Tina Huckabee happily gardens for wildlife in her hometown of Austin, Texas. She would love to see homeowners and gardeners trade their turf for gorgeous native gardens. Tina is also a beekeeper and blogs about her garden, honeybees and wildlife adventures at www.mygardenersays.com.
I began a redesign of my urban-traditional property, complete with large swaths of lawn and few blooming plants (irises and roses), about 22 years ago. I can’t point to one particular reason why I wanted change, but I remember admiring the beautiful native and native cultivar plants that were making appearances in home and commercial landscapes throughout my hometown of Austin, Texas. At that time, I purchased the book, Native Texas Plants: Landscaping Region by Region, by Sally and Andy Wasowski. I read and thumbed through it so much that years later, I’ll come across a plant on a hike, at a nursery, or in another book and recognize that I’ve learned about that plant before. Many good gardening books followed that one, but it served as my first inspiration.
My initial timid experiments with native plants and native cultivars met with wild success. I was gobsmacked that I could pop these plants in the ground, do virtually nothing, yet they would grow and bloom beautifully. Who knew??
I started with an established narrow bed along the driveway in front and a wonky rectangle-ish bed in the back. Along with eye-popping appeal dawned recognition that native landscapes were easy to maintain. The perennials didn’t require much water, certainly no weekly maintenance, and definitely no chemical intervention. As for the turf that still occupied the majority of my property? Well, it needed watering regularly throughout our long growing season, fertilizing occasionally, and mowing almost weekly. Over time, I added more gardens, one after another, extending and widening the beds until, many years later, I removed the remaining grass and now enjoy pathways, gardens and sitting areas.
Texas native plants naturally accommodate droughts, floods, summer heat, and winter’s varying temperatures, having evolved in this environment. Adapted to this region’s climate and soil types, these plants are tough and resilient. Additionally, the gardens I developed were alive with color and critters, certainly more than I’d ever seen with the turf as primary garden feature. One early garden memory is of a swoosh of butterflies, hundreds probably–so many that I could feel and hear them–as they took flight one day when I strolled past the back garden. The many species of butterflies were nectaring on Purple Coneflower and some native salvia plants. I’ve never again witnessed the hundreds of butterflies like I did that day, but my gardens continually host a great variety of butterflies, native bees, other pollinators, as well as birds, lizards and reptiles.
Wildlife will not visit and take up residence if there is only grass and a few green shrubs—there is nothing for pollinators and other wildlife to feed on. Sadly, for our native wildlife, the dominance of the sterile, turf-centered landscape comprises most of what most Americans consider the home garden. Turf feeds nothing, except for some problematic insects, and the amount of American land delegated to turf is a big part of the pollinator decline problem.
The Bigger Picture
Ecologists estimate that only about 3-5% of land in the U.S (excepting Alaska and Hawaii) is undisturbed habitat. Urbanization, in combination with farm and ranchland, has decimated most native habitats. Adding to that, there are about 40 million acres of lawn, according to Professor Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. He equates that space with eight New Jerseys. The American love of lawn is unsustainable. The amount of water wasted, carbon emissions spewed, toxic chemicals sprayed, sprinkled, and poured, in order for turf to succeed, has rendered the stunning and diverse American landscape problematic for wildlife survival. The prevalence of so much lawn, which is typically nonnative and monoculture flora, is antithetical to the natural world, where a diverse range of native plants and animals interact in a complex, but sustainable web of life.
With all that turf covering the U.S., it’s no surprise that pollinators and birds are in serious, potentially perilous, decline. Last year, 40% of honeybee hives died; in the last 20 years, the Monarch butterfly population has declined by 90%; other pollinators, birds and assorted wildlife are in jeopardy as well. Quoting Professor Tallamy: In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators and manage water.
Over the past few decades and in so many ways, Americans have lost touch with the natural world. Given the very real threats to our environment because of climate change, urbanization, and industrialization, concerned gardeners can help heal our beleaguered natural world in our own back yards–and front yards too! By gardening with native plants, which are beautiful and easy, wildlife becomes part of the garden equation. An established biological paradigm is that native plants evolved along with their pollinators and other wildlife partners. Where native plants grow, wildlife thrives—it’s that simple.
