Why You Should Landscape With Native Plants (and Where to Find Them)

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The U.S. is a wildly diverse landscape. Consider how different the northern landscapes of Michigan and Minnesota are from the deserts of Texas and New Mexico, or the dense forests of the Northeast or Northwest. While it’s common sense that these different landscapes wouldn’t support the same plant life, it doesn’t stop people from trying to grow cactus in the forest. Even within a similar landscape, say, across the Southwest, there are variances in what grew natively before we began introducing new species. The landscape was made to support those native species; in fact, the entire ecosystem revolved around those native plants. They attracted the local pollinators and fed the local wildlife—the digested plants become seeds and the cycle starts again. There’s been a movement in the last twenty years to refocus our landscaping efforts on native plants to help local pollinators and wildlife, preserve water, and keep invasive plants from taking over environments. 

What are native plants?

Generally, native species are the plants that lived in a region before European settlement. The species proliferated at that point because the environment supported it; these were the plants that flourished under the conditions of the region. Even after all the remediation we’ve done to the environment, when the land is cleared due to natural or man-made conditions like wildfire or road construction, the plants you first see come back are the native plants. If plants are tuned to the environmental conditions, they require less support, like additional water or sheltering. Think about the cactus growing in the forest: It has to come inside for the winter, and needs additional light and heat, and might even require a dehumidifier. But a native fern requires none of those supports and would do just fine outside during the winter. In the Sonoran desert, the opposite is true: The cactus has all it needs to survive the winter and summer outside on its own, but a fern would not survive unless it had constant additional shade and water. 

Why native plants are important

It’s not just that native plants are tuned to the local environment. Local wildlife is tuned and accustomed to those native plants, too. They provide nectar for birds and bees, butterflies, bats—all your local pollinators. More pollination means more fruit production, which supports larger wildlife populations. 

As above, native plants need less intervention, which includes less fertilizers and pesticides, which results in less toxins introduced into our water table and environment, and they use less resources like water. They’re better suited to the soil, so they prevent erosion. They don’t require mowing, so they are responsible for less pollution. 

How to find native plants in your area

Naturally, Googling is a great first step to learning more about the native species in your area. The National Wildlife Federation offers a Wildlife Habitat Certification program, which is supported by volunteers. Certification is a multi-step process that starts with someone coming to evaluate your yard. The goal of certification (aside from a placard you can put in your yard) is to pass a variety of checks regarding how your yard is planted and how you use resources. A $20 donation covers the entire process, but even if you’re not going to pursue certification, the evaluation will leave you with a number of suggestions on how to improve how your yard supports local wildlife. In addition to lists of local native plants, the NWF often has discounts with local purveyors to help you purchase plants; it also offers a tool to find local native species for your area. 

While I wish all nurseries had native plants, I’ve found some nurseries specialize in doing so, and you can call around to find them. There are also resource sites like Home Grown National Park that can help locate nurseries that support native plant sales. 

Once you know what your local natives are, you can resource them yourself through plant swaps and sales in local gardening groups, which proliferate on Facebook if you search for your area and the word “gardening.” This is the perfect time of year, since many communities support local plant sales and swaps at the beginning of summer. 

For a long time, I didn’t think about natives because, well, I like tulips. I liked my lemon tree that I toted inside and out every season. I wanted to grow whatever I felt like. In my mind, I’d decided native plants were boring and unlikely to be as visually interesting as what I was growing. Then I started reading what was native in my area and was surprised by how many plants I was already growing because they were so pretty: yarrow, goldenrod, lupine and lilies. When I finally had my yard evaluated for certification, the suggestions helped make areas come together that I’d previously struggled with because I stopped fighting the landscape. Natives quickly took over because they were suited to the area.

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