, overly dry or overly wet soils common to urban areas.
The needs of native plants may differ from conventional landscape plants. Fertilization may not be necessary with some meadow and prairie species. Overfertilizing these plants may promote weak, spindly growth and invasion by weeds. In contrast, woodland plants need fertile, organic soils. Although most urban sites will not provide an ideal environment for woodland plants, amending soils with organic amendments will help.
While a carefully planned landscape using native plants can be low maintenance once it has attained maturity, “native” landscapes may require considerable effort to establish and are rarely maintenance-free. For example, a meadow or prairie community will decline if it is not managed by annual mowing, weed control and reseeding.
Many of Ohio’s native trees and shrubs are common in the nursery and landscape trade. While most of these native plants can be integrated successfully with exotic plants in nearly any style of landscape, a naturalistic landscape will maximize the benefits of native plants. Naturalistic landscapes are generally informal, low maintenance and change with the seasons and the years. They attract wildlife by providing them food and shelter.
For sunny, open areas, consider establishing native prairie or meadow plants. Prairie plants can be especially helpful for areas with difficult growing conditions, including poor drainage and fluctuating moisture levels, dry or rocky soils and low fertility. Meadows and prairies can create four-season interest, a refuge for wildlife and a fairly low-maintenance landscape for a large area.
A woodland landscape can be planned to create a sense of seclusion and privacy to provide shelter from the elements, to preserve an existing native tree stand or to accent a natural area such as a stream. Woodland plants generally prefer moist, fertile soils that are high in organic matter, although some may tolerate dry conditions. While many woodland species prefer acid soils, there are also some that tolerate a wide range in soil pH.
Native wildflowers look best in large clusters. Most native perennials spread to create natural clusters over time. Annuals will usually reseed themselves, but the natural crosses may result in less than desirable flowers. If showy flowers and color are the main objective, plan to reseed annuals every year.
As undeveloped land dwindles in Ohio, natural habitats will continue to disappear. Not only is this a problem for native plant diversity, but also for wildlife and birds. Many native plants rely on animals and insects for pollination and seed dispersal. These native plants have, in exchange, been providing food, cover and forage for wildlife over many centuries. Berries, nuts and other fruits provide color for the winter landscape by themselves and through the birds and wildlife that feed on them. The right mix of native plants can create a haven for butterflies, birds and other wildlife of Ohio, while also enhancing the life and enjoyment of a landscape.
There is insufficient space here to list the many plants, trees, shrubs and vines native to Ohio and suitable for planting in your garden. For complete details and a comprehensive list of native plants and trees to grow in Ohio, call the OSU Summit County Hotline Tuesdays or Thursdays between 9 a.m. and noon at (330) 928-4769, ext. 3, and request Bulletin No. 865, “Native Plants of Ohio.”
Dayle Davis is a freelance writer and avid perennial gardener, with a B.A. in communications and course work in botany, geology and wildflowers. Davis is certified as a Master Gardener under The Ohio State University’s Horticultural Extension.