Plants With a Purpose

When it comes to plant parenthood, most of us tend to think in terms of what we give to our plants: Water (not too much, not too little), light (full sun? bright indirect? shade?), a bit of fertilizer, and—for the most dedicated—some conversation from time to time. (Yes, this is a thing!)

But what about the things our plants give back to us? In effort to celebrate the symbiotic relationship we have with our light-loving neighbors, let’s look at a few of the ways plants help us out:

PLANTS THAT CREATE PRIVACY

Nosy neighbors? As tempting as it may be to build an increasingly taller fence, we prefer the practice of using plants to create a bit of privacy. In addition to offering you some much-needed seclusion—and eye candy!—plants absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen (1) that even the fanciest fence can’t. Here are some of our top picks; check your local extension office to learn which will grow best in your area!

 

  1. Arborvitae: One of the most popular choices for building a living privacy fence, arborvitae boasts thick evergreen foliage that creates a dense hedge with proper spacing. Bonus? It’s cold hardy, tolerates most soil, and is overall low-maintenance. 
  2. Bamboo: As one of the fastest-growing plants in the world, bamboo is great for anyone who desires quick results. Keep in mind that some varieties are invasive, so make sure you check your state’s invasive species lists and choose a slow-spreading, clumping variety and always use raised planters. 
  3. Boxwood: There’s more to boxwood than strictly manicured, formal hedges. Allow this versatile evergreen shrub to grow freely, and it can reach up to 20 feet high. A great protection from peepers!
  4. Dogwood: For a less traditional, more colorful option, think outside the evergreen box. Deciduous dogwood will drop its leaves in winter, but you’ll be left with vibrant red twigs that can reach up to 8 feet high and 10 feet wide. 

PLANTS THAT IMPROVE YOUR SOIL

The most sought-after soil-builders are the nitrogen fixers. These masterful crops harbor nitrogen-producing bacteria on their roots, and each time you cut them back, some of it is released into the surrounding soil for use by neighboring plants (2) (sharing really is caring!). The other plants on our list are those with thick, powerful taproots that break up compacted soil and accumulate copious amounts of nutrients in their foliage (4).  Let’s dig in to some of our favorites:

 

  1. Clover: Often grown as a cover crop to help prevent weeds and retain moisture, this beautiful, hard-working plant converts atmospheric nitrogen into a form that other plants can utilize through their roots (2). Bonus? It also attracts beneficial insects! Note that some clover species are invasive (sweet clover, for example), so you should check with your local extension office or garden center to ensure you are only introducing native or non-invasive plants to your landscape.
  2. Dandelion: A weed by any other name, right? Perhaps this oft-derided crop shouldn’t have such a bad reputation when managed appropriately. In addition to its edible and medicinal properties, it benefits compacted soil by mining for nutrients with its deep taproot. But, why would you allow weeds to grow? Once the dandelion has flowered (but before it sets seed), pull the entire taproot out by hand. This method of weed management will (at least temporarily) allow water and air to reach areas of compacted soil and promote eco-friendly weed management (3).
  3. Daikon (aka radishes!): Like other cover crops, daikon can be sown in late summer to act as an overwintering mulch, until it dies back in spring and revitalizes the soil as it decomposes. Plus, in a process known as “bio-drilling,” it can break up compacted soil and provide a sort of root roadmap for whatever lucky crop is eventually planted in its place (4).

 

PLANTS THAT ATTRACT WILDLIFE

Birds, bees, and butterflies help sustain our ecosystem, but their populations have been declining at an alarming rate (5, 6). Luckily, you can create a garden that’s both beautiful and beneficial by choosing pollinator-friendly plants!

What you select will depend on your climate (7), but here are a few general tips to keep in mind when getting started (8):

 

  1. The more color and diversity, the better. This will create a more resilient habitat and be less susceptible to extreme weather, disease, and unexpected issues.
  2. Plant in clusters, as pollinators are less inclined to visit solitary flowers.
  3. Choose flowers with a variety of bloom times, so that food is provided continuously from month to month.
  4. Use non-toxic forms of pest control, as traditional products can harm beneficial insects. Sunday ProTip: Avoiding applying any form of weed control or pesticide to flowering plants to protect pollinators. 
  5. Select native plants that local wildlife have co-evolved with—and that require little maintenance on your part once established (win-win!).
  6. Make sure there’s a water source for bird bathing and drinking—and that it’s shallow enough to prevent drowning!

 

Ready to get started? Here are some of our top picks:

To attract birds, choose colorful seed-bearing annuals such as marigold, sunflower, zinnia, poppy, and cosmo; or native perennials including aster, coreopsis, echinacea, sedum, goldenrod, and thistle (8). 

To attract bees, choose pollen-rich plants, particularly purple varieties like lavender, allium, and catmint. Other great options are agastache, black-eyed susan, hollyhock, abelia, columbine, daisy, echinacea, bee balm, gaillardia, lupine, yarrow, and salvia (8).   

To attract butterflies and hummingbirds, choose nectar-rich flowers like chrysanthemum, aster, columbine, penstemon, delphinium, salvia, verbena, bee balm, and dianthus; or shrubs including lilac, lavender, viburnum, and butterfly bush. Milkweed is also a favorite of butterflies, and the host plant of  Monarchs (7)!

Cited Sources

  1. Getter, K. Benefits of plants: Life as we know it, live it and pay for it. MSU Extension.
  2. Jennings, J. Value of Nitrogen Fixation From Clovers and Other Legumes. University of Arkansas Extension. 
  3. Perry, L.P. What Weeds Can Tell You. University of Vermont Extension. 
  4. Colby, J. Biodrilling by Forage Radishes. University of Vermont Extension. 
  5. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Pollinator Conservation Program. Xerces Society. 
  6. National Research Council. Status of Pollinators in North America. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  7. The Xerces Society. Pollinator Conservation Resource Center
  8. NRCS. Pollinator Biology and Habitat