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April is National Garden Month: Know the difference between ‘non-native’ and ‘invasive’

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By Sara Kangas

April is National Garden Month! While you’re welcoming spring and the return of pollinators, make sure you’re not introducing invasive species inadvertently.

Recently, Cheerios launched a #bringbackthebees campaign in partnership with Veseys Seeds. The campaign distributed 100 million seeds packets (that’s over 1.5 billion seeds!) nationwide as part of an effort to increase awareness around bee population decline. Shortly following the campaign’s launch, however, the company received criticism for including “invasive species” seeds in the packets.

First, it’s important to understand the difference between “invasive” and “non-native” species. Some of Cheerio seed packets included wildflower seeds that only thrive in specific regions. These seeds were not “invasive,” but rather “non-native.”

Non-native plants introduced with human help either intentionally or accidentally (such as through a seed packet giveaway) end up in places they weren’t found before. Non-native species are less likely to survive outside of their native (or original) habitat. They’re also not as likely to be beneficial to local wildlife, and they may be more vulnerable to climate conditions than native species are.

This is the important bit to remember: not all non-native plants are invasive. Invasive species are both non-native and dominate native species; and by definition, disrupt ecosystems by limiting native biodiversity.

Amur honeysuckle, for instance – an invasive that has prompted extensive control efforts almost year-round across the Midwest – is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring and one of the last to die off in the fall. Its hardiness allows it to thrive, especially in its preferred habitat of forest canopies, by crowding out native wildflower and other plant species.

Amur honeysuckle can also encourage predator populations, as it provides expanded cover in what would otherwise be clear forest floor, and is linked to increased incidence of Lyme disease. Every bit of these stubborn plants must be removed to prevent resurgence, making non-chemical removal almost impossible.

Non-native plants, on the other hand, can be maintained and even thrive with proper care. Take for instance one of the most famous pollinator-friendly plants: milkweed. 

Milkweed is not native across the continental United States, yet when properly grown, can host migrating monarch butterflies from coast to coast. Tropical, non-native milkweed does require some smart gardening, though – the stalks must be trimmed during the fall and winter to discourage monarch activity in non-tropical areas.

If you’d like to learn more about how to practice garden-smart regional planting, or if you’d just like some advice on how to help bring back the pollinators, contact your local conservation district! They have the resources to help your garden and pollinators thrive. If you aren’t sure which native plant species you can plant in your area, try these ecoregional planting guides from the Pollinator Partnership.

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Sara Kangas is NACD’s communications and operations coordinator. She can be reached at sara-kangas@nacdnet.org.

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