North Georgia isn’t a prairieland. The native ground cover greeting the first settlers wasn’t grass, and it definitely wasn’t the “scientifically formulated,” chemically enhanced lawns of today’s suburbs.
Many homeowners want to add a few trees to that monotonous expanse of grassland. But big-box stores rarely sell native tree species. Pear trees are a favorite, often of a species imported from Asia. Crepe myrtles dazzle homeowners with colors (and later, with the amount of debris they drop on the driveway). But crepe myrtles aren’t native to Georgia, or even to Charleston, where they first became popular. They are an import from China.
Native plants should be a staple in every home landscape, especially if you like birds. These plants attract the most local insects and caterpillars. Those, in turn, serve as food for the bird families who move in where there’s plenty to eat.
It doesn’t mean doing all the landscaping with rattlesnake weed. That’s a native, and the scary name is misleading because it doesn’t attract snakes. But there are hundreds of other low-growing plants, described in a free PDF publication by the UGA Cooperative Extension Service (search online for “Native Plants of North Georgia: A Photo Guide”).
The most visible transformation of the landscape under my control has been the eradication of imported, “builders’ special” ornamental fruit trees, and their replacement with native oaks, poplars and maples. Another publication by the UGA Extension Service shows 40 trees whose natural home is Georgia.
Deciduous, or broadleaf, trees make a striking change in the appearance of the property after just a few years. A vast “green desert” of grass, punctuated by a few poles owned by Georgia Power, turned into a park with plenty of shade and a chirping population of cardinals, mockingbirds, finches, wrens and others. The best thing was that the trees were free.
All it took was a careful look at the edge of the adjoining woods. There were small, young tulip poplars, red maples, willow oak and other oak varieties growing wild. We tagged the seedlings, then transplanted them toward the end of the following winter. All did well, especially the poplars, which grew an amazing 6 feet per year.
An excellent guide to “thinking native” is found in Douglas Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home.” Tallamy has in the past given talks at Elachee Nature Science Center.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.