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Native plants are typically defined as vegetation growing wild in an undisturbed area at the time that scientific records began.  Specific climate, soils and other environmental factors, define a plants native range.  Our area is fortunate enough to have a large diversity of both prairie and forest plants that call central Illinois home. 

In recent years, gardening with natives has become quite poplar and often makes sense when considering the sustainability of our landscapes.  Native plants typically require less intensive management since they are already well suited to our environmental conditions, resulting in less mowing, spraying and other practices that increase our footprint. 

However, many of the ecological factors that make these plants a good fit for natural areas (such as soil conditions) are not replicated well in urban or developed environments.  Gardeners need to carefully consider the individual needs of native plants to ensure our urban environments meet those needs.

Urban soils are typically quite disturbed due to the many human activities that must occur urban and suburban areas.  Topsoil is often removed or intermixed with subsoils creating an artificial soil profile that functions much differently than our native, undisturbed soils.  Much of the soil microbiology that is present in undisturbed soils is lacking in our urban soils resulting in less “healthy” soils.  For example, mycorrhizae fungi, which are present in undisturbed soils, may be missing in urban soils.  These tiny fungi help plants absorb water and nutrients from the soil, greatly enhancing plant health. Consequently, many native plants may not thrive in disturbed urban soils.    

Though it is generally true that native plants are more disease and insect resistant, not all fit this criteria.  Some natives suffer from exotic pests or diseases for which they have little or no resistance.  Others may have common conditions that are not fatal but greatly detract from their appearance. When placed in a managed landscape, plants that suffer from insect or disease problems do not provide the beauty and vitality we typically expect from a landscape plant. 

Although gardening with native may seem like a slippery slope, it really is not.  Some simple research prior to planting can ensure that plants are suited well to your site.  There are certainly native plants that are well adapted and will thrive in most any urban environment. 

I highly recommend incorporating more native plants in landscaping.  They equally provide the beauty of their exotic cousins and critically add to the diversity of our urban environments, which has significant benefit to native wildlife, including the incredibly important pollinators.  In addition, they can help reduce or mitigate our environmental impact while providing a more natural looking landscape, which promotes greater awareness of our native ecosystems. 

To learn more about gardening with natives, join Danville Area Community College (DACC) and the Vermilion County Master Gardeners for the Garden Day Workshop and Spring Festival.  The event is held at the DACC Bremer Conference Center in Danville on Saturday, March 10th.  Participants must register for the Garden Day Workshop, which features keynote speaker, Kelsay Shaw of Possibility Place Nursery, who will present “How to Garden with Native Plants”.  Enjoy a delicious lunch prepared by the DACC Culinary School.  Representatives from the DACC Horticulture Dept. will have a booth to answer questions about the many opportunities available in their program. 

If you cannot commit to all-day Workshop, the Spring Festival is free and open to the public featuring many garden themed vendors, great door prizes, a raffle and silent auction.  No registration is required for this portion of the event.

To register or for more information, call or visit the U of I Extension office in Vermilion County at 3164 N. Vermilion, Danville, 217-442-8615. You can also register for this event online at go.illinois.edu/GardenDay. Registration for the Workshop is limited and the event has sold out the past several years, so don’t hesitate to reserve your seat.