Plant This, Not That

Joey Ponce of City in Green has developed a visual, educational guide to planting pollinator friendly native plants. His City in Green project focuses on the documentation and hopeful proliferation of native plants, organic gardening and environmental curiousities in an urban landscape. City in Green hopes to reconnect the city to its roots by reintroducing the practices of native landscaping and organic gardening, creating a beneficial urban environment to be experienced and enjoyed by all.


I talk up natives a lot. Native plants are those that have grown in our climate zone long before a single human foot ever landed in our country. I like to imagine what Indiana may have looked like long before agriculture, settlers, even humans. We know that Indiana was woodland and praries; tall, beautiful trees, a dense forest floor and open praries of grasses and wildflowers. With that image in mind, I often walk by houses looking at all the choices we’ve made in regards to our landscaping. Perfectly manicured lawns, green and uniform. The same rows of street trees at nearly every turn. And the same 4 plants, easily distinguishable because everything’s blooming at the same time. And that got me thinking: Is this the best use of our yard and green spaces? Turns out, there are better choices we could be making. And as good as they are for the general ecology for our region, they also happen to be pretty beneficial to our own wallets and time. Below are seven alternatives to common yard plants. They are native perennials, meaning, they understand the climate here better than we do, and they can survive it (our effects on that climate aside). They will return year after year (that means you don’t have to keep buying them) and they’ll seed, spread and fill up if you let them. 

1. Instead of turf grass, plant a sedge lawn. 


Turf grass is one of the biggest culprits of wasting water, zero ecological value and a time-suck for anyone who wants to keep it looking decent. An even bigger issue is the amount of fertilizers and pesticides used to keep them green, and pest and weed free. Pennsylvania sedge (carex pensylvanica) is a fantastic alternative for the traditional turf lawn. This sedge grass, fine in texture, grows long blades of grass that flop over and create a beautiful, long, wavy lawn. The grass can be mowed to keep it manicured, but by that I mean, you’ll mow something like twice a year. Pennsylvania sedge can live in dry soil and in full-sun or full-shade. The grass can be divided up over the years to fill in empty spots, and this stuff thrives once its established, spreading relatively quickly. So think about it: less mowing, less watering, more money, more time.   

2. Instead of English ivy, plant wild ginger.


People enjoy ground covers. They take up a lot of space and cover up your messy floors for the minimum amount of maintenance. They also keep weeds from growing, which I’m definitely on board for. But this common plant also introduces our first invasive species: English Ivy. Invasive plants are exotic plants that have basically “taken over.” They grow fast and often take over the native flora, choking it out and killing it. These plants threaten our native plants, also threatening our wildlife’s food sources. For a complete list of invasive plants, visit the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The alternative: Wild ginger. Wild ginger is a fast growing ground cover with nice, big heart-shaped leaves. The plant is deer resistant, in case that’s an important factor for you, and is also a very important source of food for the Pipevine swallowtail butterfly. This plant grows in shade and greens early in the spring through late in the fall. Plant it once and it’ll go like crazy.   

3. Instead of a hosta, plant a fern.


Walk around houses anywhere, and I guarantee you’re going to find hostas almost every other house. Don’t get me wrong, I actually find hostas really beautiful. Again, the question just came up of “why” and “what else.” In this case, it was interesting to learn that hostas are not native to our area at all–they actually aren’t even native to our country. Hostas are native to northeast Asia, including China, Japan and Korea. They were introduced to Europe in the mid-19th century by a European botanist. All that aside, I’ve mentioned before that Indiana used to be woodland. Imagine a mulchy forest floor, humid and shady. Down in the shade grew, not hostas, but ferns. Small and giant, huge fern fronds all over the place. If you’ve never seen a fern grow, it’s an incredible thing to see. They have these curling, hairy little tentacle things that unfold and unfurl these large, beautiful leaves. Some beautiful native ferns include the Cinnamon fern (shown above), Christmas fern and Ostrich fern.   

4. Instead of Daylilies, plant Coreopsis.


Daylilies are another one of those Asian plants that was brought over at some point in time. These also happen to fall into that aforementioned “invasive species” group. Daylilies are everywhere. And they are all blooming (funny enough, at the exact time I happen to be writing this blog post). They grow like crazy; their thick tuberous roots help them establish and also make them near impossible to get rid of. But I get it, these flowers bloom early and bloom big, making them nice to look at and a comforting note that summer is nearly here. So, if its the early-summer signal of a huge burst of color you’re looking for, go for a Coreopsis ‘Jethro Tull.’ The leaves for these are dense and bushy, dark green in color. They bush up during the spring, and then, almost all at once, explode with tons of bright yellow flowers–and then they stay that way into the fall. The petals on these are beautiful, like jagged, long yellow flutes. They attract butterflies, can tolerate heat and drought, and fill up in no time.   


