NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ –Japanese knotweed and Chinese silver grass may look lovely as accents to your well-coifed yard, but these invasive plants are at the root of a growing problem.

These and other types of foreign plants spread from your garden and end up anywhere and seemingly everywhere - along the Raritan River, for instance – where they disrupt natural communities and wreak havoc on ecological processes.

One Rutgers expert is urging homeowners to eschew these invasive plants and instead landscape with native species.

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“Some people may say, ‘Well, it’s a survival of the fittest kind of world, so if it’s green, why should it matter?’” said Michele Bakacs, an associate professor and agriculture and natural resources agent with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County, which is part of Rutgers’ New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. “It matters a lot to our local wildlife that depend on native plants for food [and] for nesting sites, and many of these invasive exotics just don’t provide the same kind of resources and habitat that the native plants do.”

What acerbates the situation, Bakacs said, is that the abundance of deer in New Jersey – perhaps as high as 10 times the appropriate population in some pockets in the state – who seem to prefer to munch on only the native plants.

“All the deer that we have don’t eat invasive exotic plants,” she said. “With that added browse pressure, the native plants don’t stand a chance.”

Even the state’s ever-changing habitat has added to the problem.  

Widespread development has transformed New Jersey’s once lush, verdant landscape into more of a patchwork of forests.

“We all have to feel the responsibility of setting aside parts of our yard to turn it back to nature,” Bakacs said.

If there’s a glimmer of hope, it’s the county’s cooperative extension office. She said residents can call for assistance in identifying the types and classifications of plants growing in their yards, as well as learn about native alternatives.

“The first thing they should do is know what you already have,” she said. “Do an assessment of your yard and determine, ‘Do I have any of these problem plants?’”

Bakacs said residents must be diligent because stores increasingly are selling invasive plants.

“There are native plant nurseries in New Jersey,” she said. “Unfortunately, finding native plants is still somewhat difficult, and homeowners are going to have a little bit more work than just going to your local big-box store and getting these plants.”

She said the New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team’s Do Not Plant List is a great resource to cross reference when shopping for plants to avoid purchasing invasives.

Additionally, there is a Rutgers fact sheet about incorporating native plants into residential landscapes.

“So, there’s lots of really great resources for people to start being better stewards of their home landscapes and thinking about how they can make their yards into better habitats,” Bakacs said. “It would be great if people thought about, ‘Well, instead of just getting what my neighbor has, I can choose plants in my landscape that are going to benefit birds and butterflies and provide important resources for wildlife.’”