League of Women Voters

Plant native to save money, time


April is an unofficial Earth month, not just the month that hosts Earth Day, so topics on the return of life after winter always feel appropriate. This week, we chat about our landscaping and gardens.

Not everyone gardens, but most of us have lawns, and with weeks of 60- or 70-degree days in February and March, as happened this year, the crocuses tease us into believing spring is early. Onion grass threatened to choke the mower as early as March 15, even before the daffodils blinked their innocent cyclop eyes, yellow and white.

Spring life cascades. Tulips and tulip trees blossom until the dogwoods, cherry and apple trees take their turn. It’s tempting to begin the landscaping early, but well-informed gardeners traded memes on social media, educating the rest of us to let our yards alone through early May, giving insects a chance to emerge.

Now that April’s cotillion of fresh color is bursting into May you’ll notice that certain flora take over fast, as if those species lack a natural predator. These are either non-native vegetation, imported by Americans who migrated here or “aggressive” plants, said local gardener Dianne Combs, a member of the gardening association and founder of Dianne’s Wild Garden, a local Facebook blog. Combs has gardened for decades, managing the gardens for her church and donating vegetable and landscaping plants to local people and organizations.

Combs redesigned her front lawn into a decadent pollinator garden starting almost two decades ago, long before biologists and conservationists preached about the threats from imported plant life and grass lawns. Her home on West Market is skirted with several dozen species of herbage she’s picked up at local garden centers and cultivated, which is why her hydrangeas are a mix of native and non-native. Walking around her gardens, you’ll spot bloodroot, English primrose, hellebore, roses, lilies, wild geranium, jack-in-the-pulpit, a non-invasive clematis, false indigo and black-eyed susans, just to name a few. This time of year, she’s often out pulling up creeping charlie (dead nettle) and yanking dandelions. While she trimmed back the black-eyed susans, explaining these are an example of an aggressive-but-native plant. The English primrose is not native, she said, but she planted it to honor her mother, who was born in the U.K. The primrose, like some other non-native ornamentals, require more resources to grow in Indiana.

Why does Combs educate homeowners to landscape with more native greenery? Like our local Soil and Water Conservation District officials, Combs wants folks to know the myriad reasons to feature native horticulture in our lawnscaping. She references Doug Tallamy, professor of agriculture and natural resources at the University of Delaware and founder of Homegrown National Park, a collaborative conservation project. His organization hopes to transform 50% of green lawns on private properties into biodiverse ecosystems. Combs first heard him at Wabash College years ago and still watches his YouTube videos.

“To start,” Combs said as she settled on her portable gardening seat in the middle of her burgeoning garden, “When you park your car anymore, do you worry about parking under a tree? Because we all used to check that.” She credited Tallamy for pointing out that even five years ago, anyone on an average day could predict that parking under a tree would likely have their windshields paved with bird poop. But in the past 50 years, one-third of the American population of birds are gone, which biologist Peter Marra said is a barometer of our “environmental integrity.” The loss of birds disappearing en masse is akin to the death of the canary in the coal mine. Something is wrong.

“If our birds are disappearing, then we’re cutting the legs off beneath us,” Marra said. “We’re destroying the environment that we depend on.” When we gut natural wetlands, woodlands and wildlands to create more lawns, we eradicate biodiversity, which makes our soil and ecosystems healthy and resilient. When we landscape with invasive, non-native species, we turn to pesticides, including the neuro-toxic nicotinoids, and synthetic fertilizers, taking a sledgehammer to the ecosystem.

“We’re apex creatures,” Combs said as she made a triangle of her arms over her head. We’re at the top of the chain. “At the bottom is good soil.” While talking, Combs swatted gnats even as a bumble bee nearly touched down on her head. Her yard buzzes with life.

Combs ran through the chain of life. If we have healthy soil then we grow healthy plants, which if they’re native feed the bugs upon which birds feast. Local insects cannot feed on and help control foreign plants. So they die.

We’ve lost almost 50% of insects on the planet, Tallamy reported in the 2023 YouTube video, “You are the future of conservation,” published on the Native Plant Channel. These insects serve multiple functions, not just food. Many, like butterflies, bees and wasps, pollinate. So, when non-native plants begin to take over, biodiversity drops. Biomass no longer fully enriches the soil as it decomposes.

Many non-native plants require more water, more fertilizer and later as we fight to take back control, more pesticides and work. Planting native species saves money and time on watering. Fertilizers, particularly nitrogen-based types, increase human dependency on the fossil fuel industry because they’re derived from petroleum products, contributing to carbon emissions affecting the climate. They’re made using the Haber-Bosch process, “a method developed over 100 years ago to create ammonia by heating and pressurizing nitrogen from the air over a hydrogen source (typically from natural gas or coal),” according to the International Fertilizer Organization.

The Montgomery Soil and Water Conservation District offers a list of the most wanted (to be removed) plants: winter creeper, burning bush, the stinky Callery Bradford pear, most honeysuckles, garlic mustard and stilt grass. Purdue lists 126 such species, including crown vetch, several privet species, vinca major or large leaf periwinkle, sweet autumn clematis, and more. (Find the full list at https://www.entm.purdue.edu/iisc/invasiveplants.html) Nearly any plant that contains the name of another country, continent or region is non-native.

For those of us who can’t hire a professional landscaper to help us plan and redesign our yards to save water, and reduce fertilizer and fewer pesticides, we can follow Combs’ example. As we learn which plants to remove, we can root out the most insidious, replacing with cultivars that complement our local ecosystems.

To learn more about local conservation, join Lunch with the League at noon today at the Fusion 54 for part three with Montgomery County’s SWCD.


The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.