Adopting native plants doesn’t have to be all or nothing


As home gardeners become more knowledgeable about the role native plants play in the ecosystem — and their importance to pollinators, wildlife, and humans — many are turning to “rewilding.” The term refers to a landscaping approach that depends on the use of native plants to support insects, bees, birds and butterflies.

Embracing the movement, these gardeners are eliminating their lawns, replacing exotic species with native plants, forgoing fall cleanups to preserve food and shelter for overwintering birds and insects, and turning their properties into habitats.

Others, however, worry about what they fear is a “messy” landscape and are intimidated by the work and potential cost of a complete garden makeover. Those who live in neighborhoods governed by homeowner associations often face mandates on manicured lawns and restrictions on plant choice.

The good news is that adopting native plants doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. It is possible to integrate natives into a conventional garden without embarking on a complete renovation.

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A single native potted plant that feeds a pollinator will make the difference. More is better, of course, but including a few natives alongside traditional garden plants—whether in containers or in the ground—will create a longer-lasting mixed garden that attracts beneficial insects. A bonus: native plants are generally drought tolerant.

If replacing your entire lawn with a meadow or even a native groundcover seems daunting, consider shrinking it. Install new beds and borders – or expand existing ones – around its perimeter or in its center and fill them with plants native to your area. You’ll be rewarded with the buzz of bees and the flutter of butterflies, plus less chores and expense of mowing, weeding, watering and fertilizing.

And your flowering plants, fruits and vegetables will bloom better with the help of the new inhabitants of your garden.

Seeding native wildflowers would be ideal, but if the aesthetics of a meadow don’t sit well with you or your neighbors, consider keeping a small, manicured lawn border. It will define your plantings and keep the garden well maintained.

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In my backyard just outside of New York, I undertook a gradual conversion several years ago. I minimized the lawn and topped it with clover, which attracts pollinators, fixes nitrogen in the soil (free fertilizer!), and holds up to my dog’s “visits” better than grass.

Although I have kept my beloved hydrangeas, roses and lilacs, the only new plants I bring home these days are native ones. After only a few years, native plants already outnumber exotic ones in my garden. This ratio will continue to grow as my old garden favorites decline and are replaced by plants that belong here.

Along the way, I discovered beautiful flowering perennials like Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium caeruleum), Tortoiseshell Turtle (Chelone obliqua) and Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), all of which provide from nectar to pollinators. I interplanted the roses with native gameweed (Liatris spicata), lemon balm (Monarda didyma) and milkweed (Asclepias), which is the only food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars.

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I’ve always loved Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Purple Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), Aniseed Hyssop (Agastache) and Joe Pye Grass (Eutrochium purpureum). They are all native to my area, although to be honest I didn’t know or consider it a few decades ago when I brought them home.

My containers contain annuals, yes, but also native coral bells (Heuchera Americana), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and blue haze (Conoclinium coelestinum).

Fall leaves are still raked up, but instead of being bagged and placed on the sidewalk, they are pushed into garden beds to serve as winter mulch and a hiding place for beneficial insects.

I am gradually working on replacing monkey grass (Liriope muscari) with the native sedge in my area (Carex pensylvanica), which could also serve as a nice lawn alternative.

I expect the transition to take several more years, but it’s another step in the right direction. In gardening, as in life, we do well to aim for progress, not perfection.


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