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.

Neil Diboll
Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery

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.

Palm Sedge, a native of the Midwestern USAPhoto: Missouri Botanic Garden
Palm Sedge, a native of the Midwestern USA
Photo: Missouri Botanic Garden

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.

Western Sunflower, Purple Coneflower
Western Sunflower with Purple Coneflower

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.

Purple Milkweed
Purple Milkweed

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!

My front garden, mixing natives and exotics in mid-summer.
My front garden, mixing natives and exotics in mid-summer.

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.

41 Comments on “Interview with Neil Diboll, Native Plant Pioneer”

  1. An excellent piece of advice, it goes for gardeners in any part of the world. We are now growing and concentrating far more on native species, not only because we want to preserve them for future generations but also because they simply grow better, are healthier, less trouble and more adaptable than foreign species. People like me who garden purely for pleasure but have less energy than in younger days, find native species far less labour intensive and therefore an additional boon. Native flora and fauna go together, let’s keep our natural environment healthy.

    Having sad all that, I still have my favourite exotics, but I have given up struggling to keep the least suitable alive. I can always look at them in botanical gardens – or in the gardens of friends who haven’t yet seen the light.

    Thank you very much for visiting my blog. I shall soon be doing another gardening post too. It’s still a bit too cold here to start work in earnest.

  2. Very cool Jason! Bravo on your first interview and what an informative one! I am a fan of native plants. It is nice to hear his take on using them in conjunction with the changing weather patterns we have been having. This interview has helped me make a couple more decisions in plant selections for the spring! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Jason, What a great interview. While I love native plants, I don’t consider myself a purist so I was excited to see that I am in good company since Neil isn’t a native purist either.Who knew there were once prairies in Long Island?

  4. Great interview! Thoughtful questions and interesting responses. I especially liked your third question, since it’s a hotly debated topic. Another non-purist here, so it’s nice to see his point of view.

    I’m glad his nursery is doing well so far this year, and hope to visit this year.

  5. Great questions and interview Jason. I was especially interested in the one on climate change and plants ranging northward. All that I have read is that this will change biodiversity in an area to a measurable extent. The scientists make mention that the plants are moving faster than the insects that feed on them. This could create a situation where native plants get ‘weeded out’ by natural selection neighboring plants with no natural predators. The theory is a simple one of taste. The invasive plants will not appeal to the resident insects and they will continue to feed on their natural food source and ignore the invasive plants. Oddly different with pollination. The pollinators will pollinate plants that are not eaten by other insects. They are rewarded with pollination without the negative consequence of being eaten. Really interesting study.

  6. Great interview. I didn’t realize that plant nursery sales have been down since 2004 – before the housing collapse. The photo of your garden area is beautiful. I like that mix of natives and non-natives. I do feel that more and more people are realizing the benefit of adding natives to their garden. I think natives are much easier to grow because they are already adapted to that particular region.

  7. Great interview! I think education is the most important element in any subject and frankly the more I learn about native plants the more passionate I am about them. Thus I feel educating the gardening public about the importance of native plants is key to getting people to buy them and planting them in their gardens. I see more native plants available at big box stores than 5 years ago which tells me that there is a growing demand for them. It may start slowly, for example there are more and more people gardening for butterflies now mostly with native plants and they say that is the gateway “drug” for gardening for insects. Tallamy’s book is fabulous and a must read for everyone! Super post and good for you for spreading the word about natives!

  8. A really easy to read, but in depth interview…I’ve been flirting with native plants and since moving here they look like they will be a staple.

    The climate here is so different then the coast, and the water restrictions are getting deeper…so it’s evolve or let the garden go.


  9. I so agrre with the concept of using native plants. Some of the early plant hunters introduced many interesting plants from Asia, such as Rhododenron and most invasive is the Japanese knotweed that has invaded our countryside. Just observing what grows in the hedgerow gives an indication what grows well and remains free from disease. One plant I love is something called Joe Pye weed, the botanical name might be Eupatorium are you familiar with it.

  10. I noticed his nursery website listed the golden alexanders as larval food for the swallowtail butterfly. That is so odd since the butterflies in my garden ignore it and I’ve never found caterpillars on it. I love that natives are gaining wider acceptance. It just makes sense to use plants that are genetically engineered to do well in your area. So logical! Great post, Jason!

  11. I like this interview especially because of the fact that he is not a purist. I am trying native plants for my garden but I also have lots of non-native. I can’t pull out a plant or tree as many purist native-planters do.

  12. Great interview…I am not a purist either but I do draw the line at invasives as Neil does…I have become interested in adding more sedges as well and was glad to hear there are more available….that is the frustration with planting natives… finding them. I found my natives performed superbly in the drought we had which isn’t their normal climate…the non-natives had a harder time…I think many natives will adapt with the slow warm up and we will be surprised at how many do well.

  13. Very interesting interview Jason. I hadn’t given the effect of the recession on plant sales a lot of thought previously to reading this, but can imagine that the last few years have had to be really tough for nurseries. I think there is increased interest in native plants generally and your interview seems to confirm this.

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