When Doug Tallamy, PhD, and his wife, Cindy, began building a home in Pennsylvania in 2000, he noticed something strange about the landscape. Their 10 acres had previously been a hay field, but invasive plants had taken over: multiflora rose, Oriental bittersweet, autumn olive, Japanese honeysuckle, and the like.
Where these nonnative plants thrived, few birds, insects, or other pollinators visited. But the surviving patches of native plants — native oaks, cherries, and others — were abuzz with bugs and birds.
The Tallamys removed the invasive plants; then they researched and replanted native ones. The ecosystem soon came alive again.
Doug, a University of Delaware entomology professor and author of Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, says seeing this dichotomy firsthand woke him up to a common problem.
Most landscaping and gardening in the United States features imported plants that come from ecosystems on the other side of the globe or are genetically modified cultivars. They’re pretty, and they’re decorative, but they’re basically biologically dead to local pollinators and other insects.
Native plants, shrubs, and trees exist naturally in the region where they evolved. They form the ecological basis upon which the ecosystem depends, including the insects, butterflies, birds, and other animals — and even people — that coevolved with them. Bees and butterflies spread their pollen; birds feed on their seeds. The ecosystem is a living cycle.
“If we removed insects from the planet, humans would disappear in a matter of months. So they’re vital — yet all we do is think about how we can kill them.”
“Nonnative plants cannot support the insects, which are the little things that run the world,” Tallamy explains. “If we removed insects from the planet, humans would disappear in a matter of months. So they’re vital — yet all we do is think about how we can kill them. The fact that we have global insect decline is another serious issue, and people just shrug and say, ‘Who needs insects?’ Well, everybody needs them.
“Native plants are the plants that have delivered the energy from the sun to all the species that run our ecosystems — forever.”
Native plants also boast other benefits, such as for gardeners, explains Lynn M. Steiner, author of several guides to native plants, including Grow Native.
“For many gardeners, the initial attraction comes from native plants’ reputation of being lower-maintenance than a manicured lawn and exotic shrubs,” she says. “Because they have evolved and adapted to their surroundings, native plants tend to be tolerant of tough conditions, such as drought and poor soil. Native plants are better adapted to local climatic conditions and better able to resist the effects of native insects and diseases.”
Native plants have evolved to form interdependent plant communities and usually do not require fertilizers or excessive doses of pesticides. And they need less water than lawns do: They’re often used in arid regions for xeriscaping — a gardening technique using drought-resistant plants to help conserve water.
Finally, native species’ “reduced maintenance results in less dependence on fossil fuels and reduced noise pollution from lawnmowers and other types of equipment,” says Steiner.
“Natives may not all be as bright and showy as a lot of introduced plants, but their subtle beauty can be just as effective in landscaping,” she adds. “When given proper conditions and room to grow, most native plants produce larger and better flowers than their invasive counterparts.”
“Gardening with natives instills an understanding of our natural world — its cycles, changes, and history.”
And Steiner argues that their reputation as a source of allergies is misplaced. “The truth is, most native plants are insect-pollinated rather than wind-pollinated. Kentucky bluegrass has the potential to produce more allergens than any native plant.”
A less tangible, but possibly more important, reason to use native plants is the connection you make with nature when raising them.
“Gardening with natives instills an understanding of our natural world — its cycles, changes, and history,” Steiner says. “Communing with nature has a positive, healing effect on human beings. Learning how to work with, instead of against, nature will do wonders for your spiritual health. By observing native plants throughout the year, a gardener gains insight into seasonal rhythms and life cycles. You will experience intellectual rewards that are somehow missing if you only grow petunias or marigolds.”
The Big Picture in Your Small Yard
Although we may not be able to do much about the ongoing devastation of the Amazon rainforest, for instance, Doug Tallamy believes that we can — and need to — do something about our own yards.
“The big picture is that we are all products of nature: We are totally dependent on the life-support systems that nature delivers us. Yet we are destroying nature and those systems. It directly affects our health, because we won’t be here without the natural world to support us.”
“Everybody on the planet requires a healthy ecosystem,” he adds. “But we’ve assigned Earth stewardship to a few ecologists and conservation biologists, and everybody else seems to have a green light to wreck everything. That’s what we’ve got to change.”
Tallamy thinks that we all share responsibility for Earth stewardship. How can we be better land stewards?
