Many of us look at our yards as a place to grow food or flowers, but not necessarily for wildlife. We fail to consider that our lawns and gardens have a purpose beyond beautification. We view weeds and wildlife as intruders and competition to be eliminated.
We now know there are better ways! We can provide habitat for wildlife by planting native plants that support their needs for food, shelter, and nesting places. We can use native plants to control erosion, reduce water runoff into storm sewers, improve water quality, provide habitat for pollinators, and attract beneficial insects that prey on damaging pests. And we can also have gardens that are attractive while also providing us with fruits, nuts, vegetables, and herbs.
There is a lot of information available about the benefits of using native plants in your yard. The best way to learn more is to go out into nature itself. Start exploring the natural landscape where you live. You will find yourself amazed at the beauty of the wildflowers and grasses that grow there. You will see how these plants interact with each other in complex ways that support life for all species including humans. It may change the way you think about your land forever!
Humans and wildlife can coexist
As humans, we have the ability to coexist with wildlife while also being responsible stewards of the land.
We used this philosophy as the guiding light when we decided to welcome native plants, including weeds, and let nature be our guide by welcoming natural processes and seasonal changes and allowing them to dictate the direction of our gardening efforts. Having a garden that is self-sustained by nature is not only environmentally sound, but it’s also cost-effective. You don’t need pesticides or herbicides when you work with nature instead of against it. You simply watch, observe and nurture your garden as it evolves into something beautiful and bountiful.
What exactly does natural native gardening look like?
Natural native gardening looks like many things depending on where you live and what kind of land you are working with. It can be a formal or informal garden that is designed around natural patterns in your landscape or one that mimics the surrounding landscape or plant communities found nearby. You can use native plants that work with the natural system in your location. Your garden can be a small urban plot or acres of land.
What do we mean by "native" plants?
To be considered native, a plant species must have been present in a region before the arrival of European settlers. The plants you select for your native garden should ideally be native to the state where you live or at the very least native to some part of the region. Native plants, like native birds and other wildlife, are part of the interconnected web of life that evolved together in the same area. They depend on each other for survival.
Creating native plant gardens is an important way to help sustain biodiversity. By creating a native plant garden, each patch of habitat becomes part of a collective effort to nurture and sustain the living landscape for birds, animals, and insects.
Below we will look at 13 of the benefits of adding native plants to the landscape and garden.
1. They make a smaller demand on water and require less maintenance
When you buy a native plant, you’re buying a plant that is specially adapted to that climate and soil, so it will be much easier to care for once it’s established. Native plants need little or no pruning, deadheading, watering, or fertilizing. They’ll help reduce noise pollution from lawnmowers, blowers, and trimmers. And they make for a beautiful addition to your landscape!
2. Native plants are essential food sources
In addition to providing essential food and shelter for birds, many other species of wildlife benefit from native plants. Monarchs, swallowtails, tortoiseshells, and beautiful blues all rely on specific native plant species for food and shelter. These plants provide nectar for hummingbirds, native bees, moths, butterflies, and bats. They also serve as natural habitats for mammals. Through their fruits, nuts, and seeds, these plants give wildlife a crucial source of food.
3. They help control soil erosion, stormwater runoff
Erosion is a common threat to landscapes that rely too heavily on non-native plants. Erosion can dramatically reshape your yard’s slopes and planting beds and even redirect water flow into undesirable areas. You can help prevent erosion by planting native plants in troublesome areas. Thanks to their deep root systems, native plants help stabilize and anchor the soil.
4. Native species provide shelter
Native plants attract a variety of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife by providing diverse habitats, shelter, and food sources. Lawns that are closely mowed provide little habitat or food for animals and are of little use to most wildlife!
5. Native plants help to regenerate soil health
A diverse collection of native plants with deep roots benefits any soil type. Native plant roots can grow up to 10 to 15 feet deep depending on the species. Their roots break up heavy clay soils and allow water to thoroughly permeate the soil profile.
6. Native species attract the right kind of insect pollinators and birds.
Nectar- and pollen-feeding pollinators evolved with native plants, which are best adapted to local growing conditions. Most nectar- and pollen-feeding insects feed on specific plant species—hummingbirds sip nectar from long, tubular honeysuckle flowers, whereas miner bees rely on goldenrod. Non-native plants are much less likely to be visited by pollinators and provide fewer food sources for insect populations.
