Image by Tina Huckabee

The Native Garden

by Tina Huckabee December 14, 2016

The Native Garden

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Tina Huckabee loves the critters that visit and live in her Austin, Texas garden, which is full-to- bursting with native-to- Texas plants. It’s been a blast observing and learning about the insects, birds and other assorted wildlife, so Tina hosts a monthly garden blogging meme, Wildlife Wednesday, on her gardening blog My Gardener Says…. Wildlife Wednesday occurs on the first Wednesday of each month.  Tina encourages all gardeners to plant with native plants and garden for wildlife.


A flash of paint-splash, riotous color popped through the garden, sometimes in brilliant view, sometimes hidden, or partially so, by the verdant leaves of a low ground cover. I observed for a few moments, then grabbed the camera and waited patiently. What I captured in pictorial form was this male Painted Bunting, Passerina ciris, arguably one of the loveliest of the many beautiful native North American birds.
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This gorgeous fellow and his pretty, shy mate, visited my garden for several days during spring migration. What they were feeding on and the reason they were attracted to my garden, were the seeds of the spring blooming Lyre leaf sage, Salvia lyrata, a native plant to the south and southeast parts of the United States.

Observing the Buntings as they enjoyed the bounty of my garden was a good reminder of why I garden with native plants.

The birds and the bees

In my first Gardening Know How blog post, The Living Garden, I discussed how I came to love native plants.  But when I see…

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native bees
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butterflies
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other pollinators
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and native birds

…working and living in my garden, I’m grateful and proud that I rid my personal space of the sterile, water-hogging turf that was once its dominant feature.  I’ve never regretted diversifying my garden by choosing a variety of mostly native plants belonging to my part of the world.  Native flora evolved alongside native fauna and it’s an established biological paradigm that if you plant native bloomers and seed/berry producers, you will provide for an assortment of wildlife.

Our wonderful North American native fauna is in serious trouble as many species are squeezed out of habitat space because their feeding requirements complete with urban and agricultural needs. As natural habitat is destroyed, it’s imperative that home gardeners plant to support the survival of local wildlife by choosing native shade trees and smaller understory trees and shrubs, planting native perennials, annuals, and groundcovers, all of which provide food and shelter for endemic wildlife. When a gardener selects native plants in lieu of a mono-culture turf or non-native/ exotic plants, the positive environmental impact is huge. Native wildlife is biologically synchronized with native food and shelter sources, and native plants fit in the environment with ease—because they belong!
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My personal garden isn’t 100% native. I grow and enjoy roses, daylilies and other non-native plants. But when I go non-native, I’m careful to plant those which do not require much irrigation and plants that are not invasive in my region.

The lazy gardener

Growing native plants reaps obvious rewards for wildlife, but also for gardeners, too.   For the gardener, native plants require less water and chemical intervention—significantly less than the traditional lawn.  Except for the initial planting and establishment period, many native plants thrive with limited irrigation.  Given the grave stress on water resources that many communities face in providing for burgeoning urban populations, as well as competing agricultural demands, using native plants for home landscapes complements the laudable goal of conserving water—a valuable natural resource.

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Compared to my neighbors’ mowing efforts (regardless whether they’re doing it themselves, or hiring), my predominantly native garden requires notably less effort than a turf-dominant landscape.

Because native plants evolved where they grow, it’s rare that they encounter serious pest damage. It still happens that creepy aphids—and the like–show up determined to the suck the life out of a native perennial. But if the gardener follows another dictate of wildlife gardening (refraining from chemical intervention), our heroes (the beloved ladybird beetle and their larvae) will inevitably appear and dispatch the aphids. This is an example of how gardening with native plants usually works: maintaining a balanced environment by using adapted native plants and allowing beneficial insects to work with and for the garden—and gardener—rather than resorting to harsh chemical methods of control. This gardening method is not only healthier than coddling high-maintenance turf and exotic landscape plants, but lessens the gardener’s workload. We all have plenty of things to do rather than mowing, spraying, watering, and purchasing noxious chemicals, right? None of that is necessary when native plants are the backbone of your garden.

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Are native plants maintenance free? No–most will require some pruning during the course of the growing season to shape as appropriate for a garden’s purpose. Mulching is a must, to limit seedlings and to conserve soil moisture. Occasionally, a new plant or very old plant will struggle and even die—it happens. But for the vast majority of native plants grown in home landscapes, if you plant them and if you water sparingly for a period of time to establish healthy roots, they will grow—and how! With few exceptions, a native plant will out-perform an exotic plant.

Natives roll with environmental punches—drought, floods, hard freezes, or scorching heat.  If natives are used in a garden, the garden is more likely shrug off the extremes of weather.  As long as a native plant is plopped in the right conditions—a shade lover in shade, sun lover in sun—it will rarely succumb to tricky weather or dicey soil conditions.  It’s prudent in the first year (first two years for a large shade tree), that a native plant be cared for, which usually means regular watering.

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Your place or mine?

Native plants impart a sense of place:  my Texas garden looks different from a Pacific Northwest garden, a Florida garden, or a garden in Maine.  Every place possesses unique natural beauty and that natural beauty should be celebrated and encouraged.  Is there a better way to do that than to plant what naturally grows and belongs to a region?   Many North American native plants enjoy a wide growing distribution; others are specific to a narrow geographical location.  But all native plants convey a regionalism to a particular climate and topography.  Honor your home and plant what nature grows.

Where do I find native plants?

 Now we come to the hard part.  The big-box stores nurseries carry few, if any, native plants in their inventory.  They purchase from big growers who mass produce for the entire nation and sell you the same plant that they sell me, even though we may live thousands of miles apart and experience vastly different growing conditions.

Where do you purchase native plants?  Often, locally owned nurseries are leaders in sustainable gardening practices, including the selling of native plants.  Additionally, there are a number of on-line nurseries and seed producers available for the home gardener who is growing native.  These include, but are not limited to: Prairie Moon Nursery, High Country Gardens, Native American Seed  and Wildseed Farms.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is the consummate source for information about native North American plants.   Bookmark that site.

The National Wildlife Federation also provides excellent tips for the how-tos of wildlife gardening, with a strong emphasis on using native plants.

Most communities, and all states, enjoy active Native Plant Societies with enthusiastic and knowledgeable members.  Check out your local chapter, visit and learn.

Unlike watering and mowing a lawn every week or so, the native landscape is not something a gardener creates during a weekend-warrior marathon effort.  It takes time to convert a traditional American landscape to one that uses native plantings as its foundation.  Included is researching and learning about appropriate plants, learning and implementing basic garden design principles, and purchasing and installing plants and seeds during the correct time of year for your region.  The good news, is that converting to a native plants garden is on your budget and your timetable—start small and add to your garden beds as time and money allow.

Once you see the beauty of native plants, the ease in which the plants perform, and the wildlife that comes to the garden because you grow native plants, you’ll never grow high-maintenance turf and fussy exotic plants again.

Go natives!

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