If you own property, you can swap in native plants, he advises. Reduce nonnatives and especially get rid of invasives (nonnatives that spread easily) — they don’t have natural competition. And if you don’t own property, help somebody who does.
“This is a huge job!” Tallamy says. “But we’ve got 330 million people in just this country to work on this. We can do it.”
The Need to Garden With Native Plants
Why garden and landscape with native plants? To help ensure the survival of us all.
You might not be able to do anything meaningful about the climate crisis on a global scale, but you can do something about it in your own yard. You can simply choose to garden with native plants.
Native plants, shrubs, and trees are those that have evolved over centuries to grow naturally in your region. And they form the ecological basis upon which your ecosystem depends, including the insects, butterflies, birds, and other animals — and even people —that coevolved with them.
Gardening and landscaping with natives is key to the ecosystem’s survival, says Doug Tallamy, PhD, a University of Delaware entomology professor and author of Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard.
We spoke to Tallamy about what we can all do to support our ecosystems.
A Q&A With Doug Tallamy, PhD
Experience Life | Can you explain why gardening with natives is so important?
Doug Tallamy | Here’s the big picture: We are products of nature. We are totally dependent on the life-support systems that nature delivers us. Yet we are destroying nature and those life-support systems. So that’s the big picture: It directly affects our health because we won’t be here without the natural world to support us.
How are we doing that? We’re doing that a thousand different ways, but the native-plant connection is this: Ecosystems function best when there are lots of species in those ecosystems. And every time you remove a species, it produces fewer ecosystem services. We want to have ecosystems that are jam-packed with species because they are more productive and they’re also more stable. But everywhere we go, we do the opposite. We create landscapes that remove species; they’re simplified, and you can hardly call them ecosystems at all. And they are totally dependent on our inputs all the time.
Native plants are the plants that have delivered the energy from the sun to all the species that run our ecosystems — forever. We’ve had this idea that plants are just decorations and we can use plants from all over the world with no problem because we are only concerned about aesthetics.
And from that perspective, sure, they’re pretty, they are decorations, but that ignores all the vital ecosystem services that our landscapes must deliver. We also have this idea that humans are here and nature is someplace else, and we’ll get those ecosystem services from someplace else. And when there weren’t that many humans around, that worked pretty well. But now we’re absolutely everywhere.
We’re in the middle of the sixth great extinction even the Earth has ever experienced. Just recently, there were articles in the news that 23 species had been removed from the endangered-species list — not because we saved them, but because they were already extinct. The United Nations predicts we’re going to lose a million species to extinction, many within decades. That’s not even close to being a viable option.
So, in other words, the parks and preserves — the “someplace else” where nature is supposed to be happy — are not working. They are not nearly big enough. And they’re too separated from each other to sustain the species, to support the amount of nature that we humans need.
And every time we add another human to the world, we need more nature, not less. So that’s a growing need every day, yet we’re decreasing the planet’s ability to support us every day by wrecking the food web that supports the species that run our ecosystems. How do we wreck the food web? By taking out the native plants.
Nonnative plants cannot support the insects that are the little things that run the world, that support all the species that run our world. If we removed insects from the planet, humans would disappear in a matter of months.
So insects are vital — yet all we do is think about how we can kill them. The fact that we have global insect decline is another serious, serious issue and people just shrug and say, “Who needs insects?” Well, everybody needs them.
The role of native plants is to support those insect communities that then, in turn, transfer the energy from those plants to most other animals, including us.
And when we landscape our yards with plants from Asia or the Mediterranean or South America or all the places we get these plants from, those plants do not support the insects that run our ecosystems. We have pretty yards that are biologically dead.
Think of a chickadee: If it’s going to reproduce, it requires 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to get their clutch of babies to the point where they leave the nest. And then they feed them caterpillars another 21 days. So it’s tens of thousands of caterpillars to make one clutch of a bird that weighs a third of an ounce. If you want a chickadee to breed in your yard — and most people say, “Oh yeah, I love chickadees!” — you’ve got to have tens of thousands of caterpillars or it’s not going to happen.
So when you have your Bradford pear, eucalyptus, crepe myrtle, boxwood, burning bush, or all the other nonnatives we have in our yards, they’re not making any caterpillars.
