I’m hooked. I want to garden for wildlife by planting native plants, and here’s why:
- Doug Tallamy, founder of Homegrown National Park, told me to. I want to do my part to save insects and birds and us by creating my own “wildlife preserve”.
- I’m learning a lot
- It’s fun
- This particular beauty speaks to my soul
I’ve been gardening with natives off and on for the past thirty years, feeling it’s the right thing to do but without a bedrock reason. Doug Tallamy, author of Nature’s Best Hope, has provided the best reason I’ve heard yet: we need to save as many species as possible in order to save ourselves on this planet.
The best way to do that is by planting natives, because insects and birds have often evolved along with the plants they use, and without those specific plants we won’t have those specific insects.
Without the insect life, we won’t have the bird species and other pollinators. Without those, we won’t have food and therefore us. As Tallamy has observed, it takes an astounding 6,000 to 10,000 caterpillars to raise one clutch of chickadees. Caterpillars are the linchpin of the food web. We need more caterpillars. And I’m going to create a garden for them.
This is something I feel in my gut and is fierce in my heart. It pulls at me on a daily basis. Native gardening is a way for me to respond to the crazy world around me, as an activist, taking an action that will help create habitat. So, I’m plugging into the National Homegrown Park concept and creating my piece of the patchwork to link together habitat for birds, bees, butterflies, bats and all the inter-related critters that create a soil food web.
Here’s where I’m starting. I’m converting it from grass that does nothing for all I want to host, to a planting of perennials, grasses, and sedges that (hopefully!) will support a plethora of insects and birds.
And here are my Ground Rules for determining what to plant:
Understand where I’m planting. I’ve plunged my hands in the soil and breathed in its earthy, loamy smell. I’ve looked out the kitchen window to see how the light plays across the trees and how the birds glide from one to the next, or hammer on the tree bark, or scurry around seeking food. I’ve lifted the leaf litter to find little toads and listened to the bird song as the evening sun dips below the horizon. I need to feel the place I am planting.
- How much sunlight does the area get?
- How much moisture does it get?
- Is the soil clay, silt, sand or loam?
Do only things that improve the soil food web.
- No pesticides or fertilizers, which will kill microbes and insects that decompose and build soil fertility
- No tilling, which can chop up all those good insects, microorganisms, and fungi
- Amend with compost that is local to my yard or city to provide local biome, mycorrhizae, and microbes that are suited to my area
- Keep the leaf litter in garden areas to provide homes for overwintering insects, and thus food for birds
- Test the soil periodically — many extension agencies will provide an annual soil test for free.
Plant natives that do at least one of these:
- Host caterpillars . What you plant can provide the right environment for anywhere from 0 to 250 butterfly and moth caterpillars. I have a choice, and I’m not choosing any zeros. Use the tool at the link and simply put in your zip code to find the native plants or trees in your area that support the most caterpillars.
- Provide pollen or nectar for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. In the Kansas City metro, a great resource for plant lists that support these is the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native website. Check out their Top 10 lists for some great info on which plants are recommended.
- Provide seed and/or cover or nesting material for birds. The National Audubon Society’s Native Plant database tells you which natives may attract what birds, based on your zip code.
Plant natives that work well together in terms of bloom time and form, support, structure, root growth, soil, moisture and light requirements. My best resources for learning these things have been:
- Missouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder. Input any common or scientific name and you can learn its origin, expected full size, light, soil, and moisture preferences as well as if it attracts butterflies and birds.
- Benjamin Vogt’s YouTube videos. The owner of Monarch Gardens LLC in Nebraska, Benjamin, has a wealth of knowledge on planting natives- both in sun and shade.
- Roy Diblik’s YouTube videos. Roy is a veteran in the gardening world and co-founder of Northwind Perennial Farm in Wisconsin. He’s worked with Piet Oudolf on a number of projects including the Lurie Garden in Chicago and the High Line in New York City. He speaks of coming to know plants and their combinations, and of finding joy through creating “Monet Moments” in the garden.