When a living garden is established, home gardeners beautify their plots of the Earth and wildlife benefit from partially restored habitats. In the end, converting some, or all, of your lawn, which requires water and work, and which most people don’t use, to a wildlife garden replete with native plants and therefore, native wildlife, is less expensive to the personal pocketbook, healthier for our world, and more beautiful to behold.
For much of the past 20 years, Texas has experienced drought, severe at points, and generally, warmer temperatures year-round. As I transformed my property to a wildlife friendly garden, I realize that the plants I use, both native and well-adapted non-natives, respond well to the dryer and hotter conditions that have become normative for this region. Additionally, while my neighbors are mowing their lawns (or paying someone to do so), dripping-wet with perspiration during our sticky, hot summers, the bulk of my intensive gardening occurs in winter and early spring—quite lovely times of the year to be outdoors in Central Texas. (A disclaimer: I’m a native Texan and I love gardening in summer. My weird.) My garden sports blooms and is seasonally interesting year-round: during the hottest part of summer, the coldest part of winter—and everything in between. Because I’ve planted primarily natives which evolved here, along with some well-adapted noninvasive, nonnatives, my gardens handle the capricious Texas weather: floods, droughts, freezes, and scorching summers.
Regional differences in climate and landforms certainly factor when planting a native habitat garden. My garden looks different from a garden in Oregon—and it should. A garden in Virginia should be reflective of native habitat in Virginia, just as gardens in New Hampshire, Wyoming, or Arizona should echo their particular native plant personalities. Native plants define place and all regions boast their unique beauty. That beauty can and should be celebrated and promoted by home gardeners.
Where to Start?
A systematic conversion from the conventional garden to a dynamic native plants and wildlife garden entails enough information for a book—several, probably. However, I’ll discuss a few pointers to encourage beginning this process. Native plants are best for all the reasons discussed, but you don’t have to give up plants that are not native to your region. If you love roses or a neighbor has generously passed along a gorgeous daylily, feel free to plant. However, always choose noninvasive, nonnative plants that don’t require chemical intervention or lots of irrigation, as that defeats your sustainable garden goals, and keep such plant choices to a minimum. Additionally, you don’t have to remove all of your lawn. Even a partial transition to a native/wildlife landscape is a step in the right direction. Think of the diversity of pollinators and birds that would visit a neighborhood if most homes hosted small wildlife gardens—the results would be amazing. While I completely removed my lawn in favor of gardens and pathways, you don’t have to go to that degree—nor, must you do it all at once. My garden transformation took years, with lots of mistakes, challenges and amendments. I continue to create my garden. Creating a wildlife habitat is on your schedule and within your budget.
Your locally owned nurseries and growers are often leaders in promoting the use of native plants and waterwise practices. Visit them in lieu of the big box nurseries, which often don’t carry native-to-region plants. Most communities host a variety of garden organizations, including wildlife gardening groups, Master Naturalist and Master Gardener groups, as well as native plant societies; attend some meetings and ask questions.
Check out your local County Extension Service, which you can find on this blog’s menu bar in Find A Local Extension Office. The agricultural extension offices are reasonable stops for information on appropriate native and adapted plants for specific areas. Next, check out the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center website, www.wildflower.org. I’m fortunate to live in Austin, where this national treasure is located and I’ve been a member since the mid-1980’s. Along with the Wasowski book mentioned earlier, the Wildlife Center continues to inspire me. However, anyone can access invaluable information about native plants specific to a region, complete with photos, by perusing the website in full. The plant database and Ask Mr. Smarty Plants are worthwhile sections on the website to learn about native plants of North America. Next, bookmark on your computer the National Wildlife Federation’s website, www.nwf.org. Another excellent resource, this organization provides directives for creating wildlife and/or pollinator gardens. Finally, join with like-minded neighbors, as that’s often the best way to learn and gardeners love to share advice—and plants!
There is a wealth of information available for a home garden revolution to take hold. Let’s work together to create welcoming gardens for wildlife who require gardens for their survival. Let’s promote sustainable methods of gardening, free of pesticides and herbicides, but rich in native plants and wildlife. We owe it to our native wildlife, our national heritage, and our future.
I can’t add more than this quote from First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, who once stated: Though the word beautification makes the concept sound merely cosmetic, it involves much more: clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas. To me…beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future.