Go Native with Your Landscaping

Spring 2016

Native Plants Are the Way to go for Easy-care, Easy-to-love Gardens

Green thumbs, do you find yourself captivated by the latest showy plants that seem to be downright flirting with you, gently fluttering their blossoms in the breeze, right there in the garden-center aisle? We’ve all been there, impulsively filling our carts with common horticultural plants and trees we don’t know much about. But for richer garden rewards, consider cultivating a sweet spot for a more informed kind of pretty.

Work with Nature

Global warming and a worldwide decline in pollinators – namely bees, birds, and butterflies – mean gardeners need to seek more thoughtful ways to work with nature, and it starts with what you plant. Unlike common horticultural plants, native plants occur as the result of natural processes rather than human intervention. Because they are uniquely adapted to local soils and climate, native plants coexist with nature, providing the regional shelter and food that keeps nature in balance.

When you protect pollinators, you preserve the health and wealth of our food supply. From almonds to watermelons, pollinators play a vital role in fertilizing the plants that account for every third bite of food you take. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, bees help cross-pollinate an estimated 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants. Pollinators also often rely on certain types of flowers as a source of food; in turn, flowers rely on pollinators to transport pollen to other flowers for reproduction. Without the right plant sources, both pollinators and many plants and food crops will die off.

Birds, equally important pollinators, are also at risk. Since 1970, the birds included on the Audubon Society’s list of 20 common birds have suffered a population decline of 50 percent. While much of the decline is attributed to habitat loss, planting non-native trees is another culprit responsible for putting birds at risk. Trees play host to insects and offer other foods vital to birds. The choice between planting a native oak tree, which sustains over 500 caterpillar species, or a widely used non-native ginkgo (maidenhair) tree, which sustains only a few caterpillar species, has a big impact on increasingly hungry, habitat-starved birds.

Save Water

And as fresh water supplies diminish and drought conditions prevail in many parts of the United States, growing water-guzzling non-native plants like Kentucky bluegrass in Arizona just doesn’t make sound ecological sense. The Environmental Protection Agency reports landscape irrigation accounts for 30 percent to 60 percent of residential water use, with about half going to waste. Choosing low-water natives, such as buffalo grass – a cold- and drought-tolerant grass that thrives from Minnesota to Montana and south into Texas – means many gardeners can still keep a lawn and feel good about it, too.

Plant-wise Resources for Growing Wildlife Habitats

Whether you have a container garden on a balcony in Baton Rouge or a big backyard in Buffalo, selecting native plants takes planning. With thousands of native plants, and hundreds that are unique to each ecoregion of the United States, there are many local and national resources to help you match the right native plant to the right spot.

Ask the Experts

A visit to your local nursery is an ideal first stop to learn about adding natives to your landscape. Staffs at local nurseries are typically more knowledgeable about natives than your typical chain store garden centers, and local nurseries are also more likely to stock native plants and trees. To find native plant nurseries in your area, check with your local university extension office or search the nativeplant.org website for a comprehensive list, filterable by state. Other online native plant resources are plentiful, including the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s native plant databases, which both allow you to search for plants based on region, scientific, or common name, habitat, etc. The Pollinator Partnership website also offers the ability to generate a handy guide of regional native plants based on your ZIP code that you can print and take along to the nursery. And the Xerces Society, which works to save invertebrates, offers a clickable map on its website that provides a list of native plants by region, planting guides, and more.

Consider the Source

Wherever you buy your native plants, it’s important to ask if the plant is from a local source or local seeds. You’ll also want to verify that the plants were propagated from seeds or cuttings, not harvested from the wild. And if you can’t find that hard-to-find plant already potted, consider purchasing seeds for direct-sow planting, which has the added benefit of promoting genetic plant diversity.

Planting by Ecoregion

Ready to go native? Below are suggestions for just a few of the many native plants suitable for attracting pollinators by geographic region. Before you get planting, it’s ideal to keep flowers clustered into clumps by species rather than scattering plants individually throughout your garden. Planting clumps of species close together and overlapping blooming periods will attract and support more pollinators with food throughout the season.

Nature’s Reward

When you cultivate native plants in your garden that provide food, shelter, and sustainability for wildlife, its positive ripple effect is felt all the way down the ecological line. In choosing natives, you also minimize yard and garden maintenance, reduce the use of fertilizer and water, and reduce air pollution and water runoff – all while promoting biodiversity. But the best moment is when the birds, bees, and butterflies arrive, repaying you for your kindness with their remarkable colors, sights, and sounds. What could be prettier or more rewarding than going native?