Interview with Neil Diboll, Native Plant Pioneer
Neil Diboll is President of Prairie Nursery, one of the Midwest’s best known growers of native plants. He is an internationally recognized expert on topics related to native plants and sustainable garden and landscape design. Neil was nice enough to answer some questions I sent him, thus making possible Gardeninacity’s first interview.
Question: Do you find that the interest in native plants continues to grow? Are natives in danger of being passed by as a gardening trend?
Answer: When I started in business 31 years ago, lots of people said that native plants were just a passing fad. Instead, there has been a steady, gradual acceptance of the use of native plants in landscapes as an excellent alternative to non-natives. There will always be gardening trends, some of which will be fads, but the use of native plants simply makes too much ecological and economic sense not to be adopted as a long-term viable alternative to high-maintenance, large carbon footprint, and chemically dependent traditional landscapes.
Q: Do you think additional species of North American native plants (beyond the ones already grown) will become common in the garden? If so, can you give some examples?
A: We have only begun to use the various native trees, shrubs, vines, flowers, grasses, sedges, ferns, and mosses in our landscapes. There is, of course, a finite number of species native to a given region, but there is an excellent palette of native plants from which to select in almost every region of North America.
I think that most of the showier, widely adaptable species are now in the trade, but we have only recently begun to use sedges in our landscapes. This is a new frontier in native plants, because many members of this group of plants are so diverse, adaptable, and easy to grow. Many sedges also grow in problematic habitats, such as wet soils, dry shade, etc.
There are also many readily available prairie flowers that are under-utilized in our gardens. I expect to see more people including these fabulous plants in the future, especially after the drought of 2012, during which so many prairie flowers absolutely excelled!
Q. Some people argue that there is no advantage to native plants as such, that gardeners should focus on the characteristics of plants (such as drought resistant, etc.), and not their origins. What’s your response?
A. The recent research by Douglas Tallamy proves beyond a shadow of doubt that plants that are native to a region have a significantly higher value to the native fauna with which they have co-evolved over thousands of years. Most native plants have sufficient natural enemies that they do not present an invasive threat to diverse ecosystems, unlike certain invasive non-native plants that have caused huge ecological and economic damage.
Q. Global warming is changing the local climates to which native plants are adapted. Do you think this affects the rationale for planting natives?
A. There are many rationales for planting native plants. One is that they are adapted to their local climatic conditions. If the planet continues to warm rapidly, this is one rationale that will not continue to hold true for all species. However, there are other native plants that could well be perfectly adapted to the new conditions. While a warmer climate will not be favorable for sugar maples and white cedars, it will be ideal for many heat-loving prairie flowers and grasses.
In fact, plant geographers (phytogeographers) have determined that prairie species dominated the Midwest during the Xerotherimc Period, which occurred around 1,500 BC. This was apparently a period of elevated temperatures and possibly drier growing conditions that led to the demise of mesic forests and the rise of prairies and oak savannas. As the climate cooled and became more moist in more recent times, forests have invaded areas that were previously vegetated in prairie. Remnant prairies as far east as Long Island, NY point to the possibility that prairie communities were common all the way to the east coast in recent geologic time, only some 3,500 years ago. There is no reason to believe that this phenomenon would not occur again during a period of warmer temperatures in the future.
There will be both winners and losers among native plants under the new climatic regime. Plants have migrated and ebbed and flowed throughout history. It will be no different this time around, although the changes may occur at a more rapid pace than in past periods of climatic perturbation.
Q. How do you feel about people mixing natives and exotics in the garden?
A. I am not a native plant purist. I mix native woodland plants with hostas in my gardens at home. I am careful as to which non-natives I plant, so as to prevent the spread of invasive non-native plants. I also grow apple trees, originally from Kazakhstan, pears from Europe, potatoes from the Andes, onions from Persia, garlic from Kyrgyzstan, and so on. I also have planted our No Mow Lawn Mixture extensively on my property. This turf mix blend contains six different varieties of fescue, none of which are native to Wisconsin [where Prairie Nursery is located]. And I love cheery golden daffodils, reviled by deer, rabbits, groundhogs, and squirrels alike!
Q. Is the economic climate becoming more challenging for independent nurseries like yours?
A. The economic climate of the past ten years has been extremely challenging for those of us in the ornamental nursery business. Sales of perennials have been in decline since 2004, and the lack of housing starts from 2008 until recently has devastated the industry. Add the uncertainty in the economy since the Great Recession, and you have a very tough business climate for those of us selling something that is not generally considered to be a necessity. Many of my friends have closed their nurseries or sold them for a fraction of what they might have been worth ten years ago.
That said, we enjoyed good sales in 2012, and our booked orders for 2013 to date are well ahead of last year for the comparable period. I believe that native plant business has been less affected by the recent downturn, as the market share for natives seems to be growing. However, that does not make us immune to the economic realities of the marketplace.