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PA Gardeners Encouraged to Go Native

As pesticides and invasive species crowd out native plants, gardens have become a more vital link in the food chain.  Two State College Master Gardeners are calling on Pennsylvania gardeners to plant local species this spring.

Doug and Pam Ford, both Master Gardeners, see it as gardeners’ responsibility to support local ecosystems.

“Without those native plants, you don’t have those native insects, without those native insects you don’t have the native birds . . . or the other kinds of life,” says Doug.  “So basically, we need people to reestablish ecosystems, and they can do that in their own backyards!”

A local milkweed isn’t as showy as a lilac, but Pam says it supports much more life because insects like it.

“The more insects you have, the more birds you have, because birds feed their young insects.  They don’t feed their young birdseed,” Pam says.

She also says insects, and especially bees, need as much help as they can get.  Reports say about 40 percent of bee colonies in Pennsylvania died off this winter.  Over the past decade, colony collapse disorder has put a huge dent in honeybee populations.  Doug says that surviving pollinators need native species, not alien plants.

“When you bring a plant in from Europe or from the Far East or someplace, our insects don’t know what to do with that plant,” he says.  “It sort of becomes like – it’s plastic to them.  There’s nothing there that they know what to do with.”

Though those native bees aren’t as well-known as European honeybees, Doug says they are really the unsung heroes of the garden.

“We like to kind of kid around about the fact that the native bees work a longer shift than the European honey bee,” he says.

Pam agrees.  “They keep honey bees moving.  Honey bees tend to linger on a flower, but when a native bee, especially one that’s larger than it, lands next to it, it’ll get that honey bee moving to the next flower.  So they’re working together, the native bees and the honey bees.”

Pam says European honeybees travel up to a mile to pollinate, making them vital for crop pollination. But native bees handle the bulk of other plants in nature.

“That’s why we push so hard to get people to plant native as much as possible,” Doug says.  “That doesn’t mean they have to completely ignore the beauty of some of these other plants, but the fact is, as Pam often says, you have to redefine what beauty is, and beauty is watching life happen in your back yard and in your local habitat.”

The Fords say that now is a good time to plant some of those native species. In the meantime, all those weeds and bugs and bees – they say those are what prove that a garden is alive and well.