Drive through any suburban neighborhood come spring and summer, and you’re likely to see one sprinkler after another shooting off a seemingly endless mist that ultimately settles over what could very well be a chemically fertilized lawn.
Yet the alternative—cultivating a gorgeous garden that requires less water, limited maintenance and no fertilizer while benefiting the environment—is entirely possible, say a growing number of gardeners using native plants in their landscapes.
Native plants are indigenous to a specific region and adapted to its growing conditions. Their environmental benefits range from improved soil fertility and reduced erosion to drought tolerance and pest resistance.
“Native plants reflect the character of their region,” says Lynnette Kampe, executive director of the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants, an organization promoting native landscapes. “As we become increasingly urbanized there is more of a desire to connect with nature.” Native plants, Kampe adds, fulfill that connection.
The interest in using native plants to replace manicured lawns and clipped hedges has been growing over the past decade, which Kampe attributes to increased awareness of the environmental impact of landscapes dominated by annuals and sod.
“The trend toward using native plants in landscapes is the ultimate commitment to supporting the ‘go local’ movement,” she says.
Sarah Cornwell began adding native plants to her landscape in 2010, planting shrubs and flowers such as salvia, deer grass and maidenhair ferns. She spends less time pulling weeds and attacking pests and more time enjoying the native landscape. Cornwell, a 40-year-old marketing manager, also uses far less water to support the native landscape at her Palo Alto, California, home.
“It gets so hot and dry here in the summers that non-native plants wilt and die even if you water them all the time,” she says. “We almost never water the garden and our native plants thrive just like they were meant to.”
Planting native landscapes does more than cut water use; insects, butterflies, birds and other critters rely on native plants for their food and habitat.
Doug Tallamy, PhD, professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (Timber) believes that providing a food source for birds and insects is one of the most important features of a native landscape.
“When we load our landscapes with plants that didn’t evolve here or remove native plants and replace them with lawns, we rob the ecosystem of food webs it needs to sustain” wildlife, he says.
Monarch butterflies are designated “near threatened” by the World Wildlife Federation, in part because of the disappearance of native plants such as milkweed that provide important food sources. The songbird population has also decreased—with some populations declining up to 94%, according to a report from Stanford University—because their habitats are disappearing.
“The diversity of plant life supports the diversity of all life,” Tallamy explains. “It’s important that we stop thinking of plants as decorations and start thinking of plants that are productive; native plants provide food and habitat that our ecosystem needs to survive.”
Making the Change
Swapping out colorful annuals and expansive patches of grass for native plants isn’t as simple as heading to the nearest garden center and browsing their plant selection.
“Native plants can be difficult to find,” Kampe says.
Seek out local native plant societies or nurseries specializing in native plants for the best selection. But first, do some research on various native species. The reason? There is a learning curve associated with growing native plants, according to Tallamy.
“The more knowledge you have, the better your landscape will do,” he says.
It can be helpful to take classes through native plant societies and consult with nursery professionals for help with design and plant selection. If the DIY approach seems too daunting, hire a landscape designer who specializes in sustainable landscapes.
Before choosing native plants for her garden, Cornwell researched her options and chose a variety of plants that bloom at various times throughout the season noting, “We wanted plants that would give us year-round color and interest.”
There are a lot of misconceptions about the aesthetics of native plants. Too often, gardeners think that “going native” means turning their garden into an unkempt meadow filled with ragged plants that lack color. But nothing is further from the truth, notes Kampe.
“You’re not limited to a certain design aesthetic,” she says. “There native plants that work well in English cottage gardens and contemporary landscapes. There are no limits to what you can do.”
Whether native plants are used in woodland gardens or wild meadows, their environmental sustainability will never go out of style.
“The idea that we can do something to improve the environment is exciting and empowering,” Tallamy says. “The ability to make a difference for the planet is what really excites people about using native plants.”
Be Water Wise
Maintaining a lush green lawn and gardens filled with annuals and non-native perennials requires a lot of water. The US Geological Survey estimates that it takes 7.8 billion gallons of water to irrigate American landscapes.
Landscaping with native plants is one way to use less water in the garden. Follow these tips to save even more H2O:
Pick the right time: It’s best to water the garden first thing in the morning when cooler temperatures prevent the water from evaporating before it’s soaked into the roots.
Capture rainfall: Purchase a rain barrel and place it under your downspouts to collect rainwater. A typical half-inch rainfall will fill a 55-gallon rain barrel, providing enough water to satisfy even the thirstiest plants.
Conserve creatively: You can help your gardens retain moisture by adding a layer of mulch around the plants. Choose mulches made from natural materials such as pine straw and cocoa shells, which will decompose over time and add organic matter to the soil.
Install irrigation: Easy-to-assemble drip irrigation systems direct water straight to the roots of the plants, minimizing runoff. Drip irrigation uses up to 50% less water than traditional sprinklers, making it easier to recoup the cost.