As a kid, I remember playing with worms, stalking spiders and watching caterpillars turn into butterflies. I was lucky enough to experience nature without having to leave my backyard. With today’s young families wanting those experiences for their kids, gardening with native plants is the easiest way to bring wildlife closer to home.
According to Douglas W. Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, using native plants is the way gardeners “sustain the biodiversity that has been one of this country’s richest assets.”
The first step in using native plants in the garden is determining what makes a plant native vs. nonnative. A general definition of a native plant is a plant occurring naturally in a region, ecosystem,or habitat without human intervention. So, a nonnative plant is a plant brought into your garden from outside your region, ecosystem or habitat. This is important to understand because the closer a plant’s needs match the planting site, the better the chance for survival and vigor, and sustaining biodiversity in your garden with birds, bees and bugs.
Gardeners also need to comprehend how specific a local plant has to be to create biodiversity. For example, the blue spruce’s history began in the Rocky Mountains, so when a gardener plants the tree in Western New York, is it considered native by definition? No. It will grow here, but because it is a nonnative it only occurs naturally in the regions of the Rocky Mountains and doesn’t attract local bugs and birds. Conversely, if a gardener plants a native Eastern White Pine, then the wildlife associated with the tree will happily become members of your garden because the wildlife has a history with the tree.
Besides biodiversity, native plants also offer the following benefits.
- They provide the exact food source for picky wildlife, as a majority of bugs only eat specific plants.
- They thrive under the local conditions while being less likely to invade new areas.
- They adapt to local environmental conditions, maintaining or improving soil fertility, reducing erosion, and often times requiring less or no fertilizer and pesticides than many nonnative plants.
- They save time and money with lower maintenance costs, and reduce the amount of harmful run-off threatening streams, rivers, and estuaries.
- They help resist invasions by nonnative plants, like Japanese knotweed in Western New York, preventing their spread and averting future introductions.
With so many benefits to using native plants, one of the challenges is finding native plants. A good place to start is your local conservation-minded native plant nursery, like Urban Roots Community Garden Center that specialize in growing and selling native plants from the American Beauties brand. Native plant magazines and books like Tallamy’s also offer lists of native plants by region.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is another great resource for all kinds of native plant and wildflower information. The Center’s website lists native plants, and native plant societies by state. The National Wildlife Federation and eNature have an online field guide for native and invasive plants. The guide includes plants often found at garden centers or in catalogs, and includes a database searchable by state, native vs. invasive plants, and plant type.
What native plants do you have growing in your backyard? Tell us about them in our comment section below.