- North Carolina Extension Service
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Database
- Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses
- Missouri Prairie Foundation
Let plants reach out and touch each other and let them cover the ground. As humans, we have a basic need to be able to reach out and touch one another. I love the concept that plants also need this — to reach out and touch a friend. We know they are doing it through mycorrhizal interactions in the soil, so why stop them from doing it above ground too? Letting plants cover the ground and fill the space is much healthier for the plants and soil than leaving plants stranded on little islands with a sea of mulch in between.
Fill the space “in-between” — use a matrix plant. I first saw the Konza Prairie when I was in college — the breathtaking beauty of rolling hills of grasses spotted here and there with pops of color. I remember admiring the pops of color— butterfly weed and Missouri evening primrose. Then I wondered what all the more neutral plants were in-between— they filled every inch. I sensed their importance then, but it would have taken me a very long time to understand that the space “in-between” is incredibly important for building a micro-habitat, supporting the other plants, and keeping the soil covered so it doesn’t dry out.. As I worked on my planting plan, I spread the “pops” of color out and plopped a matrix plant in between them.
Be mindful of plant heights. This particular planting has a path next to it, so I wanted the plants to be between 2’ and 4’ so the plants would not tower over people as they walked through. It’s one of those human nature things — many of us want to be able to see over things to ensure there is no mountain lion coming for us.
Let three plants bloom together at each season. My planting plan aims to have something in bloom from spring through fall. The pattern of “three somethings” is more pleasing to the eye.
Document your plant research to use for reference. As I researched plants, I compiled their info into a spreadsheet by species— all the ones that met my criteria in some way. Then I combed through, like I would a list of candidates for a job interview, to see which ones best met my criteria. And for this space, at this time, here are the winners and why:
This includes: The Matrix, Breathing Space, Spring Friends, Accent, Ground Cover, Summer Friends, Shrubs/Large Perennials, and Fall Friends
Bouteloua gracilis (Blue Grama Grass) or as I call it, Eyelash Grass. This will provide the “in between” and is sprinkled throughout the planting area. It makes me smile to see the little wands of seedheads dancing in the wind. It attracts birds, is a larval host for skipper butterflies and is extremely drought tolerant.
Breathing space — the pause in the plan
Schizachrium scopaium (Little Bluestem). I created a small arc or “river” of this grass about half-way through the planting area to provide a pause, a resting place for the eye as you contemplate the garden. Besides providing structure, Little Bluestem provides habitat for finches, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and others, is a host plant for 6 butterfly and moth species and has visual interest from early summer through winter. I love that it changes from a blue-gray to a reddish-brown as the seasons change.
Friends for the Spring
Erigeron pulchellus (Fleablane) blooms from April to June. This sweet white flowered plant makes the “Top 10” list for Spring Bees, for Winter Pollinators, and for Overall Pollinators. It is a larval host for 13 butterfly and moth species.
Aquilegia canadensis (Columbine) blooms from April to May. A favorite since my childhood, Columbine blooms strongest in spring, but often re-flowers. Besides being on the “Top 10” list for hummingbirds, it’s a larval host for 6 species of butterflies and moths.
Monarda bradburiana (Eastern Bee Balm) blooms in May. Attracting butterflies and hummingbirds, this Bee Balm blooms earlier than the others to add to the spring garden.
Zizia aurea (Golden Alexander) blooms from May to June. On the “Top 10” list for bees in Spring: Golden Alexander is a caterpillar host to two species of butterflies, including the Black Swallowtail, and attracts a number of bird species.
Heuchera richardsonii (Aum root) blooms from May to June. An emerald groundcover with a scalloped leaf, this is our area’s native coral bells, and the spring flower can attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
Baptisia australis (Blue False Indigo) blooms from May to June. I love the foliage, the flower, and the seedpod of Blue False Indigo. It is more of a shrub in shape and size when full grown. It is another one of the “Top 10” for Bees in Spring and hosts 13 caterpillar species.
