One of the benefits of being quite possibly The Most Approachable Guy in the World is I get into a lot of conversations. When these conversations are with folks from the gardening community, and the subject of native plants arises, it gets really interesting. Oftentimes the question arises, “why won’t more professionals use native plants in their landscape designs?” The answers are actually really simple, but at least they reflect a reality that (I think) is changing.
Why wouldn’t a landscape pro use native plants?
The scarcity of native plants
The situation has improved drastically since I moved to Virginia in 2005 but it can still be hard to track down native plants at retail garden centers. There are certainly some natives, like Sweetbay Magnolia and Itea, that everyone loves and wants more of, but the overall selection tends to be pretty lean at retail. I think it’s a classic chicken and egg scenario. Garden centers would stock more native plants if they felt the demand was there, and the demand would be greater if people saw cool native plants for sale at the nursery. But there’s a big reason why you may not see as many natives for sale…
The aesthetics of young native plants
Don’t misunderstand me, I think native plants can be gorgeous. Here I’m referring to what they look like when young and full of potential, sitting in that pot of soil. In the trade there’s what we refer to as “retail ready” plants. This refers to plants that are full and beautiful and downright irresistible to even the most jaded “I have a brown thumb” non-gardener. It’s as close as we get in this industry to exciting packaging.
Because the retail demand for native plants isn’t that high (yet), a large proportion of them are being grown for commercial and municipal projects. When you have a crew of volunteers planting 1,200 native plants in a remediation area, it’s ok if they look like a stick and two leaves. Getting a walk-in retail customer who doesn’t know plants to get excited by that plant sitting on the shelf with a $20 price tag is a whole other ball of wax.
When we’re getting paid to do an installation for a residential client, they have a certain expectation of what their yard will look like once we’re done. That expectation is based on the big, full landscape plants that we’re all used to. Even my hardcore native plant fans get a little disappointed when they see what a one gallon sumac – which was maybe all we could get – looks like.
You may say “that sounds like a crappy excuse full of weaksauce and mumbles, Dave” but the fact is that we’re only as good as our last job. How can we best delight that customer, whom HGTV has trained to want an amazing transformation?
The economics of using native plants
I have this client, Janice, who was a delight to work with. She wanted a majority of native plants in her landscape but was flexible enough to allow some non-native plants as well. Her job turned out beautifully, and we’re adding to the landscape a bit at a time.
Janice referred me to a friend of hers who had a DC-area landscape designer draw up a set of plans for a garden that was all natives and edibles, and was looking for someone to help oversee the installation. I usually hate getting involved with projects I didn’t design (you diva!) but this was a super cool project. Then I looked at the plant list and specification sheet.
Given what was called out there were a lot of plants that were only available really small. The biggest tree was 3 feet tall, and most everything else was one gallon or smaller. I require a certain amount per day to be on site and I told them up front, “you’ll be spending more on me than you would on the plants. I can’t add enough value to your project to make it worth you spending that money.” I referred her to three other contractors in here area, and none of them could make it work either.
The majority of planting jobs are completed by landscape companies that are set up for medium to large projects. They have certain overhead recovery requirements that they have to hit to be profitable and stay in business, and that can make dealing with small jobs difficult. Those companies are going to look to use plants that they can source readily, ideally from one vendor, and complete the job as efficiently as possible while leaving behind a project that looks “finished”.
Are there companies that do great work with natives? Sure, but they’re often harder to find because they’re small. The perfect outfit for doing a planting job with a lot of perennials and small plants is often a professional gardener or horticultural maintenance company. These are folks rolling up in a small pickup or transit van, not a massive dump truck with a bobcat on the trailer.
So what’s the answer?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use native plants. Even though I take a more nuanced approach to native plants than some, I still love them and think we should use more of them. So how do we address the issues I raised above?
- First, I’d love to see retail garden centers get in a broader selection of native plants and also promote the heck out of them.
- I’d also love to see growers work on getting native plants to market a little prettier. Yes, they’re doing a thankless yet important job by propagating these plants, but they also need to think like marketers. Why would weekend warrior Bob grab your plant instead of that burning bush?
- More native plants and more mature native plants would go a long ways towards helping move them, but we do still need to change attitudes towards what a finished job should look like. Even something as simple as getting great jobsite photos of plantings 1) right at install 2) 6 months later and 3) a year later, and posting them prominently, would be great.
- Those of us in the industry need to find and/or develop the small operators who can rock these jobs out. I believe that even if we nail the first two bullet points, it can all fall apart if the busy homeowner doesn’t have someone he or she can hire to get it all done.
The bottom line? Landscape pros don’t hate native plants. They just require a bit more outside-the-box thinking to go from wanting it done to enjoying the finished landscape.