Native Gardening

What is Native Gardening?

I have recently become committed to the cause of native gardening, which is, essentially, gardening that works with and supports the local and global ecological systems. The heart of native gardening is to create spaces that nurture plant species that have evolved in your specific area, alongside your native birds, animals and insects.

Most people like birds, while considerably fewer care about insects. I really enjoy watching our bird feeder -- I fill it at various times of the year, and watch the different species take advantage of it. But as I was told recently, birdseed is sort of like candy: Seeds are yummy to eat, but not the most nutritious meal for birds, especially those that are preparing to lay eggs, for instance, or have been migrating for hundreds of miles. For refueling, birds need protein, and their most efficient source of protein is INSECTS. That's right -- bugs. So when we spend our days planting our "pest-free" exotics, and spraying insecticides, we are removing the main incentive birds would have to visit us.

We all know that evolution has been underway for multiple thousands of years, but we don't often stop to think that evolution has created and encouraged the prospering of plants and animals that coexist. When we take away (or drive out) native species, the native birds and other animals suffer. For instance, butterflies feed on biologically specific plants, and they lay their eggs on other specific plants. A carefully tended expanse of lawn is a sterile world to a butterfly.

To make matters much, much worse -- some of the exotics we have been buying and planting in huge numbers (at least in part because they are "pest-resistant"), have driven out many native plants. Because these exotics are alien to our areas, they are equally alien to the insects and birds that live here, and hence provide very little or no sustenance to our native ecozones. Woodlands that have been overrun by kudzu, for instance, look green and lush, but they do not support any where near the amounts of wildlife that those same areas used to. Norway maples are lovely, but feed only a few insect species, in contrast to native oak trees, which feed hundreds of insect species.

Native plants exist in harmony with native birds and insects, meaning they play a role in the food cycle - they get eaten, they get distributed, and then they grow again, without exceeding the capacities of the system. Invasive exotics, however, grow unchecked, and easily drown out the native species. It is incumbent on us humans, the only cog in the ecosystem that can choose to act ouside the system, to give the natives a fighting chance by eradicating invasive exotics where we find them (see a partial list below).

"Green spaces" aren't just wildlife preserves; they include our lawns and decorative gardens. If enough people see their property as being part of a huge expanse of linked green spaces, we can stop the population declines of the insects and birds that help make up the ecosystem of which we are a part.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)Native Passionflower Vine (Passiflora incarnata)

…we humans have disrupted natural habitats in so many ways and in so many places that the future of our nation's biodiversity is dim unless we start to share the places in which we live--our cities and, to an even greater extent, our suburbs--with the plants and animals that evolved there.

Douglas Tallamy, 2009. Bringing Nature Home. Timber Press, Oregon, p. 286.

Pussytoes (Antennaria dioica)Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Some Goals of Native Gardening

  • Providing Habitat, Food & Nectar Sources for Invertebrates, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians & Mammals
  • Increasing Biodiversity with Native Plants of Local Provenance
  • Reducing Water & Sediment Runoff from the Property to Improve Water Quality
  • Removing Invasive Species
  • Reducing the Amount of Impervious Surfaces
  • Reducing the Size of the Lawn
  • Reducing Fragmentation & Making Green Connections
  • Reducing the Use of Resources
  • Maintaining our Landscape Without Gasoline Powered Tools

My Native Garden

Our house has a side yard that for a very long time was completely shaded over by a large, leaning Bradford Pear tree (definitely an alien species!). The Bradford Pear grows fast and weak, and this tree would regularly drop limbs during storms. It was also leaning at such a scary angle, hanging out over the cars parked at the curb, that we just knew we would soon be liable for a smashed car. So we had it removed.

This left behind a wasteland of compacted, root-riddled dirt that was once an alley way, filled with glass bits, buried trash, and god-knows what else. So I shelled out some more money and had the plot tilled, amended, and mulched. Ah, a blank slate of a garden! Thankfully I had a plan - let's go native. My native garden is definitely young and a work in progress. It has Pennsylvania sedge, bee balm, echinacea, rudbeckia, milkweeds, nine bark, coralberry, pussytoes, and a variety of things I can't remember right now. Check out the progress here.

Martin made a birdbath


Some invasives to watch out for:

  • Butterfly Bush (Buddleia spp) (not to be confused with the native Butterfly Weed pictured on this page)
  • Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus)
  • Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
  • English Ivy (Hedera helix)
  • Exotic Wisteria (Wisteria floribunda)
  • Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii)
  • Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
  • Japanese Spiraea (Spiraea japonica)
  • Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora)
  • Norway maple (Acer platanoides)
  • Tiger day lilies (Hemerocallis fulva)

Look up these and other invasives here:

Check the Links page for native gardening resources.