Antennaria parlinii (Pussy Toes) blooms from April to June. With its comedic common name, Pussy Toes, makes the “Top 10” list for both Winter Pollinators and for Butterflies and Moths. It’s also a host plant for American Painted Lady butterflies.
Carex albicans (Oak Sedge) blooms in May. Sedges are new to me, and now that I know about them, I have no idea why they haven’t been used more. There are varieties that work in full sun, and some, like this one, work in part to full shade, AND are drought tolerant. They are a great replacement for grass where your grass won’t grow anyway.
Friends for the Summer
Echinacea pallida (Pale Purple Coneflower) blooms from July to September. Pale Purple Coneflower makes the “Top 10” for Bees in Summer. Finches, chickadees, Titmice, and other birds may be attracted to the seedheads when you leave them standing.
Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower) blooms from June to August. This coneflower hosts the Great Spangled Fritillary caterpillar. It makes the “Top 5” for nectar for butterflies and the “Top 10” for butterflies and moths.
Liatris scariosa (Blazing Star) blooms from August to October. Wow, Blazing Stars are amazing pollinator plants. This one brought in many monarchs for me this fall, and hits three “Top 10” lists: Bees in Fall, Pollinators, and Butterflies &Moths, as well as “Top 5” for nectar for butterflies. Beyond that it’s a host for 6 caterpillar species!
Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan) blooms from June to September. This native is common for a reason — it’s a “Top 10” for Bees in Summer, hosts 10 caterpillar species, and may attract 17 bird species. And you can’t help but smile at that golden sunshine color.
Solidago speciosa (Showy Goldenrod) blooms from July to September. With a “Top 10” for bees in fall and “Top 5” for nectar for butterflies, Goldenrod is still more amazing as the host for 77 caterpillar species and may attract 18 species of birds. This one does not self-seed as strongly as others.
Monarda fistulosa (Bee Balm) blooms from July to September. It makes the “Top 10” for Bees in Summer and for Pollinators. Bee Balm also hosts 7 species of caterpillars.
Symphiotrichum oblongifolium (Aromatic Aster) blooms from August to September. Aromatic Aster makes four “Top 10 lists”: Bees in Fall, Winter Pollinators, Pollinators, and Butterflies and Moths, as well as hosting 7 caterpillar species. And it can be trimmed and shaped almost like a boxwood — plant a few and curve them through a space.
Amorpha canescens (Leadplant) July to September. As a host to 27 caterpillar species, Leadplant’s subtle color and delicate leaf shape make it easy to include. It also made the “Top 10” for Bees in Summer.
Eutrochium purpureum (Joe-Pye Weed) blooms from July to September. Recognized by pollination ecologists as attracting large numbers of native bees, its mauve-pink flower heads also attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
Aronia melanocarpa (Black chokeberry) flowers in May and fruits from August to October. While it attracts bees and provides fruit for birds, I selected this shrub mostly for its compact size of 3–6′ and the seasonal interest of white flowers in May, and orange/red leaves in fall.
It doesn’t look like much right now, yet every time I look at this newly planted patch, it brings a smile of anticipation. Will it work? Will they come? Will the plants thrive? Working on this plan has pushed me to learn more about native plants and what they provide for insects and birds, and what those in turn provide to the plants. It’s a grand, fascinating experiment, and whether they thrive or flop, I’m invested in making a difference for wildlife— I’ll keep going until I get it right.
For me, part of gardening for wildlife is sharing this information as a Citizen Scientist. It’s important to add to the amazing database on migrations of Monarchs and hummingbirds, and I want to know if my plantings have improved habitat to attract more bird species. I’ve noted the bird species already coming to my yard and will be watching for additional species. I’ll also be reporting my Monarch and Hummingbird sightings to JourneyNorth.org. And as the days turn cold and the snow falls, my thoughts will turn to expanding the buffet offerings in other parts of my garden…
My hope is that others will also discover their superpower is Gardening for Wildlife.Anna Graether