Growing Native Plants

Of all the ways to increase sustainability in your yard, the most impactful is planting a native garden. So what gives a plant “native status”? If it has occurred naturally in a certain ecosystem or region without human introduction, it’s considered native (1). In North America, that often means any plant that was growing here before settlement by Europeans (2).

The Benefits of Going Native

Because they’ve been growing for thousands of years in the same place, native plants have developed symbiotic relationships with wildlife that allow them to survive. (You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours!) They’re adapted to local soil and climate, making them more resilient to extreme conditions (e.g. drought) and disease. Plus, they provide a multitude of ecosystem services that supply us with cleaner air, water, and soil so we can live a bit easier. Still not convinced? Here are some additional advantages:

  1. They provide nectar, pollen, seeds, and shelter for local butterflies, birds, insects, and other animals (3).
  2. They require less supplemental water, because they’ve adapted to getting by with what falls naturally (3).
  3. They rely on fewer pesticides and fertilizers than non-natives (3).
  4. They promote biodiversity (3).
  5. They help reduce air pollution and combat climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide (3).
  6. They can significantly reduce water runoff—and flooding!—because of their deep root systems that help the soil store more water and keep it from becoming compacted (1).

How to Design a Native Landscape

So you’re ready to grow native? Congrats! Planting any garden is a genuine labor of love, but that effect is multiplied when you’re giving back to your local ecosystem. Here are some things to keep in mind as you’re planning your landscape (5): 

  1. Have your soil tested! If you already have a Sunday lawn plan, then you’re one step ahead (if you don’t, get started here!). Knowing the water-retentiveness of your soil will help you determine which plants to bring home.
  2. As with any garden, consider the light availability in your yard before choosing plants. Full-sun plants will need at least 6 hours of sunlight per day.
  3. It’s best to include a diverse range of plants: Some that produce seeds, fruit, and nectar; some that host local butterflies; and some that will provide winter cover for wildlife.
  4. Try not to plant too close to reflective glass/windows to avoid accidental bird strikes.
  5. Map out your plants based on structure and height, keeping in mind the plant’s full size once established.
  6. If you have drainage problems in your yard, a native garden can be hugely beneficial. Plant near a gutter extension or low-lying area to allow those deep roots to absorb excess water and limit run-off.
  7. Allow your plants to set seed in the fall! In the spring, birds eat insects and grubs, but in the fall they rely on seeds and fruit from native plants to survive the long migration to overwintering locations (6). 
  8. Variety over time is the spice of a native garden! Choose plants that flower and bear fruit/seeds at different times in order to provide a constant source of food for wildlife (not too mention a constant display of beautiful blooms for yourself!).
  9. Be patient! A common adage says that, “The first year a garden sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps.” It could be 3 to 5 years before you get a payoff from your landscaping efforts, but it will be well worth it.

Sunday ProTip: Can’t wait for your garden to leap? Get instant gratification by becoming a member of the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to pollinator conservation and pesticide reduction. Psst! You can also get involved by enrolling in a Sunday lawn plan. As a 1% for the Planet member, we donate a portion of every sale to conservationist innovators such as Xerces—and more.

Where Can I Find Them?

“Finders, keepers” does not apply here, as you should never take native plants from the wild. Reach out to your local conservation organization or extension office to find the most reputable places to purchase near you. 

Ready to get started? Check out this fun and informative tool from the National Wildlife Federation, which lets you enter your zip code to find the best native plants for your area! You can also use this one from the National Audubon Society, and help them reach the goal of planting 1 million bird-friendly plants.

What About the Other Guys?

At the other end of the spectrum are “invasive plants”: Those that are alien to the ecosystem and whose introduction can cause economic and environmental harm (4). According to the U.S. Forest Service, invasive species are responsible, in part, for the decline of 42% of endangered and threatened species in the country! This, along with increasing urban sprawl, means there’s less and less room for the native plants and wildlife that we rely on for our own survival. No pollinators = no crops, no crops = no dinner. 

With biodiversity declining, the above scenario is no longer hypothetical. Farmers in China have begun using costly hand-pollination to grow some fruit crops due to the lack of native bees (2)! That means it’s more important than ever to get back to our (native) roots, and we’re here to walk you through it.

Cited Sources

  1. Native Plants. The National Wildlife Federation.
  2. Why Use Native Plants? Penn State Extension.
  3. Why Garden with Native Wildflowers? U.S. Forest Service.
  4. Invasive Plants. U.S. Forest Service.
  5. Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants. NC State Extension.
  6. Plantings for Fall Migrants. National Audubon Society.