There's a new trend in modern gardening that's gaining in popularity: planting natives. Over the years, gardeners frequently overlooked regional natives in favor of more exotic plants. But many of those exotics have had a devastating effect on the environment, and today they are one of the leading threats to our national parks.
Many plants introduced to the United States as ornamental garden plants, such as English ivy and purple loosestrife, have spread at such a rapid rate that they are referred to as invasive species. Invasive plants crowd out native ones and can take over entire ecosystems, reducing food and shelter for resident wildlife populations. Some introduced garden plants bring with them diseases and insects that threaten entire forests within our national parks.
Gardeners nationwide have begun a movement to restore plants native to their region. This renaissance of native gardening acknowledges that native plants are beautiful, hearty, and beneficial. By starting a native garden in your own backyard, you can help stem the loss of native biodiversity, provide shelter and food for native wildlife, and reduce pollution.
A native garden in your backyard will:
- Provide food and shelter to wildlife. Development and habitat destruction are reducing wildlife populations across the nation. Our national parks provide some of the only remaining intact habitats for wildlife, but in many cases our national parks alone are not enough. You can attract songbirds, butterflies, hummingbirds, and more to your garden by planting natives that provide shelter as well as nectar, seeds, and berries.
- Reduce lawn size. According to the U.S. EPA, 30 to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used to water lawns each year (depending on the city). Lawns sprout on 20 million acres of residential land in this country, and lawnmowers account for 5 percent of the air pollution. In fact, a lawnmower pollutes as much in one hour as an automobile driving 350 miles. By reducing the size of your lawn and converting the area to a native garden, you will restore critical habitat and food sources for wildlife, limit your water usage, and reduce air pollution.
- Use fewer fertilizers and chemicals. Native plants require fewer pesticides and fertilizers. They have evolved along with resident insect populations and are well adjusted to soil conditions. Avoiding pesticides will increase the population of beneficial insects, and reducing fertilizers and other chemicals will reduce pollution and improve water quality.
Tips for getting started
- To find the natives in your area, visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center or www.enature.com. Or locate a Native Plant Society near you. You may also choose to buy a regional guidebook for easy reference.
- To learn more about creating wildlife habitat in your backyard, visit the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program.
- Once you've selected the location for your new garden, dig up the grass. To prevent the grass from growing back, use several layers of newspaper (be sure to use only black and white, as color ink may be toxic) or plain cardboard and a thick layer of mulch.
- Start small. Beginning a garden takes time, and learning about and locating native plants takes a little research. As you learn more and locate native-friendly nurseries in your area, you can expand the garden and diversify your plantings.
- Do not remove species from the wild, and ask your nursery to guarantee that their stock has not been taken from the wild.
- Once you've planted your natives, you will need to water them once a day for the first week. For the first season, water only occasionally or in periods of drought. After your garden is established, your natives will be drought-tolerant and low-maintenance.
- Learn how to spot invasive species in your area, and be sure to remove them from your yard.
- Share your knowledge with friends, family, and fellow gardeners. Many people buy invasive plants without understanding the consequences, and unfortunately, many nurseries are still willing to sell invasive plants to unsuspecting customers. Educate those around you and empower them to make informed decisions.
- Sit back and enjoy your garden!