Savannah, Georgia Gardener’s Native Plants Support a Healthy Ecosystem


Ben Chaffee’s front yard is dotted with fruit trees and sprawling squash vines. Her backyard is a lush tropical paradise where bees soar through the air under the shade of papaya trees and live oak trees.

Like Chaffee, more and more gardeners in the Savannah area are ditching the plain old lawn. Sometimes they call it “re-wild”, while others just say it’s about gardening with more native plants.

Nationally, the trend is to revitalize local ecosystems by reintroducing native plants that have been abandoned in traditional landscaping. In gardening circles, they will quote entomologist Doug Tallamy, who popularized returning to native lawn shape to support the environment.

Read more:Plants native to Georgia enrich the soil, nourish and protect wildlife, conserve water

Also:Let pollinators rebuild your ecosystem

Ben Chaffee shows off some of the leafy greens that grow in his garden.

Garden makeover

Chaffee is not the traditional gardener.

In five years, on his less than an acre property just steps from Daffin Park, he grew about 100 different fruit trees and at least 200 other types of plants in his front and back yards. But neither is he a native plant purist. Chaffee has a mix of native plants, like native gourds and papaya, an English apple native from Georgia all the way to Canada, as well as exotic plants he’s purchased from websites like E-Bay and Etsy.

“Native plants have really adapted to have deep root systems,” Chaffee said. Although he has a green garden, he says he doesn’t water it much, especially the native plants. He also doesn’t need to mow.

Chaffee uses a method called permaculture, where he recreates successful natural ecosystems in his own backyard.

Up above, the oak trees live and provide a unique “microclimate,” Chaffee said. He can tell the difference in plant growth and resilience under the oak trees compared to other parts of his garden, and he has measured the temperature over the years and found that under the oak trees the temperatures stay milder. . Below it has smaller trees, and at the bottom there is a dense layer of climbing plants like squash and pumpkin covering the ground to keep it cool and maintain humidity.

Papayas grow on one of the many trees in Ben Chaffee's garden.

“There’s a lot of good biodiversity, trying to mostly mimic indigenous ways of farming and also some really healthy ecosystems,” Chaffee said. Plants are not individual facets of a garden; they form a coherent and interconnected system.

Problem solving in a system is an unexpected skill that Chaffee says he learned through his gardening. For example, when his bees started exhibiting varroa, the mite disease that notoriously killed bee populations, he was able to introduce a tobacco plant that he said the bees use to fortify themselves against varroa. .

Bees in general are not native to the United States and can compete with native bees. He therefore plants additional native flowers better suited to native bees to balance the impact of his apiary.

While wet weather and humidity can cause fungus and mold in gardens, Chaffee said native plants are already resistant to these problems and don’t require treatment.

Chaffee said he made friends in Savannah’s gardening community — many of whom appear right on his doorstep, drawn to the garden — to learn how to manage his garden and fight off problems when they arise.

Before introducing anything, especially the seeds he bought online, Chaffee said he does extensive research to understand how it might impact other plants and to make sure the plant is non-invasive and will not take over one’s garden or spread to others. He also attended the University of Georgia Extension’s six-month beekeeping course and met other beekeepers there and at a large annual conference hosted by the UGA Extension.

A bee explores an echinacea in Ben Chaffee's garden.

Where to Find Native Plant Experts

For local gardeners, UGA’s agricultural extension offices are a base for knowledge about native plants and gardening. Keren Giovengo is the Sustainable Land Use Manager for the EcoScapes program at the UGA Marine Extension and a reference for the Georgia Native Plant Society on the coast.

“Native plants, birds, insects and other wildlife have all evolved together to meet each other’s needs,” Giovengo said. “On the other hand, non-native plants reduce the number of interacting species and lead to loss of ecosystem function.”

The tendency to rewild lawns with native plants can serve an important ecological function, and Giovengo said the more native species an ecosystem has, the more stable, productive, and resilient it is in the face of challenges or hazards, such as droughts or hurricanes that are part of life on the coast. Native plants providing “ecological services” such as flood mitigation, water quality and coastal protection can reduce the extent of disturbance and destruction of human coastal communities.

For those looking to add native plants to their home ecosystem, Giovengo said the EcoScapes program and your local UGA agricultural extension can provide helpful information to start planting at home.

Marisa Mecke is an environmental journalist. She can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at (912) 328-4411.


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