5. Instead of wisteria, plant American Bittersweet.


Along with ground covers, we really love climbing vines. Especially those climbing vines that grow fast and full. Often, people choose the beautiful Chinese wisteria as that vine. The things they aren’t expecting are that: 1. Once you get it going, it’s going. 2. Once it’s big and strong enough, it will crush anything in its grips, and 3. it’s unfortunately also on that list of exotic invasive species. Sorry. There is, however, a good home-grown alternative: The American Bittersweet. This vine thrives in our region. With much thinner branches than the wisteria, it weaves its way up any trellises, gazebos, fences and lattices that you need it to. It blooms a bunch of little yellow flowers in the summer, and then, at the end of the season, has all the bright red little berries all over it that compliment the fall colors happening all around as well. The berries stay bright red well into the winter, giving you some reminders of life durging those cold and chilling times. NOTE: Two things are important to note If you’re interested in an American Bittersweet. 1. You need two vines, a male and a female. They often come both in one container, and there’s usually a tag saying so. You want both of them to allow the plant to pollinate and thrive. And 2. One of the dangers of invasive plants is their opportunity to cross-pollinate with natives and take them over at a genetic level. Such is the case with the Oriental bittersweet. If you are out looking for an American Bittersweet, you’re looking for, specifically, Celastrus scandens (c. scandens) and NOT Celastrus orbiculatus (c. orbiculatus). The second is an invasive vine that has cross-pollinated with the American vine over the years and began to take it over. The leaves are slightly different, the flowers and berries are slightly different, and the vine is highly invasive.   


6. Instead of a Burning Bush, plant a Red Chokeberry.


One of my favorite things about moving to Indianapolis/the Midwest, was the opportunity to truly experience seasons. Watching the leaves change into their warm, fiery tones was an entirely new experience of nature for someone who grew up in the desert. Therefore, I understand people’s fascination with explosions of colors. I also understand that we are a very high-maintenance society, and when we say we want color, we don’t want diluted color. We want to be doused in it. The burning bush is one shrub that gives people this drama. The burning bush is also–you guessed it–one of those Chinese exotic invasives. Again, these shrubs are beautiful. The thing is, they take over and drown out not just the shrubby natives, but those that the shrubby natives serve as well. For those reasons, imports of the burning bush have been prohibited in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. If you’re going for fall color, go for a shrub that will give you that and benefit our ecosystem. Red Chokeberry shrubs are naturally an understory (grows under tall woodland trees) or woods-edge shrub, and are resistant to drought, insects, pollution, and disease. Speaking of disease, there’s a ton of research hinting this family of shrubs may have some disease fighting powers that humans have yet to fully tap into.   

7. Instead of a Bradford Pear, plant a Dogwood.


Finally on this list is the one plant that I have the most disdain for. They deceived me upon moving to Indy, and continue to deceive the general public. Bradford Pears, otherwise known as a Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana), are the model story of an invasive gone wrong. This tree poses a multitude of ecological, as well as safety, issues. Bradford pears are those trees that all explode with white flowers first thing in the season. Everyone loves them because they are our first hint of spring coming and winter going away. They have this weird smell that accompanies them too. People seem to like that less. The issue with Bradford pears? They cross-pollinate with all our other pear trees, effectively turning them into more bradfords. They have a weak branch structure and a horrible lifespan. What’s that mean for us? Every single development you see with Bradford pears will be a danger zone come 20 years, or come the next wind storm. These trees split and break at their narrow V-structured branches, causing damage to homes, cars and people. Ramp up the wind, and the tree doesn’t even have to be that old to crack. This article is a great general overview of why these trees are so terrible. So, what’s a good tree alternative? Honestly, anything freakin’ else. ANYTHING. Go with the state tree, a tulip poplar. Go with a maple or an oak. Go with an ash, or if you really want to make me happy, plant a birch tree. Oh, you want your white flowers? Then go with the beautiful flowering dogwood (pictured above). These trees give you the same bang for a morally better buck. Give this guy good morning sun and nice afternoon shade and you’ve got a tree that your family, your neighbors, and your friendly horticulturist will love you for.  

===== So, that’s the list. I’m sure there are plenty more that could be covered in this list, but this is at least a good start. If we could do a better job of including more of the alternatives into our landscaping, I think we would be so much better off. The landscape would look different, help out the pollinators, fruits and vegetables across the area, and help us bring Indianapolis back to its roots. Does that mean you need to get rid of your love for exotic plants? Not at all. Just go for the annuals and make some dramatic container arrangements that will give you all the beauty for the summer and then, most importantly, stay contained. With that, I’d love to hear back from you. Have you made changes to your landscape using native plants, shrubs and trees? What’s that been like and have you noticed anything I haven’t talked about? Do you have other combinations that I didn’t cover that would be good to know? Let me know. Here are good resources for native plants, if you’re interested: 
•    Indiana Native Plant and Wildlife Society (INPAWS) Landscape Worthy Natives
•    “15 Native Plants for the Midwestern Garden”
•    Prarie Plugs – Midwest Native Plant List
•    Keep Indianapolis Beautiful

 Thanks, as always, for reading. – Joey

This post originally appeared on the City in Green website. Many thanks to Joey for allowing us to share his work!  Don't forget to mark your calendars to join Keep Indianapolis Beautiful in our Wild Pollinator Count on July 18 - 24