Take a zip-code approach to native and water-wise plants

Features - Green Goods

Target plants that work best in your area in hot, dry conditions and that bring more pollinators to the garden.

October 12, 2016


Drought is not just for the Southwest anymore. While much of the northern half of the country hasn’t yet been forced to confront the issue of severe water stress in their landscapes, things are changing. This past summer provided many people living in traditionally “wet” states a rude introduction to the realities of increasing drought stress. From Maine to Pennsylvania, growers, landscapers, garden centers and gardeners are facing water challenges they are simply not accustomed to. Needless to say, local flora and fauna have suffered as well.

Many of the plants traditionally grown in areas along the Northeast, East Coast, and Northwest are already considered water hogs by gardeners in southwestern and western states. Those of us in drought-stricken climates learned long ago that we need to resist the temptation of such “lush” plants and instead turn our attention to plants that can thrive on much less water.

Get local

Drought and sustainability concerns have driven much of the growth in popularity of both succulents and native plants over the past few years. But water-wise gardening is nuanced, and all gardening is local; we should really call it zip-code gardening to be more accurate. Despite the continual call for national marketing programs within the green industry, there is not a one-plant-fits-all solution to sustainable gardening or drought issues. Simply trading in your thirsty hydrangeas for cacti or succulents isn’t necessarily the right solution given your climate or soils. A plant that works as a water-wise solution in Wisconsin may not work for Texas gardeners and vice versa.

Also, just because a climate is “hot” and receives limited rainfall doesn’t mean it’s suitable for cacti or many other succulents. I grow most of my agaves in containers because our heavy clay soils in the Dallas area can get too waterlogged for them when we do get rain. It usually comes all at once. Some aren’t cold hardy enough for our winters. Many cacti and succulents can quickly rot off at the crown during the winter or spring seasons when rainfall may be more common and soil temperatures are cool. Plus, all those shade trees homeowners in hot climates have to plant to mitigate intense heat don’t exactly create the ideal growing conditions for many sun-loving succulents. As always, a “right plant, right place” approach is required to create a water-smart garden using water-wise plants.

Go native

This is where more native and locally-adapted plants can be most useful. Unfortunately, many homeowners still have a negative perception about plants labeled as “native.” They may not consider natives as “pretty” as cultivated varieties; and we all know that native plants struggle to put on their best show in nursery containers. You have to sell your customers the plants they want to buy, but you also have to ensure their success in order to keep them coming back. That means you have to become a skilled educator.

Not all hot, dry areas of the country are suitable for succulents in the landscape. If customers are interested in the popular plants, encourage them to plant them in containers and bring them inside when it’s cold or rainy.
Class time

Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wis., affirms that while customer demand is the primary driver of their plant offerings, his company also spends a lot of time and energy educating customers about the benefits of native plants. “Once they see that they can create beautiful landscapes that require a fraction of the labor, as well as little or no fertilizers, pesticides and watering, they embrace the concept and tell their friends,” Diboll says.

As a local garden center, you’ll have to work to better define what terms such as sustainable, succulent, water-wise, heat-tolerant or drought-tolerant really mean for you locally. What do they mean to your gardening customers? The term “low-maintenance” has many different connotations for your customers; it may mean low-water usage, or it may mean fewer pruning, chemical or fertilizer needs. Heat tolerance is also becoming more important.

Why are they buying?

Gaining a better understanding of the different motivations behind what actually drives your customers to seek out “low-maintenance” plants can help you sell more and stay ahead of trends. It may surprise you that despite drought concerns, water may not always be the primary motivator when it comes to water-wise or native plant purchases. These days, many homeowners and gardeners may really be seeking to create habitat when they say they want such plants. Creating food sources for wildlife and pollinators seems to be just as important to our customers, if not more so, than concerns about water. Read more about this in “Restoring landscapes from urban spaces to backyards” in the March issue of Garden Center magazine. www.gardencentermag.com/article/restoring-landscapes-from-urban-spaces-to-backyards/

This agave is planted in a container, which is set into a landscape. Planting this way reduces risk of root rot and cuts down on watering demands.
Visitor Steve Hull inspects a 7-year old prairie planting.
Neindorf Prairie, a 10 year old prairie stand, is an example of a drought tolerant and pollinator friendly landscape.
Native prairie flowers not only tend to handle hot, dry conditions well, but also attract beneficial insects to the garden.
Wildlife wins

At Prairie Nursery, customers are placing more value on plants that support a wide variety of birds, butterflies and bees. “Interest in creating habitat for monarch butterflies has exploded in the past few years, as landowners, parks and other entities seek to support the dwindling populations of this wonderful and amazing butterfly,” Diboll says. He also notes that his customers are focused on reducing chemicals in their landscapes and living spaces, so their native plants and prairie meadow seed mixes are becoming more popular.

While we all still have customers who may be afraid of bees or other pollinators, and will ask you for plants that don’t attract bees, Diboll says that his customers are getting increasingly comfortable sharing their yards with local wildlife. Birds and butterflies still garner the bulk of his customers’ attention, but other pollinators are piquing their interest. “In the past, people were leery of attracting bees to their property, but now it has become a trend to provide a home for these important pollinators,” he says. A side benefit that many homeowners and gardeners are discovering is that many native prairie flowers attract beneficial insects that help naturally control unwanted pests.

But again, the wildlife and pollinators you are supporting are local. That means you have to do your homework to make sure the “native” or water-wise plants you offer actually support the type of wildlife with which you cohabitate. As I’m sure you’re well aware, not all plants are equal when it comes to pollinator support.

The good news is that Diboll is seeing interest and demand for his company’s water-wise and native plants grow continually. In fact, Prairie Nursery is selling out of certain plants more often than it ever has before and is building new greenhouses and shipping facilities to meet the increased retail demand. If you aren’t yet maximizing the potential of your native, water-wise and wildlife supporting plant categories, now’s the time to take action so you don’t let potential profits dry up.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, digital content marketing, branding design, advertising and social media support for green industry companies. www.lesliehalleck.com