Five Reasons Why Edible Gardens Need Native Plants

5 Reasons Why Edible Gardens Need Native Plants

by Stephanie W

We often get asked if it’s ok to grow natives with edibles, and the answer is yes, as that’s what many of us are implementing with great success.  In fact, on a larger scale, many farmers are beginning to experiment with incorporating insectaries, or planting strips, mostly filled with native plants as part of their farming practices.  With these these strips, farmers find:

  • they need to use less pesticides
  • crops are more productive

Why?  Here are the reasons:

    1. A native plant hedgerow or garden will maintain a steady population of beneficial insects.  These insects don’t care if their prey is on an edible plant or on an aster.  Native plants support many different kinds of herbivorous insects, which in turn attract natural enemies, such as predatory and parasitic wasps, birds, ladybugs, beetles (many species’ larvae are voracious ground predators consuming root pests), lacewings, Ambush bugs, etc.  By having these insects in your garden from the very beginning and giving them a steady supply of food and resources, when your plant crops are getting planted and in full swing, your pest control is already in place.  Let’s not forget that birds eat insects, and having a bird-friendly garden will encourage them to help control pests.  Many birds love slugs, as do other beneficial soil organisms.  

      Syphid fly larva consuming aphids. Syphid fly adults are pollinators. They overwinter in soil and leaf debris, so cleaning up your garden would remove these important insects.

    2. Native plants attract pollinators, particularly native bees.  You should have plants blooming in the early spring through fall because pollinators are active then, and they all have differing times of emergence which will overlap with your flowering vegetable plants (such as tomatoes, squash, etc).  Native bees are more efficient pollinators than honeybees (we love those too–native bees just are understudied, under-appreciated and under-resourced).  These bees actively collect pollen.  Having native plants present means you support native bees that have specialist relationships with native plants.  Some bees can only use the pollen from the Helianthus genus to feed their larvae.  Squash bees are a native bee and the best pollinator for squash. When these populations are not supported, people often either do not get squash (zucchini, etc) or they must hand-pollinate to ensure squash producing plants. 
    3. With a native garden, it’s best to do minimal maintenance in the fall and spring which will ensure beneficial insects overwinter and emerge with healthy population levels in the spring.  Vegetable gardens often need to be cultivated and plant material removed, which can destroy beneficials, as well as pests (although that practice is changing as long as plants were disease-free). Having a section of natives acting as a refuge can help to mitigate the impact of edible garden clean-up on your beneficial populations.  Undisturbed areas also provide nesting and

      Photo: Rick Darke Ground foragers like these thrushes rely upon soil organisms to eat (slugs are one).

      overwintering sites for the effective native bees.  Many of our solitary native bees nest in the ground (they are no threat to you, unlike Yellow Jackets) or in cavities or stems.  Having your native plant garden act as a refuge is immensely critical to pollinator and pest control services.  

      Long-horned bees on Coreopsis

    4. If your native hedgerow is near your edible garden, or if you interplant native plants, you can also improve the soil, increasing soil biodiversity, adding organic matter, which increases water holding capacity.  Many native plants have extensive roots systems that tend to go downward 10+ feet, and every year, some of those roots die back, adding organic matter.  The roots also penetrate down into the soil creating water channels; the more organic matter you have, the more water holding capacity of your soil, which means for you, less extra irrigation.  Some native plants also are nitrogen fixers, and also attract pollinators.  Partridge Pea is one of those plants, one of our few annuals, and of short stature.  
    5. Many native plants are edible.   Some of them are even edible! (though do your research about what parts are edible and how to prepare them).  Many native plants had historical medicinal uses, another interesting aspect to research.  Below is a list of plants that will be available at our plant sale, so it is not exhaustive.   To assemble the list below we used: Plants for a Future.  

Allium cernuum – Nodding Wild Onion – bulbs, leaves (like chives, gave Chicago its name)

Amorpha canescens – Lead Plant, a nitrogen-fixer

Aquilegia canadensis – Columbine, flowers edible (but leave some for hummingbirds)

Asarum canadense – Wild Ginger – roots

Blephilia ciliata – Downy Wood Mint (weak mint tea)

Camassia scilloides – Wild Hyacinth – bulb

Dalea purpurea – Purple Prairie Clover, dried leaves, tea

Eupatorium purpureum – Sweet Joe Pye Weed, roots’ ashes used as a salt

Hydrophyllum virginianium – Virginia Waterleaf – leaves

Monarda fistulosa – Wild Bergamot – tea, leaves

Opuntia humifusa – Prickly Pear Cactus – leaves “pads” and fruit (remove spines)

Podophyllum peltatum – May Apple – only the fruit when ripe; all else poisonous

Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s Seal, roots and young shoots (seeds, fruit poisonous)

Sisyrinchium angustifolium – Blue-eyed Grass, leaves,cooked

Zizia aurea – Golden Alexander – flowers added to salad or cooked like broccoli