How Many Native Plants Should I Have?

People that are just dipping their toe into the concept of using more native plants in their garden often wonder how many they should use. Reluctant to let go of some of their favorite non-native plants, they look for a recommended balance. I don’t blame them – I enjoy my gardenias!

As a way of visually imagining what role non-native plants might play in your garden, I would like to suggest a concept to you: think of it like the food pyramid or perhaps like the dessert to your dinner. In either case, the bulk of what you have are the things that are “good” for you: protein, fruits, and veggies plus starches and grains.

Native Plant Pyramid

The less healthy parts such as fats and refined sugars are the smallest portion of what you consume either in a day or in a meal. With this concept, it is easier to envision a goal for what your plant palette might look like. I am not the first to suggest this concept, but I hope this visual chart might reinforce the idea for some people.



Regional note: The suggested chart here is generally for the southeastern U.S.; southeastern coastal areas might have a slightly different mix. A teammate was quick to point out, for example, that a chart for the midwestern U.S. would have mostly grasses and forbs (perennials) and fewer trees.

Hickory (Carya spp.)

Hickory (Carya spp.)


The largest category, from the perspective of total biomass, is native trees, particularly canopy trees. Canopy trees would include oak, maple, hickory, pine (and other large conifer families), elm, beech, tuliptree as well as others.

Depending on the size of your property, you may only have one or you may have many. Remember this is relative to the size of your overall plant biomass. These large plants will contribute a significant amount of services to your local wildlife as many of them are top insect supporters, provide substantial food mast (acorns, nuts, seeds) and create large areas for shelter. In addition their roots provide erosion control and form large micorrhizal fungi networks below ground that help sustain the network of life in the soil.

Winterberry shrub (Ilex verticillata)

Winterberry shrub (Ilex verticillata)

The next two categories are native shrubs and understory trees. These plants support different wildlife such as different insect hosts, different fruits/seeds, and provide different habitat due to their shapes and sizes.

The final two native categories are native perennials: flowering perennials on one side and native grasses and ferns on the other. Although smaller in biomass, the impact of these plants is not to be denied both for wildlife and our own enjoyment.

Blazing star (Liatris pilosa)

Blazing star (Liatris pilosa)



Perennials offer a chance to provide nectar and pollen-rich blooms for many months, long after most trees are done blooming. In particular, the fall-blooming native perennials like goldenrod (Solidago), eupatorium (Eupatorium/Eutrochium), blazing star (Liatris) and aster (Symphyotrichum) sustain many pollinators as they head into the winter months.

Songbirds feast on the seeds of these and many others if stems are left in place until spring. Some insects nest in those stems over the winter, providing a source of protein to the birds that discover them.

Pink muhly grass lights up the fall landscape

Pink muhly grass lights up the fall landscape


Grasses provide seeds, nesting materials and shelter for many birds and small mammals. Ferns are used for both nesting and shelter as well. Grasses are also host plants for some butterflies/moths.

This leaves you with the top of the pyramid and the category that you would use sparingly or consider to be your dessert. Choose plants that have special meaning but which are not considered invasive. In my garden I have gardenia, tea olive, a few daylilies, and a potted dwarf date palm.  I also use annual zinnias because they are a good nectar source. I do have a lawn, another non-native feature, but one that shrinks a little bit each year as I chip away at the sides to enlarge my native perennial beds.

I hope you find this useful as you ponder how to transition your garden towards more native plants. If you’re looking for guidance, we’re all here for you.

© 2013, Ellen Honeycutt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Nice post, Ellen. I like the plant pyramid, too, and your explanations of the benefits of use of understory & grasses. You are correct that not all parts of the country will have the same plant pyramid. Each region has its own ecosystem(s), and my So Cal gardener friends might for example be planting less trees if they are recreating a chaparral. Not all of So Cal is a chaparral, though so it is very helpful to go to arboretums or botanical gardens or forests where plant groupings might be represented more as they really are.. in nature.
    kathy vilim recently posted..Quirky Signs on the Interpretive Trail

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