Native Plants are Good for Your Garden

We garden in perilous times. Invading diseases, insects and plants all converge on our gardens, usually thwarted by increasingly destructive measures. Often the very plants we are using in those gardens are part of the problem. In Hal Bruce’s 1976 work, How To Grow Wildflowers And Wild Shrubs And Trees In Your Own Garden, he recommends Lythrum salicaria, despite his note that “the wetlands just south of Philadelphia are covered with this plant” and that it “should be watched, as it is invasive.” (Hal was teaching English at the University of Delaware at the time).

It is interesting to note that some thirty years later at the same institution, Dr. Doug Tallamy, the chair for both Entomology and Ecology at U of D, has been doing revealing research on insect populations in relation to native or non-native plants. It appears that there is a direct correlation between insect species ability to reproduce and how much non-native plant mass is in the ecosystem. Less native plant mass means less insect biomass. This is bad and gets worse when you review the effect on fauna further up the food chain. Plant life is the base of nearly every food chain on the planet, but it is most effective when they are native species of plants. We have become far more attuned to our impact on nature in those thirty years, but we have yet to fully understand and act on the implications.

Local Gardening has a Global Effect:

Dr. Aldo Leopold (whose Sand County Almanac predates Mr. Bruce’s by nearly thirty years) says,
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

I would suggest we look to our gardens in much that very manner. At a time when natural plant and animal habitat is shrinking, we are often promulgating species that destruct these same native areas. Over 700,000 acres of the United States has been turned over to parking lots while we have only twenty acres or so of eastern short grass prairie left.

Increasing population expands further into pristine nature, while our replacement flora tends to be non-native. It is not surprising that we continue to lose native fauna species as their food webs break down at the very base of the food pyramid, the plants themselves. Yet we support non-natives in our environment with chemical and labor intensive practices. Dr. Leopold’s credo is not understood or heeded by society at large, or even those of us who steward our little pieces of the ecosphere.

Designing a Garden with the Four Pillars of Habitat

A better model is starting to take hold. Gardeners like Sara Stein, who’s wonderful book Noah’s Garden chronicles her education from fresh new suburbanite to committed native plant gardener, have started to explore the idea of the garden as not just a tableau for aesthetic reasons, but an integral working part of nature. It is possible to provide the basic necessities for a large number of species in a small space if you make sure to keep in mind the four pillars of habitat.

The Four Pillars of  Habitat

  • Food
  • Water
  • Shelter
  • Cover.

Native plants are an integral part of all these pillars and the key to sustaining birds and butterflies in our backyards for years to come. Let’s look at some ways for gardeners to save the planet, one backyard at a time…


Your Garden as Food for the Environment
Native plant life is already a big part of the natural food web in your area. All you need do is identify some of the existing food sources in your area to get some great ideas for what will supply food and be easy for you to grow. Eastern red cedar, oaks and service berries are all good examples of readily found food sources that would be beneficial to duplicate in your yard.

Your Garden as Sustenance for Local Wildlife
Another way to choose plants is to pick a specific animal you wish to attract to the yard and try to use plants that are food sources for that animal. If you wish to attract wild turkeys, then planting acorns, beeches, crabapples, and hawthorns will be sure to bring them in.

If you want to attract monarch butterflies then you must address different stages of their development, providing nectar plants for the adult stages (Asters, Bee Balm, Butterfly Weed, Coreopsis, Coneflower, Lupine, Phlox, Black-eyed Susan, and Yarrow are all good native nectar plants) and the butterfly weed (Asclepias spp.) also doubles as the larval (caterpillar) food source (in this case it is a sole source, making it doubly important to provide. It would be a good idea to provide twice as much).

Providing a wide range of flowering and berrying times keeps the larder stocked longer, so while plants like elderberry are ready in the middle of summer and shrub dogwoods by fall, plants like winterberry and chokeberry are not palatable to the birds right away, (and present their treasure for us to enjoy visually), needing a series of frosts to soften the berries and concentrate the sugars for a late winter food source.

Grasses are another outstanding food source for any number of different species and the selections of native grasses coming available for home gardeners is beginning to rival any of the exotics we have gotten familiar with (there is increasing concern over the species Miscanthus, a darling of the trade, but a mono-cultural species in its native environs) Switchgrass, Indian grass, and little bluestem are excellent low-maintenance additions to any border.

Supplemental feeding can be beneficial as well, but providing sources found elsewhere in their ecosphere helps to deter reliance on human sourcing and provide for other uses in the landscape.


Water is the basis for all life on the planet and every species of native fauna needs it in some fashion. Whether you can provide pond habitat for waterfowl, a birdbath for the chickadees or a plate of damp sand for butterflies to puddle on, your introduction of water into your landscape will be appreciated by some form of wildlife. You do not need to install a pond (although it is an excellent idea) to provide enough water to support many different species.

