Mississippi’s top garden expert talks native plants, practical tips, garden must-haves, pollinators and more.
Written by Leslie Criss | Illustrated by Sarah Mccullen
If you’ve ever entertained even a passing thought about planting a garden of the floral or vegetable kind, you ought to be familiar with Felder Rushing. Perhaps you’ve read one or more of the 30 books he’s authored or co-authored. Or you could have read his syndicated column in any number of newspapers for the past four decades. Maybe you’ve heard his unmistakable Felder voice while listening to MPB Think Radio: His “Gestalt Gardener” program has garnered Rushing many fans, followers and friends through the years as he educates, entertains and endears himself to those in need of gardening guidance. When he attended the opening of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden Bridgewater in Manchester, England, he was pleased to find that 80% of the beautiful flower borders were of plants native to Mississippi. A 10th-generation Southern gardener, horticulturist Rushing graciously gave up some of his gardening time to chat about one of his favorite subjects: native plants.
Q: What are native plants?
A: In general, native plants are any plants that were here before ships started arriving bringing plants from other places, before Europeans started bringing exotic plants over with them. Native plants are those that were growing on this continent before the 1400s. Introduced, nonnative plants which have adapted well to our climate and soils and have started spreading on their own are said to be naturalized. The term wildflower is broadly applied to herbaceous annuals and perennials that spread from seed. People get hung up about planting natives; daffodils are not natives, but I’m going to plant daffodils.
Q: What are advantages of native plants?
A: Well, native plants have been here long enough to adapt to our climate and our soil. And they also work well with our native wildlife. For example, hummingbirds migrate south to north. When the buckeyes bloom here, the hummingbirds arrive, and the buckeyes lead them to Vermont. Native wildlife and native plants have worked stuff out between them pretty well.
Of course, not all natives are great — like poison ivy. And oak trees are thugs — they’ll sprout from every acorn, and they’re natives. There’s a small percentage of people who are real purists, who think natives are better than nonnatives. There are great natives and terrible natives. In the end, they’re all just plants.
Q: What are some practical tips you can offer home gardeners?
A: Well, one would certainly be don’t plant native plants just because they’re native plants, but plant them because they are good garden plants. Also, use different shapes, sizes, colors in your garden — use a mixture. Use familiar plants. You don’t need to use all natives; mix in nonnatives and wildflowers. Accessorize: Put in a birdbath, a post, a wagon wheel. I saw a garden using a small section of split-rail fence with seven native plants in the ground. It was stunning. And, you know, you don’t have to relegate vegetables to vegetable gardens. One of the prettiest hibiscus we can plant is okra.
Q: What are the best native plants for attracting wildlife?
A: Most of them attract wildlife. The single best attractor of wildlife is goldenrod, but we don’t like it because it’s common. But it’s the best pollinator plant. People think they are allergic to goldenrod, but they aren’t. It’s ragweed that makes us sneeze, not goldenrod. Zinnias, purple coneflowers and sunflowers are good pollinators, too.
Q: What are native plants you’d recommend gardeners include in their gardens?
A: The one native plant I think everyone should have is a magnolia tree. It’s our state tree and state flower. If you don’t want a big tree, there’s one that’s like a shrub called Little Gem. My goodness, whatever killed the dinosaurs couldn’t kill the magnolia. Redbuds are easy to grow. There’s one in the same family called Grancy Graybeard. It’s a stunning spring-blooming plant. And blueberries are great natives with gorgeous fall colors; a cypress tree will grow in any type soil. Every garden should have a clump of goldenrod, and though it’s not on our radar, every good garden should include narrow leaf sunflowers.
Q: Anything else you want folks to know?
A: A real strong trend nationwide right now is a flower lawn. We seem to have an obsession about big pretty lawns — we think if it’s not nicely mowed, we’re not a good person. In the spring, we have clover and dandelions growing wild and they’re loaded with bees and butterflies. The trend is to leave a part of your lawn uncut until May. Let the spring wildflowers grow, mow around them. It will be pretty, but it will also remain loaded with pollinators.
Tune into “The Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio Fridays at 9 a.m. and Saturdays at 10 a.m., or listen online anytime at gestaltgardener.mpbonline.org. For a free PDF of Felder’s Native Plants booklet, visit felderrushing.blog, and click on Felder Biostuff to contact him to request one.