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.
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…
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.