I’ve partnered with the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program for this post. All thoughts are my own.
If you asked me 20 years ago what a native plant was, I probably would have said it was anything I couldn’t kill. Which pretty much summed up my awareness. In the beginning, I was like a kid in a candy store with little plant knowledge but wanting one of everything. It was purely superficial and based solely on flowers. I quickly learned that the one of everything approach results in something more like a weed patch and less like a garden. I’m still trying to control that impulse, but I’ve also learned that my tastes have shifted. I still want beauty, but my definition of it has changed. For me, beauty encompasses all that my garden attracts.
From the tiniest bee to the biggest Great Horned owl, I want it all. I also like knowing that what I’m nurturing here in this small suburban lot matters to something bigger than me. It’s not just about the flowers anymore, it’s about all the things that depend on specific trees, shrubs and plants for survival. Full disclosure, I’m still a sucker for flowers. Some things never change.
A small space can live big, with big goals, and have a profound affect on the neighborhood around it. And when the neighbors drink the Kool-Aid too, a shift occurs and thoughts turn outward rather than in. I’m seeing it happen, slowly, but it’s happening and everyone benefits.
I’m not a native plant guru, I still have so much to learn. Many die-hard native enthusiasts have strong convictions about planting only natives. I get it. It’s a noble and worthy cause. For many of us, the restrictions placed on us by homeowners associations and just a plain old lack of knowledge about how to incorporate native plants are the two things that prevent us from making the transition. You don’t have to go full throttle though to make a positive impact. You can add a few at a time, incorporate them into existing flowers beds, which is what I’m doing. The trade-off for planting natives is a garden with a slightly nibbled look. I’m ok with that. It’s a sign that all is well, unless the nibbling is done by Japanese beetles or rose sawflies.
Natives are meant to be eaten. In fact, it’s a sure sign they’re doing exactly what they should be and that’s a good thing! So if you mingle natives with other plants, the ones we might consider more garden worthy like roses, iris, and delphiniums, you end up with a garden that offers the best of both worlds. A little something for you and for them (“them” being moths and butterflies with very specific host plant needs). Increase your garden’s appeal to butterflies who come for the nectar plants and stay for the host plants where they’ll deposit their eggs. When caterpillar populations increase, so do the species of birds that visit your garden. It’s their lifeblood. Insect larva is the number one food source for birds and their young.
Picking Native Plants
What if you don’t know where to start, what to plant and why? The National Wildlife Federation created the Garden for Wildlife program for the purpose of helping backyard gardeners introduce the right native plants. It’s geared to people like you and me who are looking for guidance from a trusted source. The program dials you into curated native plant collections based on your zip code. The chemical-free collections are available in 6-plant and 12-plant packs for full sun or part shade growing situations. I went with a part shade 6-pack called Pollinator Power.
You might be wondering how six plants can impact a small garden. I can’t quantify it, but I can tell you that Dr. Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology and wildlife ecology, worked with his team of researchers at the University of Delaware to identify plants throughout the United States that they consider vital to insect species. These plants support 90% of butterfly and moth species and make up the various plant collections. His book, Nature’s Best Hope, is one of the best reads about affecting change by way of planting native species in backyards across America to support our little food webs. While small, these efforts have a cumulative environmental effect, providing places for insects and birds to forage, rest and procreate.
If you don’t have space to plant in the ground, consider planting in containers. I love Dr. Tallamy’s idea of thinking of plants as birdfeeders. If you can attract insects including those that lay eggs on host plants, then you’ll undoubtedly attract the birds that rely on this food source. I see it happen everyday in my pussy willow trees which, by the way, are responsible for the explosion of butterflies, particularly the Eastern tiger swallowtail, mourning cloak and red-spotted purple, every summer. The constant bird chatter coming from the trees throughout the growing season is proof that they’re happy in those willows. Who wouldn’t be when your meal is just a leaf away? And that means I’m happy too.
I’ve also done a video on my Here She Grows YouTube channel to give you a more up close and personal look at the plants. While you’re at it, click here for the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder website which offers lists of both woody and herbaceous plants bested suited to your county.
I’d love to know what native plants you include in your garden and why you chose them.