Have you ever been cleaning up the garden in the spring and plucked the stalk of a dead annual from the garden store, only to have a little cube of dirt come up, shaped exactly like the cube of roots you planted last year? Garden store plants are bred to survive off those little cubes of dirt. It's economical to raise plants in little cubes. Then when you plant them in your garden, they can live their whole life without interacting with your garden soil at all. They stay in their little cube, looking sad if they don't get their regular fix of chemical fertilizer. They simply can't mine the riches of the soil with their stunted little roots. And unless you water them frequently, they will just die. Even the skilled gardener who knows to buy plants that are less root-bound and breaks up the roots to encourage their spread is fighting a hopeless battle because commercial garden plants are not bred for root strength. Even commercial perennials have disappointing roots. Root strength doesn't sell.
Native plants don't care what sells. They care about survival and success. They grow vigorous roots that reach down to find moist soil, even when the surface is parched. Many of their deep roots survive forest fire like they were born to shrug it off - and they were. These webs of roots can literally knit the earth together and thwart erosion. They crack through hard-pan and clay layers to find the treasure of nutrients below. And in so doing, they make the nutrients and moisture available to the birds, animals, and insects on the surface.
The effects of these deep root systems aren't one-directional, either. Native plants are pros at storing "excess" water for the future - keeping it from running off your downspouts or across your lawn to be lost to evaporation or dirtied and discharged in a storm sewer. Even the water they can't absorb follows their complex web of roots deep into the soil. Even better, those roots take carbon and stash it safely below the surface. Wondering what you can do to help fight global warming? The answer might be easier than you think. <Hint: plant native plants.>
In the Greenhouse
This post was inspired as I was potting last year's Swamp Milkweed into quart pots. Their roots looked like they were ready to take on the world (pictures in the slider frame below). This is why you won't often (never at our greenhouse) find native plants for sale in flimsy little six-packs of dirt. Native plants don't tolerate tiny dirt cubes. Their roots need room to roam. If you are ready to dive deep in your garden or wild space, we have plants for you at www.UPNativePlants.com.