Grit Blogs > Nature and Gardening at the Edge

Growing non-natives

Minnie Hatz headshotPerhaps if we defined lawn or landscape we would have to sooner or later use words like non-native or transplanted. Wherever we live, we somehow like to grow things that do not grow there naturally. We are rarely happy simply maintaining what naturally grows around our house. We want something different. The problems come in when we try to grow things that do not naturally grow in our area or even anywhere similar.  

The USDA zone map is some help in determining if you can grow a plant where you live. I notice that it advises that it only maps the minimum winter temperatures. The tropical and semi-tropical plants may grow anyway in the United States but there are some limitations: They may not bloom or put on fruit or seeds with a shorter growing season. While they may live for years (perennial) in southern zones, you can either let them die in northern zones, or dig them up and let them winter indoors (or in a greenhouse). 

There are many other factors besides minimum winter temperatures that can affect how plants grow. Some reference books talk about wildlife communities or ecology but they differ as well in the types and numbers of areas that they identify. It is easy to see that the plants of the Rocky Mountains are quite different than those of the high plains. Identifying exactly why plants grow readily one place and with difficulty in another place seems trickier.  

Top of an aspen tree showing some stress and die off of branchesAspen, one of the most common trees in the Rocky Mountains are not so hardy at lower elevations. I am told that the warmer temperatures cause the problems. They do stay alive and even reproduce readily on the plains of Colorado and elsewhere, if you move them there. Sadly they don’t have as long a life as in the mountains and often start losing limbs and die. The photo here shows one that is starting to have problems.  

Top of a healthy blue spruceAnother common tree of the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado blue spruce is more versatile. Again, they are native to the mountains and you can see every size from seedling to towering old trees. Unlike aspens, they generally transplant and live as long in different areas of the country. 

Whether buying or transplanting trees and plants, it is a good idea to find their origin and preferred habitat so you can do your best to keep the plant healthy and growing. Many domestic flowers originally grew in Asia or Europe as wild flowers. With a little research and perhaps information from the growers you can find ways to create their habitat and keep them healthy. 

Moving from east to west, one of my latest projects is attempting to grow the lovely redbud tree, common in Eastern Woodlands, to the Front Range. It is a challenge but can be done. I know of several of the grown trees in the area and they certainly did NOT grow wild here. No picture is included, as my surviving specimen, nearly a year old, is only a few inches tall and of course has no blooms. Maybe in a future blog, we can see how well I have reproduced its preferred habitat. 

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6/18/2012 1:33:49 PM

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penny kunter
5/18/2012 6:08:34 AM

My noble horticultural experiment this year is to grow blueberries. I know better than to just stick a bush in the ground, expecting it to thrive in our alkaline Colorado soil, so I've created a separate raised bed composed mostly of peat moss, compost, polymer water-holding crystals and sulfur granules. The bed is now completed (and that was a story in itself), and I'm waiting for the rain so I can get some nice non-alkaline rainwater to saturate the peat moss and fill the polymer crystals, ready for the Grand Planting. Unfortunately I've already managed to accidentally kill two of the plants I've bought, sigh. (I replaced them of course.) Rain is expected in two days so I hope I can keep my experimental subjects alive until then.


nebraska dave
5/13/2012 2:08:59 PM

Minnie, in my gardening experience, we gardeners just like the challenge of seeing if a plant can be grown some where outside of it's native area. The nurturing and caring that goes into bringing a plant to maturity brings satisfaction, doesn't it? I think it's just in the gardener's nature to keep trying something new. It would be much easier if I would just give in to the wild plants and try to live in harmony with them but where would the fun be in that? Oh, well, we are hopelessly drawn to garden engineering and plant domestication. :0) Have a great day in the garden.