EL | So, in other words, while you and I might not be able to do much about the devastation of the Amazon rainforest, for instance, we can and need to do something about our own yards.
DT | Right. That’s a good point because we do need the rainforests and they are being destroyed, but we have destroyed more of the temperate-zone forest than the Amazon forest — and for some reason we think that’s OK.
EL | You built a home in southeastern Pennsylvania, and when you moved in, you noticed that portions of the yard were “dead zones” without insects, while other portions were abuzz with bugs. Can you tell us what that taught you?
DT | It actually was a farm that was broken up; it had been mowed for hay. By the time we built the house and moved in, all the stuff that grew back when they stop mowing were invasive plants. There wasn’t a portion that was happy! The entire property of 10 acres was covered with invasive species: Most of the vegetation was multiflora rose and Oriental bittersweet and autumn olive and Japanese honeysuckle and on and on.
Now there were a few natives growing in there — like native oaks and a few cherries and walnuts — and they supported the typical amounts of insects. So, my wife and I removed all the nonnatives and put back the native plants.
You can measure the quality of your local ecosystem by counting the number of caterpillar species that it supports, because caterpillars are transferring most of the energy from plants to other animals. And I’ve been taking pictures of every caterpillar species that makes a living on our property now, and I’m up to 1,140 species that have come since we built the house and got rid of all those nonnative plants — which proves how well natives work. And because we have so many caterpillars, we also have 60 species of birds that breed in our yard.
EL | Had you been knowledgeable about native plants and their role, or was this eye-opening to you?
DT | I’m an entomologist, not a botanist. There was a native-plant movement, but I wasn’t following it. So I guess the answer is, it’s not that I wasn’t a fan, I just wasn’t thinking about it. I study insect behavior, mating systems and things like that, but it was moving into our new house that showed me we’ve got a serious issue, because I realized my house was just like every other place: Most yards are either invaded with nonnative plants or people purposely plant them as ornamentals. That’s what woke me up and said, “Gee, this is a problem everywhere.”
The missing piece here is that people don’t realize that everybody on the planet requires a healthy ecosystem — we’re totally dependent on it. But for some reason, we’ve assigned Earth stewardship to a few ecologists and conservation biologists, and everybody else seems to have a green light to wreck everything. That’s what we’ve got to change.
Everybody, whether you own property or not, has a personal responsibility for Earth stewardship. And that’s what I want people to embrace. How do you express that stewardship the best way? If you own property, you put in the native plants and you get rid of the invasives and reduce the nonnatives. And cut your lawn in half, because lawn creates an ecological dead zone.
And if you don’t own property, help somebody who does — this is a huge job! But we’ve got 330 million people in just this country to work on this. We can do it!
Why Grow Native Plants?
Native plants can do more than just create a beautiful garden: They can help save the environment.
Lynn M. Steiner is a gardener, which also makes her a steward of the environment as a whole. And that has led her to become a strong advocate of gardening and landscaping with native plants.
Steiner worked to get a horticulture degree and has always loved wildflowers. But her schooling taught her little about the importance of natives.
“The more I learned about native plants, the more I wanted to grow them — mainly for their beauty,” she says. “In later years, I discovered how important it is to grow native plants from an ecological standpoint, and now that has become a driving force.”
Steiner has authored several classic, detailed guides to regional native plants. Her most recent book is Grow Native.
But you don’t have to be a master gardener to be an environmental steward: You can simply choose to plant natives.
We talked with Steiner about the importance of native plants.
A Q&A With Lynn M. Steiner
Experience Life | Can you explain what you see as the key reasons to use native plants in our gardening and landscaping?
Lynn M. Steiner | There are many reasons to use native plants, some more tangible than others. For many gardeners, the initial attraction comes from native plants’ reputation of being lower-maintenance than a manicured lawn and exotic shrubs. For the most part this is true — provided native plants are given landscape situations that match their cultural requirements. Because they have evolved and adapted to their surroundings, native plants tend to be tolerant of tough conditions such as drought and poor soil. Native plants are better adapted to local climatic conditions and better able to resist the effects of native insects and diseases. Their reduced maintenance results in less dependence on fossil fuels and reduced noise pollution from lawnmowers and other types of equipment.