Using swales as drainage retention areas, called rain gardening, is the most ecologically sound way to handle drainage in your yard (Run-off from chemically treated yards, called non-point source pollution, is a leading cause of water pollution today). Native plants help to stabilize the swales and utilize water during rainy periods. Many of our native plants are adapted to wet springs and dry summers, perfect for this kind of garden. Plants like shrub dogwood, winterberry, serviceberry, blue flag iris, purple pitcher plant and cardinal flower are good examples of rain garden plants.


Much as we would be at a loss without our homes to return to in the evening, most forms of wildlife need a safe form of shelter from the elements. This takes on special importance for the critters that will be staying on for winter. Our friends the birds are most appreciative of evergreen plants to keep the wind and rain off them; better yet if it provides a food source as well.

Pines and eastern red cedar make outstanding shelter trees and food sources; the cedar bark also provides great nesting material. Leaving flower and grass seed heads into the winter provides great nesting material AND food sources for foraging birds and often over-wintering places for beneficial insects like lacewings and parasitic wasps. Providing additional shelters like bird houses, or nesting material (old cut up string, dryer lint etc.) are great ways of supplementing shelter. Lots of spring nesting birds like dense deciduous cover; massing food plants like viburnum, hollies, serviceberry, and Pussywillow tightly together will allow nesting birds the visual screen that makes them feel secure.


While this may seem like the same function as above, cover means not so much shelter from the elements, but shelter from predation. While it is hardly the case today, going back 10,000 years or so would make this a very real concern for us humans. It is still a day to day concern for most wildlife, and a true habitat takes this into account. While we provide the cover we often provide the predator as well; the average house cat gets between 15 and 80 % of it’s intake from wild sources and around 25% of that catch is songbirds.

So we do need protective areas for our birds and critters, especially in our backyards. Thorny plants are particularly good deterrents; hawthorns and wild roses are both excellent food sources and good cover. A brush pile (start with big logs at the bottom and work up to the twiggy stuff) provides both shelter and cover for rabbits and other small animals. A rock pile built in much the same manner will provide excellent homes and cover for chipmunks.


And of course trees provide high roosting out of the reach of our pets and wild predators. A note here, predators are a very necessary part of any ecosystem, providing a check on numbers and a regulatory effect on weaker, less desirable genetic traits, so do not try to completely exclude predators. Some of my favorite birdfeeder moments have been watching a sharp shinned hawk stalk my feeder, and I was even privileged to watch a takedown. If the goal here is to preserve nature, then we should preserve it all without bias as to cute or cuddly…

Build out from the corners and then the edges of your landscape, trees to the back, then middle plantings, then in front with perennials and grass. Remember that evergreens double as cover and winter nesting sites Try and keep a good balance of seasons when it comes to food availability. Match the rush of berries in summer, the abundance of fall and the persistent stores of winter and you will delight the winged inhabitants of your neighborhood.

A Native Plant Garden is Alive and Full of Vitality

In conclusion, native plants are the backbone of any good habitat creation, be it your own backyard or a full blown professional restoration. They address virtually every need for the wildlife in our backyards, beyond even the benefits we can readily see. While the answer is often unclear when someone asks “What can one person do?”

Backyard habitat restoration can preserve our wild heritage one backyard at a time. With coordination those backyards can become acres of prime habitat. While this may not totally answer native habitat destruction, it is a step to keeping these creatures so we need not explain to our children about extinct species we once knew ourselves…

“How can we design in a way that loves the children of all species for all time?”
William McDonough

Plants that Attract the Butterfly (Larval)

•Andropogon spp. (skipper spp.)
•Antennaria spp. (painted lady)
•Aquilegia canandensis (Columbine duskywing)
•Arctostaphylos (elfin spp.)
•Aronia spp (coral hairstreak)
•Asclepias spp. (queen, monarch)
•Aster spp. (Crescent spp.)
•Betula spp. (tortoiseshell spp)
•Bouteloua spp. (skipper spp.)
•Carpinus caroliniana (swallowtail spp.)
•Carex spp. (brown spp., satyr spp., skipper spp., mulberry wing)
•Cassia spp (sulphur spp)
•Chelone spp. (Baltimore checkerspot)
•Cimicifuga racemosa (Appalachian blue)
•Cornus spp. (spring azure)
•Eragrostis (wood nymph, skipper spp.)
•Fraxinus spp (hairstreak spp., swallowtail spp.)
•Hibiscus spp. (Checkered skipper, gray hairstreak)
•Hystrix patula (northern pearly eye)
•Juniperus virginiana (olive hairstreak)
•Lupinus perennis (blue spp., elfin spp.)
•Panicum spp. (ringlet, skipper spp.)
•Pinus spp (eastern pine elfin)
•Populus spp. (most admiral spp.)
•Prunus serotina, virginiana. (swallowtail spp, spring azure, white admiral)
•Quercus spp. (hairstreak spp., duskywing spp.)
•Salix spp. (Admiral spp.)
•Trifolium spp. (sulphur spp., blue spp., preferred nectar for the American bumblebee)
•Ulmus Americana (most anglewing spp.)
•Viola spp. (All silver fritillaries, violets are their only source! The regal fritillary only uses Viola pedata).

