Transitioning to Native Plants


Whether you are planning spring planting for city-wide parks, community gardens, gardening in your backyard, on a balcony, think about the importance of incorporating native plants in your landscape. As they evolved, plants developed toxins to protect themselves from insects; insects that evolved along with these plants have become very specialized in developing strategies to overcome these defenses. The result is that most insects depend on a narrow plant palette to survive; a well-known example is the monarch butterfly caterpillar, which only eats milkweed. As we have replaced native plants with European and Asian imports, we are starving our insects, the base of the food web. This in turn is causing a steep decline in bird populations – even birds that thrive as adults on only seeds depend upon caterpillars to feed their young. However, simply replacing imported plants with those native to your area can quickly help to reverse this decline. Here are some easy things you can do:

  • Replace non-native plants with native plants. Use this zip code based tool to find out what to plant.
  • Look for native plant sales near you, some nurseries are now specializing in only pesticide free native plants. Most nurseries and big box stores treat their plants with neonicotinoids, which infect the entire plant system, including nectar and pollen.
  • Focus on straight species. Frequently hybrids or cultivars are bred for features that make them unsuitable for pollinators.
  • Shrink lawns. The typical lawn is a sterile monoculture imported from European aristocrats. Allow natural ground covers to take over, such as wild strawberries and violets, and shrink your lawn by expanding planting areas. Native cover also requires no supplemental watering! An added bonus – the more robust root systems of native plants take in and store more carbon than grass.
  • Stop using pesticides. Any type of pesticides kill beneficial insects as well as target insects. These poisons travel up the food chain and also kill hawks and other predators. A well balanced ecosystem will attract natural predators to handle your mosquitos for you.
  • Turn off outside lights, or replace with yellow LED lights. Nocturnal insects are negatively impacted by light pollution. Yellow LED lights are less impactful than brighter alternatives.
  • Leave the leaves, many insects overwinter in leaf litter. Removing this from the ecosystem destroys the next generation of insects. Don’t clean out branches and leaves until the temperature is consistently above 50 degrees.

Suffering through our long lockdown has made many of us appreciate whatever slice of nature is available to us. By converting to native we will literally see your outside rooms come to life with bees, butterflies, fireflies, birds, and other garden friends.

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