Gardening on a Budget

No Time? No Money? You can still Try Native planting!

by Janet Lane

April 2021

We all have limits of time and money. Where do you start?

When I first moved to my home, Japanese knotweed grew thickly on about 20 feet of my yard. Bittersweet vine had grown so densely up a cluster of birch trees that it’s weight pulled the trees down to the ground. It was overwhelming, but we built a sandbox to keep our kids busy and started pulling and hauling knotweed into a giant compost pile at the bottom of the yard.

Over time we pestered the knotweed, starting from the front pulling and pulling, so it slowly shrank. Virginia creeper vine self-planted there and took over one section. We sprinkled goldenrod seed in sunny areas, which is slowly spreading. I traded plants with a neighbor who grew may apple, but the may apple was growing aggressively where we didn’t want it. So, then we moved may apple to the knotweed area to let the native spreading plant overtake an invasive spreading plant. Jack-in-the-Pulpit and trillium have appeared, self-planted from the soil that was once knotweed. Little by little, where there was once a useless monoculture, we have more native plants and a great variety of birds in our yard.

Based on my experience, the following suggestions should help anyone slowly and thoughtfully convert their land to a native plant garden.

This area was formerly filled with knotweed.

-I started with removing invasive plants (non-native plants that spread rapidly and out-compete native plants).

Some plants are illegal to sell in MA because they are garden bullies–-they spread quickly, and very few insects or animals will eat them or keep them at bay. Removing invasive plants will be a hobby, not a one-time effort. After removing invasives, you’ll want to add seed or more fast-growing native perennials--plants that can compete with the invasive seeds still in the soil.

-Choose plants that want what you can offer. Learn your yard. Where is the sunlight? What is the soil like? Is it sandy? Does it trend wet or dry? Every gardener practices a little trial and error in planning, but observing your own land will help you predict if you have what a particular plant needs to thrive.

-You can transition your garden gradually. You don’t have to tear out every non-native at one time: Focus on adding a new native plant as you remove a non-native plant. You can replace a quickly spreading non-native bush (like a forsythia) with a native bush (like winterberry) that will provide animals both shelter AND food. You may need to keep trimming an established non-native back enough to let the new native plant compete. You can develop your garden as time or money allows.

-Use the buddy system: Acquire native plants by trading seeds and plant cuttings with others. Try to find other people who also want to grow native plants. Learn together and share your successes.

-I learned a buyer beware: stores use the word “native” in different ways. Native is becoming a marketing phrase that may just mean it grows in the US. However, a plant from Colorado may not help birds in your area find a healthy home. Before purchasing a new plant, look up the Go Botany or Native Plants Finder websites on your phone to see if it is native to Massachusetts.

-I plan the big stuff first. Native trees and shrubs are the backbone of a native habitat and are good long-term financial investments. Small flowers come and go and may or may not thrive in your habitat. When money or time is limited, focus on the big plants first.

-I let plant communities change and evolve. Supporting wildlife and planting natives can be done gradually to adjust to your budget and life stage. You may need grass when your kids need a place to kick a ball, but you can try growing meadow plants there when they move out. Maybe a job change has given you time for a vegetable garden. Your yard and your plan will change. Perhaps a neighbor removed a tree that shaded your yard, and suddenly there is sun. Gardening is more like a planting conversation than a plan. It will evolve over time.

-I avoided the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Native gardening takes time. As you learn what plants thrive in your yard’s conditions and develop healthier soil with more composted organic matter, you will be less tempted to use the chemicals that hurt the microbes and insects that help your habitat thrive.

-I enjoyed learning about native plants and learning about insects. Nature evolves in a particular place. If you want to support butterflies, you will need to support caterpillars (butterfly babies) that evolved to eat the particular leaves that grow in New England. If you want to support the baby birds nesting in the dense cover of a non-native hedge, they need to eat caterpillars that eat particular leaves of plants from New England that your hedge doesn’t offer. Insects on plants can be considered a sign of success if that insect will attract and support wildlife when human sprawl has removed so much of their habitat.

Enjoy your garden and your insect visitors.

Notes from Lexington Living Landscape about putting Janet’s advice to work

Invasive plants. Mass Audubon's list of the most common invasive plants in Massachusetts offers advice on how to eliminate them, with links to other good resources.

Use the Buddy System. Other ways to make connections for acquiring plants and seeds by swap, beyond your circle of family, friends, and neighbors:

● Join a Facebook group like Gardening in Lexington MA.

● Lexington Living Landscapes is starting a Google group for members who would like to share plants and seeds. See the newsletter’s April issue.

Other places to acquire native plants cheaply

Some native plant sales offer plants at a discount to retail. Nearby plant sales in Spring 2021 include those organized by Lexington, Lincoln Land Conservation Trust, and Grow Native Massachusetts.

Some shrubs and trees grow readily from cuttings, which you can acquire from friends or fairly inexpensively from nurseries like the Vermont Willow Nursery.

If you are patient and like a fun challenge, you can grow many native perennials from seed. Check out the Wild Seed Project and our Where to Buy Plants page for more seed sources.

Many perennials can be divided to produce additional plants. When a gardener friend is renovating a bed or just moving some plants, they often have plant divisions to spare. You can also create additional plants by dividing your own. Again, patience is required; this a long-term project, not a quick fix!