7. Supports local economies as the plants are locally sourced
Gardening with native plants doesn’t just benefit birds, it helps people too. By purchasing native plants from a local garden center or nursery, you’ll invest in your local economy and cultivate a base of local knowledge about the best plants that will thrive in your area.
8. They are more likely to survive extreme weather conditions
Because native plants have adapted to your local climate and weather conditions, they are more likely to survive than non-native plants. For example, if you live near the ocean, salt-tolerant native plants are more likely to survive high winds and salt spray than non-native plants that have never needed to adapt to such conditions.
9. Native plants support and encourage biodiversity
By planting native plants in your garden, you will help increase biodiversity. Native plants support native insects, which in turn support larger animals. and create a “food web” of connected species. Insects are an important transition point for energy within food webs. Since many of them consume plant matter, they turn the energy harnessed from the sun into protein that larger animals need. By choosing native plants, we can provide our home landscape with a habitat to support native wildlife and support local flora as well.
10. Native wildlife gardens reduce your carbon footprint
Planting native plants can be a good strategy for fighting climate change. Native plants are easier to care for than lawns and they absorb carbon dioxide which can help to fight global warming, especially long-living trees like oaks and maples.
11. Planting natives is an act of conservation
While so much of the conservation and environmentalism movement is focused on big, grand gestures (think big checks made out to green organizations or protests in Washington), the real change that makes a difference happens every day in our own backyards. The backyard habitat is where birds, bees, butterflies, and other native species have their first chance to come into contact with the natural environment—and it’s where they’ll stay if given a chance.
When you plant natives in your yard and garden, you’re effectively creating an extension of the habitat around you. When we choose plants that grow naturally in our area, we’re aiding those species in their struggle to keep up with the rapid expansion of human development encroaching on their territory.
12. Native plants are healthier and stronger
If you plant native species, they will establish quickly and will be hardy and healthy. A plant that is native to an area has evolved over thousands of years, learning to thrive in particular areas—in harmony with the environment, the soil, water supply, varying weather throughout all the seasons, and other native companions. The root system of a native plant can extend up to 15 feet deep in the soil, with stems and leaves that can handle harsh sun or buffeting winds. Because it’s part of a larger natural ecosystem, a native species is a good choice for re-establishing an area after earth-moving projects or other disturbances.
13. Native plants are rarely invasive
Native plants are far less likely to be invasive than non-native species. The English Ivy vine is a perfect example: though it seems charming, it can quickly spread out of control and encroach on the space of other plants in your yard. Native plants are far better at restoring balance to the yard because they require less upkeep than invasive plants.
Where can I find native plants?
Here are my seven favorite sources for learning about native plants and choosing which ones to add to your yard:
- The National Wildlife Federation has a super cool search tool that lets you search by zip code to find plants that host the highest numbers of butterflies and moths to feed birds and other wildlife where you live.
- While a wealth of information exists on the internet, nothing can quite replace paging through a book, especially one with great plant photos. Luckily Amazon has pretty much any book you might need.
- Explore the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center database of plants native to your region. It boasts the most comprehensive database of native plants in North America. It’s easy to use, simply select a state from the database (or enter a Canadian province), and once you have a plant list you can filter the results by the amount of sunlight they require, bloom periods, size of the mature plant, and more!
- Check out your local native plant society to both learn about local plants and meet other lovers of the natural world! Many organizations offer free native plant classes and host events such as native plant sales.
- Find a local nursery that sells native plants.
- Visit your local library. They will surely have books and resources on native plants in your area. They may even have online databases or other digital resources as well.
- Visit your state’s cooperative extension service. They are made up of local experts who provide on-the-ground advice on tricky insect problems, the best varieties to plant in your area, and more! Here’s a list of cooperative extension offices by state.
So, the next time you’re out shopping for plants, take a second look at those labeled “native.” You’ll be doing a good thing for your local environment and maybe even saving your backyard from being overrun by harmful bugs or non-native invasive weeds. Take these ideas into consideration when designing your own garden. And if you have space to add to your yard or garden, consider applying them and planting some native plants!
Native plants, if selected and planted correctly, can help reduce the amount of work you have to do, cut down on the amount of money you spend on gardening supplies, and can save you time and effort. And best of all, they will ensure that your garden also attracts birds, butterflies and other wildlife!