One very important benefit of using native plants is their importance to native insects, birds, and other wildlife, which are critical to the survival of our planet. Creating native ecosystems in our landscapes provides a substitute for the natural habitats that are being destroyed at a rapid rate. In contrast to what most gardeners traditionally thought, it is time to plant a garden that is attractive to insects, birds, and other types of wildlife rather than repellent to them. Native plants are the best choices for these ecosystems. They are recognized by native birds and insects and known to be palatable, unlike nonnative plants, which have not evolved with native fauna.
Growing native plants gives you peace of mind that you are not further contributing to the degradation of natural habitats. Many traditional landscape plants have the potential to become invasive and weedy when grown in conditions without the natural checks and balances that keep them under control. When a native species moves into a natural area from a garden bed, it usually just becomes a part of the ecosystem. When an alien species move in, it often grows faster and reproduces more successfully. The result is a monoculture that displaces native species and provides little or no habitat for native fauna.
Gardening with native plants will help you create a sense of place rather than just a cookie-cutter landscape. Your yard will be unique among the long line of mown grass and clipped shrubs in your neighborhood. You will get an enormous sense of satisfaction from helping to reestablish what once grew naturally in your area. You will see an increase in wildlife, including birds, butterflies, and pollinating insects, making your garden a livelier place.
On a broader scale, using native plants helps preserve the natural heritage of an area. Genetic diversity promotes the mixing of genes to form new combinations, the key to adaptability and survival of all life. Once a species becomes extinct, it is gone forever, as are its genes and any future contribution that it might have made.
A less tangible — but possibly more important — side of using native plants is the connection you make with nature. Gardening with natives instills an understanding of our natural world — its cycles, changes, and history. Communing with nature has a positive, healing effect on human beings. Learning how to work with instead of against nature will do wonders for your spiritual health. By observing native plants throughout the year, a gardener gains insight into seasonal rhythms and life cycles. You will experience intellectual rewards that are somehow missing if you only grow petunias or marigolds.
EL | Are there any disadvantages to gardening with natives?
LS | I certainly don’t think so. But there are some misconceptions.
Some people think native plants are colorless and dull, which is simply based in ignorance. Once you learn about the wide variety of natives and how to use them properly, you will discover that they have much to offer — not only colorful flowers but also interesting textures, colorful fruits, and year-round interest. They may not all be as bright and showy as a lot of introduced plants, but their subtle beauty can be just as effective in landscaping. When given proper conditions and room to grow, most native plants produce larger and better flowers than their wild counterparts.
Unfortunately, native plants often have a reputation of being the source of allergies. Goldenrods are especially burdened by this misconception. The truth is, most native plants are insect-pollinated rather than wind-pollinated. Kentucky bluegrass has the potential to produce more allergens than any native plant.
Most native plants are no more invasive than many other garden plants. Most plants that become aggressively invasive are imported from other countries or from another part of the United States. Keep in mind that any plant can become invasive if it is given the “right” conditions: a site more conducive to rampant growth than its preferred habitat, and a lack of the native insect predators that help keep it in check.
The misconception that native plants are hard to grow comes from the fact that some, such as lady’s slipper, have evolved in a rather specific habitat — one that is often hard to re-create in a garden setting. Once you learn about the different plant communities and their soil and sunlight requirements and determine which plants are best for your conditions, you will find that most native plants are easier to grow than their cultivated counterparts because they have evolved in similar climatic and soil conditions as are found in your area.
Some people think native-plant landscapes are messy. Well, nature is “messy.” It’s full of fallen logs, recycling plant parts, and plants that weave together rather than lay out in straight lines. Once you understand and appreciate this, native plants will no longer appear unattractive. And there are many things you can do to make a native landscape look neater, such as incorporating small patches of lawn grasses, creating paths and neat edges, and cutting back certain plants when they are done blooming.
EL | Where can a gardener who’s new to natives start? And what are the best ways to learn about natives for a specific area?
LS | Some people avoid native plants because they think they are hard to find in the nursery trade. Once you learn which plants are native, you will be surprised how many are available at local nurseries. In every part of the country, you will find nurseries that specialize in native plants, and many of them offer mail order.
There are many good resources for locating native plants. A good place to start is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s website (www.wildflower.org), where you can pull up lists of native plants by states.
This article originally appeared as “Gardening With Native Plants” in the April 2022 issue of Experience Life.