Just three years ago, our family moved to a 20-acre property in central Missouri. We were thrilled to have our own patch of land. Being native plant enthusiasts, we promptly set about adding a broad variety of plants to encourage more wildlife. Our big project was converting the 12-acre former horse pasture to the shortgrass prairie parcel of our dreams.
Shortly after we began the process, one of our neighbors greeted us at church. "What kind of crop you growing?" he asked
We had recently applied herbicide to the pasture to eliminate the Sericea lespedeza, fescue and assorted weeds that had encroached over the years so the vegetation was now brown.
I explained that the mixture of native grasses and wildflowers, along with shrubby tree and shrub seedlings bordering the woods, wasn't a crop for us. I told him that we were converting the field to native plants in order to create a diverse habitat that would attract more songbirds, turkey, rabbit and quail.
"Quail? We don't have those around here much anymore," he said.
He was right, of course. Since the boom time of the 1960s, quail numbers have steadily declined. His comment led to a discussion about a new program I was promoting called "Grow Native!" I told him it could help rural landowners like him, as well as urban dwellers, improve wildlife habitat, control erosion and soil loss, and reduce maintenance on their property.
And it will help bring back quail.
Grow Native!, a program of the Missouri Department of Conservation, encourages landowners to use native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, vines and trees to provide a more natural landscape for personal enjoyment and for the benefit of wildlife.
The program is unique in that it not only does everything it can to increase demand for native plant materials, it also promotes Midwestern retail nurseries that offer nursery-propogated, Missouri-native species.
Grow Native! promotes nurseries that offer a good selection of native plants, and it provides them with training and support materials about native gardening. It also refers customers to member nurseries. The referral program is expanding this year to include landscape architects, contractors and other related professionals with demonstrated expertise in native landscaping and ecological restoration.
By allying itself with private sector businesses that support the Conservation Department's mission of restoring biodiversity, Grow Native! hopes to ensure that Missourians will have abundant local native plant materials and service support for years to come.
Grow Native! can help people connect to conservation issues, regardless of their level of landscaping expertise or the amount of land they have available. Landscaping with natives doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing commitment. We can show you how to add a few native species to an existing border or even create a few native plant containers. My brother, whose "yard" is a second-floor apartment deck, was surprised when in only a few weeks his "patio" containers of columbine, rose verbena and bottlebrush blazing star attracted hummingbirds, butterflies and even a resident toad. It's well documented that songbirds, hummingbirds, butterflies, small mammals and amphibians prefer native plants to exotic species.
Native plants also can make your gardening life easier. Native species have adapted to our temperatures, soil conditions and rainfall. When planted appropriately, they are able to survive the stresses of hot weather and droughts. You also will need fewer pesticides, because native plants have developed natural resistance to our local insects and diseases.
Increasing our use of native plants also results in reducing the threats we face from the introduction of aggressive and potentially destructive exotic plants. Millions of dollars are spent annually on herbicides to control the spread of undesirable exotic plants on public and private lands.
Finally, native plants are beautiful. You can plant them to enhance your landscape's design and create a look that is uniquely your own.
Most people can start using native plants for landscaping with little effort. We recommend that people first draw a map of their property and perform an inventory of existing vegetation. This will give you an idea of how to use different areas and know what plants must be eliminated and what plants should stay. If your yard is connected to existing natural communities, such as a forest, meadow or creek, you can make your yard a natural extension of these habitats.
Another consideration in the planning will be the types of wildlife you would like to attract or benefit. As a general rule, you'll be able to boost the diversity of wildlife visitors to your yard by increasing the diversity of native vegetation. Think like nature, and design like nature. Remember color, texture, ultimate size and seasonal interest.
Grow Native! offers two helpful brochures on native landscaping. They include sample landscape plans and suggested plant lists for any area--sunny or shady, dry or damp. You can pick up a free copy from your local Conservation Department office or write Grow Native! P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City MO 65102.
Our newest tool to help the native landscaper is our recently updated web site. You can reach it by going to www.grownative.org or via a link on the Missouri Conservation website. <www.missouriconservation.org>. The Grow Native! site includes native landscaping information, plus full-color images and detailed descriptions of many native perennials, shrubs and trees. You'll also find loads of resource information, including answers to frequently asked questions. It'll also tell you how to connect with your local Conservation Department Private Land Conservationist for personalized advice about how to best manage and steward your land.
Your private land conservationist also can provide you with the latest information about programs included in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (Farm Bill). The farm bill stresses use of native plant materials to create more natural landscapes and provide more benefits to Missouri wildlife. Farm bill programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provide landowners many benefits, including cost-share, land rental payments, incentive payments and technical assistance.
Our web site also lists retail nurseries where you can purchase native plant materials. Your best sources for quality Missouri-native plants and garden and landscaping materials are nurseries that exhibit the Grow Native! logo in displays and on plant tags.
The Grow Native! program recently joined with the Missouri Department of Transportation to help increase native vegetation along state roadsides. Last April, the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission allocated $1 million for use in restoring native plants on 1,000 acres along Missouri rights-of-way. The use of native plants has practical--as well as aesthetic--value in that it reduces the need for mowing and other maintenance along state roads.
The Conservation Department will contribute additional funding to the project and will assist with identifying sites, selecting species and contracting roadside plantings. Species selection will emphasize both multi-season interest and safety.
Stacy Armstrong, The Highway Department's Roadside Manager, is pleased with the cooperation between the two state agencies. "MoDOT has been using native grasses and wildflowers on its roadsides for years, but Grow Native! is helping us strengthen the program," she said.
Perhaps the sight of beautiful native plants along our roadsides will inspire you to restore a bit of Missouri's natural heritage where you live. The benefits go far beyond beauty. Native plants are durable, require less care and usually thrive without fertilizers and pesticides.
Native plants also benefit wildlife. We've already watched songbirds flock to our property to eat ripe viburnam berries and seen multitudes of brilliant orange monarchs lighting on the violet clusters of our New England asters.
We're also frequently entranced by the distant calls of bobwhite quail. The quail are especially welcome in this place where, as our neighbor said, "We don't have those around here much anymore."A few months back, he stopped us again. "Don't be surprised," he said, "if you see some of those natives on our place." Those words inspired me all over again.