Bird Hedge

Low (in front, to 5 ft.)


•Andropogon spp.**FW
•Bouteloua spp. *FW
•Eragrostis spp. *FW
•Panicum spp. **FW
•Schizachrium scoparium **FW
•Sporobulus heterolepsis *FW
•Aster spp. *FW
•Cassia spp. *FW
•Coreopsis spp. *SF
•Echinacea spp.**FW
•Eupatorium spp.*FW
•Helianthus spp.**FW
•Liatris spp. *SF
•Lobelia spp. *SF
•Phlox spp. **SF
•Rudebeckia spp. **FW
•Solidago spp. **FW

Shrubs and vines
• Itea ‘Little Henry’ *SF
•Partheniocissus quinqefolia **FW
•Rhus ‘Gro-lo’ *FW
•Vaccinium angustifolium ***S

Middle plantings (to 25 ft.)


•Andropogon gerrardii **FW
•Panicum ‘Cloud 9’ **FW
•Sorghastrum nutans *FW
Shrubs and vines
• Aronia spp.* W
•Cephalanthus occidentalis *FW
•Cornus spp (tree & shrub) **FW
•Corylus americana **FW
•Ilex spp. *FW
•Itea virginica *SF
•Myrica pennsylvanica **FW
•Rhus spp. **SF
•Rosa spp (native) **FW
•Rubus spp.***S
•Sambucus canadensis***S
•Vaccinium corymbosum***S
•Viburnum spp.**FW

Trees (The Back Row)

•Acer spp. **SFW
•Amelanchier spp. **SF
•Betula spp. **SFW
•Crataegus crusgalli **SF
•Ilex opaca ***FW
•Juniperus virginiana ***FW
•Malus spp. **FW
•Morus rubra ***S
•Nyssa sylvatica **FW
•Pinus spp. **FW
•Prunus spp (wild)***S
•Quercus spp. ***FW
•Sorbus americana **SF
•Ulmus americana **FW
•Tsuga canadensis * FW
•Ulmus americana **SFW


*, **, *** Increasing value to wildlife
S Food source in summer
F Food source in fall
W Food source in winter

Books I Have Read & Recommend

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Compensation received for purchases but they do not influence the recommendations.

The Natural Habitat Garden
Druse, Ken, Timber Press
National Gardener
“This one book, used alone, provides a wealth of ideas and information to develop your own natural habitat garden.”

Washington Post
“Makes a compelling argument for designing gardens that will bring back birds, bees, butterflies, frogs, turtles and hosts of mammals and other organisms, one yard at a time.”

A Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies
Opler, Paul A./ Malikul,Vichai, Houghton Mifflin Co.

A Field Guide to the Birds
Peterson, Roger Tory, Houghton Mifflin Co.

A Field Guide to Wildflowers
Peterson, Roger Tory/ McKenny, Margaret, Houghton Mifflin Co.

National Wildlife Federation Attracting Birds, Butterflies & Backyard Wildlife
Mizejewski, David

Eastern Deciduous Forest
Yahner, Richard H., University of Minnesota Press

Field Book Of American Wildflowers
Mathews, F. Schuyler, G. P. Putnam & Sons

Manual of Woody Landscape Plants
Dirr, Michael, Stipes Publishing

Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American Woody Plants
Cullina William, Houghton-Mifflin

Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“‘Must have’ for any gardener who is concerned about the environment.”

Science News:
“A useful tool for both novice and accomplished gardeners.”

Green Bay Press-Gazette:
“Essential. . . written in lively, informative language. . . an inspired effort and loaded with useful information. (Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines) offers information that is considerably more helpful and interesting than the facts one finds in most plant reference books.”

Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards
Stein, Sara, Houghton Mifflin Co.

Kirkus Reviews
“A persuasive and informed plea to change the way we garden, thoughtfully defying old wisdom and suggesting, without ever being didactic, just what can be achieved even on the smallest suburban lot.”

Plants in Wetlands
Redington, Charles P., Kendall Hunt Publishing

The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses
Greenlee, John, Rodale Press

The New Handbook of Attracting Birds
McElroy, Jr., Thomas P., Alfred A. Knopf

The Native Plant Primer
Ottesen, Carole, Harmony Books