Plant Natives to Bring Your Garden to Life

kalamazoowildonesWe made it through another winter here in Michigan!

As you stow away your snow shovel and pull out your gardening equipment this spring, take a look around your yard and ask yourself where your bushes, trees and flowers come from. We aren’t looking for the short history here – like what store you bought them at – we want answers to the ancestral questions. Most importantly, we want to know if the plants are native to our region.

Native plants, which have been here since before European settlers arrived in the 1700s, have developed symbiotic relationships with their surrounding environment over thousands of years. This means they require less supplemental watering, use of pesticides and general maintenance than non-native species, much to the delight of gardeners. Native plants also provide important habitat and food for birds, bees, butterflies and more.

butterfly-weed-lA garden seems a little more magical when butterflies are flitting about. Incorporating a few nectar plants will help to add some flash and fragrance to your garden while also attracting these pollinators. Butterfly weed, with its intense orange-red color, is one of the most easily recognized native plants for this purpose. Purple coneflowers and wild bergamot are also great nectar sources.

Suburban lawns made up of non-native grasses are almost as valuable to wildlife as a parking lot. Native plants produce four times as much insect biomass compared to non-native plants. This is crucial to the 96 percent of North America’s landbirds which need insects to feed their young. Choosing native plants will help us continue to see birds in our yards and natural areas.

Native oaks support over 500 species of butterflies and moths. While many of their larvae (caterpillars) will grow to maturity, they also are an important food source for baby birds. Willows, which typically leaf out early in spring, will attract swarms of small insects that become a critical food source for migratory birds on their journey north.

cardinal-flowerInterested in bringing hummingbirds to your garden? They love the color red (think cardinal flower) but be sure to have a mixture of herbaceous and woody plants with varied heights and bloom dates. Hummingbirds need nectar from May through the first frost. Providing fresh water for them to drink and bathe with is also helpful.

Although many non-native species are popular in landscaping for their ornamental value, planting native species does not mean you have to sacrifice aesthetics. Not only do they offer colorful flowers, you can find interesting textures, colorful fruit and plants that peak during different parts of the season.

There are numerous resources out there to help you choose the right plants for your soil and climate, including nurseries dedicated to native plants with passionate staff that welcome your questions. There are also conservation groups such as Wild Ones or Northwest Michigan Invasive Species Network that can provide you with educational resources.

Choosing native plants for your yard and gardens will not only ease the amount of maintenance required by you to keep it looking great, it will also give you a deeper sense of connection to nature as you help to sustain the delicate balance of wildlife within it. Developing a native garden may not be possible for you to do overnight, but each small change will have an even bigger impact.

By Molly Keenan, OTCA org committee member

Helpful books:

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy

Landscaping with Native Plants of Michigan by Lynn M. Steiner

Month-by-Month Gardening Michigan by Melinda Myers

Where to purchase native plants:

Designs By Nature | Laingsburg, MI

Michigan Wildflower Farm | Portland, MI

MSU Gardens| East Lansing, MI

Van Atta’s Garden Center | Haslett, MI

Wildtype Native Nursery | Mason, MI

Wild Ones Red Cedar Chapter Plant Sale | Lansing City Market