As I travel around the country speaking at conferences about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife, the question I get asked most frequently is “What should I plant?”
The easy answer is that you should add lots of locally native plants to your wildlife garden because over thousands of years wildlife has developed interdependent relationships with these plants. Native plants form the base of any food web.
What is a Native Plant?
But this answer isn’t as easy as it may appear at first glance. What is a native plant?
Answering the question of what makes a plant native is part of what makes knowing what to plant in your garden so hard:
Native plants and animals are species of plants and animals that came to your area naturally. They have lived together in communities for a long time. They have adapted to live together in balance.
Native plants are part of an ecosystem or community of other plants that support birds, butterflies, native bees, and other wildlife. Native plants exist naturally in an area. They were not brought in by human action, either accidentally or as the latest “must-have” cultivar of some plant from China.
However you define “native plant” if you want to create welcoming habitat for wildlife in your garden, planting more native plants is the key.
The answer to this question also depends on where you live. Each region of the country has different plant communities. What will work in my Pennsylvania wildlife garden will not work in a Florida garden, or an Arizona garden, or a Seattle garden.
What works in the valley of a mountain range will not be appropriate at higher elevations of the same mountain. What works on a north-facing slope probably won’t work on a south-facing slope.
So in order to make sure you’re putting the right plant in the right place for the conditions in your wildlife garden, you need to do a bit of homework. But don’t despair, there are lots of resources to help you out!
A good place to start is the Native Plant Information Network, a project of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, where you can find lists of native plants for your region.
What Plants are Best for Wildlife?
Some native plants have much more value to wildlife than others, in that more species are able to benefit from some plants than others.
Doug Tallamy and his students have been studying native plants and their value to wildlife and have come up with lists that show which plants support the most wildlife. Choosing any of the species of each plant that is native to your region would be an excellent place to start for your garden.
Top 10 Woody Plants for Wildlife. We tend to forget about trees and shrubs when planning our wildlife gardens, but you’ll discover that you will get the most bang for your buck from a wildlife perspective by adding one or more of these trees to your wildlife garden. This list is ranked by the number of wildlife species that use each of the trees listed here.
Top 10 Herbaceous Plants for Wildlife. You’ve chosen the best trees and shrubs to form the “bones” of your wildlife garden, and now it’s time to add some flowering plants. Beautiful for you, and enticing lots of butterflies to your garden. A total win-win!
Host Plants for Butterflies–We all know that butterflies need nectar, but if we really want them to stay close to our wildlife gardens, we have to plant host plants for caterpillars. Most butterfly larva are specialists. That means that they will only eat one plant, or plants from just one family.
Best Native Nectar Plants for Monarchs and Other Butterflies–The best plants for Monarchs and other butterflies, as well as all other wildlife in your garden will be locally native to your area. These native plants have a relationship with wildlife that spans thousands of years, contribute to ecosystem services, and provide multiple functions for many species of wildlife. Many indigenous plants are also larval host plants for many species, and many other insects have a variety of uses for them.
Where Can I Find Native Plants for my Region?
Plants are expensive, so you don’t want to throw away your money without knowing the answers to all of these questions so that you can put the right plant in the right place with the knowledge that it will thrive there. You’ve got to do a bit of homework and make a plan for the native plants that will work best given the conditions in your garden and that are locally native to your region.
The absolute best way to begin to discover which native plants will work best in your wildlife garden is to connect with your local native plant society as well as nearby native plant nurseries.
These folks are passionate about native plants and love to share their knowledge with anyone who asks. Since their gardens are probably close by, they can give you the best answers about what will work best in your garden.
To help you locate nearby resources, here’s a list of native plant societies and native plant nurseries in the US and Canada:
- Northeast Native Plants
- Mid-Atlantic Native Plants
- Southeast Native Plants
- Midwest Native Plants
- Plains Native Plants
- Southwest Native Plants
- Pacific Coast Native Plants
- Canada Native Plants
Where Can I Learn More About Native Plants?
Native Plant Certificate Programs–there are quite a few native plant certificate programs around the country, which offer in-depth education about how to grow native plants, how to create healthy soil, how to design a native plant garden, and so much more. You can either take individual modules that interest you, or complete the whole program to receive your certificate.
Master Naturalist Programs–Master Naturalists are trained to be stewards of our natural environment and to teach these skills to others. Almost every state in the United States has a Master Naturalist Program, often developed in conjunction with Universities and County Extension offices. These programs are similar to the Master Gardeners Programs around the country. This excellent education will help you plan the best wildlife ecosystem garden possible.
Attend a Workshop, Conference, or Native Plant Sale–there are many native plant workshops and conferences around the country (and many of our team members are regular speakers at these events), and also lots of native plant sales where you can talk with experts to help you determine the best native plants for the conditions in your wildlife garden. I’m creating a master calendar to help you locate these events in your area.
The Ultimate Guide to Birdscaping Your Garden: Nearly one third of all U.S. birds are endangered, threatened or in significant decline due to habitat loss, invasive species, and other threats. Habitat loss is the key in these declines. Yes, there are organizations devoted to protecting habitats, but the total amount of protected land in the U.S. is only 5% of available lands. And this is simply not enough. 80% of available land in this country is held privately, and that is where you and your Ecosystem Garden play a crucial role.
The Ultimate Guide to Butterfly and Moth Gardening: Butterflies around the country are in danger from habitat loss and pesticide spraying. You have a critical role to play in protecting these beautiful and beneficial pollinators by creating welcoming habitat in your wildlife garden. When we think of butterfly gardens, we tend to think of lots of nectar plants for adult butterflies, but to have a successful garden for butterflies there is much more to it than that. You need to understand the whole Life Cycle of each butterfly and moth species you want to attract so that you can plan for all of their needs.
The Ultimate Guide to Attracting Native Bees: We hear so much about how the bees are in trouble, but most people don’t realize that most of this discussion centers around honeybees, which are non-native to this country, but have been imported heavily for use in agricultural pollination, and are now seeing great declines dues to colony collapse disorder. We need to wake up to the fact that many of our native bees are also in great trouble due to habitat loss, pesticides, and other actions by humans.
The Ultimate Guide to Restoring the Monarch Butterfly: The Monarch Butterfly has been much in the news lately as we receive the devastating news that the current wintering population in Mexico is at all time low. There are many reasons for this decline in Monarch Butterflies. But despite all this doom and gloom, there is still hope! Your wildlife garden, no matter how small, can become part of a network of connected gardens around the country that are restoring or creating habitat for this beautiful butterfly.
Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.
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