Why You Should Plant Natives in Your Garden

By Kate Miller, Horticulturist

Even as snow remains on the ground and cold temperatures linger, many of us are thinking about the upcoming gardening season. Whether you’re planning a landscape or garden from scratch or looking to enhance an existing one, you’ll want to consider incorporating native plants. Natives not only add aesthetic beauty to a landscape, they add biodiversity to our ecosystem, provide food and habitat to our local wildlife, help manage stormwater, reduce air pollution, and require less maintenance than non-native plantings and turf grass.

Here’s why you should consider planting natives in your garden this year:

Native Plants Support Native Species

When we think of insects that native plants support, we often think of bees and butterflies, but they really support many other insects as well as birds and mammals. The fact that our native plants and wildlife have evolved together means that they are reliant on each other to survive. For example, insects are reliant on certain host plants for food in order to complete their life cycle.

native plants yellow

The biggest threat to these insects is the loss of their native habitat. In fact, according to Doug Tallamy, a professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, the insect population has declined by an alarming 45% since 1974! By bringing native plant species into your landscape you create natural feeding and nesting sites vital to their survival and ours.

When choosing native plants for your garden, keep in mind that each species of native perennial, grass and tree supports a certain number of insect species, so choose your plants wisely.  Here are a few examples of what we mean:

  • Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) supports 57 insect species while rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) supports 185 species.
  • Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) supports 19 insect species while little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) supports 40 species.
  • Red oak (Quercus rubra), which is a Wisconsin native, supports 389 insect species while gingko (Ginkgo biloba) is native to China and supports only 5 insect species.

We recommend using Native Plant Finder to see a list of all insects that both visit and feed on each native species. On this site, you can enter your zip code and discover which native butterfly and moth species each native plant supports.

By creating habitats for our native insects, we help to support native birds and other native wildlife, and thus, increase the natural biodiversity of our ecosystem.

Native Plants Help the Local Environment

Native plantings also have a positive impact on the overall health of our environment. They are used in bio-filters, bio-swales and rain gardens. With their deep roots systems, natives are able to hold the soil, soak up nutrients, catch and release water, as well as filter contaminants out of the water.

rain garden diagram

Without the management of natives, these contaminants enter our waterways causing harm to the environment. Contaminants can negatively affect fish and wildlife populations, native vegetation and drinking water supplies as well as recreational areas.

rain garden PC: HGTV

An example of a rain garden that helps manage stormwater runoff.

Native plants are the best choice for these situations because they are adapted to our soil, precipitation and climate, and are able to withstand brief periods of wet soil and extended periods of dryness. In addition to helping clear contaminants from our waterways, native plants, especially long-lived trees, also help our air quality by removing carbon dioxide at a higher rate than turf grasses due to their extensive root systems.

They Save You Time & Money

Besides all the amazing things native plants already do for our environment, having them in your landscape will also help you save time and money.

By converting a turf area into native plantings, you reduce the need to mow, rake or put down expensive fertilizers. Because native plants are so well adapted to our environment, they aren’t as susceptible to pests and diseases as non-natives are, so they don’t require the use of fungicides or pesticides.

native plants prairie grass

Once the plants are established you will only have to supplement with water during periods of drought. You can finally spend more time enjoying your garden and less time working in it!

Putting in native plants is much easier than you think and extremely beneficial for not only your local environment but also for you.  We encourage you to design a small area of your landscape for native plants or re-evaluate whether you can add a few native plants to your existing garden. A little work can go a long way in supporting our local wildlife and ecosystem!

Stay tuned in April for another blog post on best tips on how to actually plant natives in your garden!