Climbing the native plant ladder


Many native plant enthusiasts were avid gardeners before getting on the environmental bandwagon. Converting a garden can take time unless you are one of the few that rips everything out and starts at ground zero. It is fair to say that gardeners get quite emotional about their plants. If you are doing it one step at a time, then consider using the native plant ladder provided below to guide you through an objective decision process. Making your garden more environmentally friendly involves replacing plants lower down the ladder with those that are higher up the ladder. If you are unfamiliar with the terms, please read about cultivars and hybrids in a wildlife garden.

Experienced gardeners and botanists will recognise that some of the terms are not mutually exclusive and that there is still some subjectivity involved. Still, the ladder combines the importance of genetic diversity, origins and wildlife value.

A desirability index of plants in a native plant garden

Where to start; code red.

Putting in some plants at the top of the ladder is helpful, but removing the plants at the bottom of the ladder is the best environmentally friendly decision that you can make as a gardener. Invasive species by definition are deleterious to the environment. They do far more damage than native plants do good because of their ability to spread uncontrollably.

How do you know if you have an invasive species? It is easy to grow, hard to kill and it spreads easily. Some gardeners love this kind of plant because they can fill in a patch of land with little effort. Getting rid of invasive plants at the beginning will save you a headache later on because it can be difficult to weed invasives out without damaging your desirable plants at the same time.

If you can buy your new plants from a native plant nursery, then you can mostly ignore the rest of the ladder because these growers do not usually clone or hybridise plants. Growing plants from seed can sometimes be quite difficult and growers may prefer to use cloning techniques with some species. If you have to buy plants from a regular nursery, then use the ladder to increase the wildlife value of your garden.

The gold standard is to use native plants grown from seeds collected from large wild populations where the plants are open pollinated so that genetic diversity is guaranteed. It is also considered preferable that the seeds have been collected locally as well. These plants with have a strong ecological function and form many relationships with insects and birds. And remember, our native plants are just as beautiful as plants from other parts of the world.