Native Landscaping Makes Sense

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Chris Helzer)
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Photo © Carrie Ginnane

There are many reasons to choose native plants. Chances are, there are several that will appeal to you when using natives in your outdoor spaces. Creating a sanctuary to support and encourage thriving wildlife is one of the most direct and positive impacts you can have on the environment and in your community. Besides the “feel good by doing good” aspect of planting native landscapes, you might be able to spend less time on maintenance activities like mowing, raking, watering, and trimming. With reduced irrigation needs and higher survival rates of native plants during drought, you might find yourself buying fewer replacements each year and saving money on water bills. People also tend to utilize fewer chemicals to eliminate pests or promote growth in native gardens, which translates into cleaner runoff and safer water supplies, and less chemical exposure for you, your children, pets, and neighbors. Roll out a red welcome carpet for wildlife by promoting native plants in your landscape.

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Photo © Kara Jones

Some insects have a strong preference for the native plants of their regionopen_in_new. Why? It might seem like a plant is a plant, but some research suggests that the coevolution of insects and plants in shared ecosystems over millions of years means that many insects (up to 90% of plant-eating speciesopen_in_new) have developed special relationships with particular plants like seasonal timing of development, specialized mouthparts, and resistance to toxins and other chemicals produced by the plant. Above, a Silver-spotted skipper caterpillar (Epargyreus clarus) feeds on Amorpha fruticosa, its native host plant and one of the few plants it can eat.

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio glaucus) and Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) on Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Mark Godfrey)

Introduced, or non-native, plants that are relatively new to an ecosystem do not always have the same characteristics that make them compatible with the native fauna. As a result, insects, and sometimes other wildlife are unable to eat or breed on introduced plants with the same success. Decades of empirical studies show that “most phytophagous species (insects or other invertebrates which feed on plants) are restricted to eating vegetation from plant lineages with which they share an evolutionary history”open_in_new–basically, butterflies, moths, and other herbivorous insects have evolved to eat specific native plants. Ecosystems with more introduced species have shown some reduced biodiversity and biomass at both the herbivorous and insectivorous predatory levels.

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Photo © Spencer Blake

Up to 90% of all phytophagous insect species are specialists that have evolved in concert with only one or a few plants lineages.

Lepidoptera, known to you and me as “caterpillars,” are one of the foundational herbivorous species occurring across ecosystems with a diversity of plant hosts. The top three trees that support Lepidoptera (think butterflies and moths) in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. are oak, cherry/plum, and willow (in that order) according to a study conducted by the University of Delaware’s Doug Tallamyopen_in_new. Imagine how many caterpillars live within the branches of the oak above. Like any healthy food web, where you find insects–like butterflies and moths–you will also find the species that feed upon them, such as birds, mammals, and reptilesopen_in_new. Without native plants as the primary food source, diversity in such a system can be drastically reduced.

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Photo © Richard Barry

This Featured Site on the Habitat Network is located in Essex, MA and is one of many native plant success stories. The owner, Richard Barry, reported an increase in butterflies, dragonflies, and birds after he removed the invasive plants and boring lawn and replaced them with productive native plants, like coneflower and milkweed. Now that the landscaping is several years old, many of the plants are self-seeding, filling in the gaps and suppressing weeds, reducing yard maintenance (including raking) to a minimum. Rain gardens incorporated into the Barry property collect runoff from the rain gutters which is efficiently absorbed by native root systems, effectively reducing irrigation requirements in the overall landscaping. Monarch butterflies flitter around the property and reproduce on the milkweed plants providing Richard with a front seat to one of nature’s most spectacular displays of metamorphoses. The variety and number of pollinators attracted to the diverse yard means more flowers and fruits are produced, which is excellent news for the vegetable garden.

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Io Moth Caterpillar (Automeris io)

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Dan Campbell)

Richard Barry’s success aligns with a study conducted by the University of Delaware (Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology) on six pairs of suburban properties in southeastern Pennsylvania showed that yards with native landscaping not only had more total birds (eight times as many), but also a greater diversity of bird species compared to properties with non-native plant speciesopen_in_new. Researchers speculate the birds were attracted to the increased number and diversity of caterpillars (which was four times greater) at the native plant sites. This study gives hope that even in densely populated areas, such as suburbs and cities, making the switch to native landscapes can have a positive impact on conservation and biodiversity.

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Photo © Pennsylvania National Guard

If you’re wondering what you can do to make a transition towards growing more native plants in your yard or public space, here are a few steps you can take:

  • Remove invasive trees, shrubs, or weeds to make room for native plants. Invasive plants can aggressively take over an area and reduce space that could be better used for valuable habitat resources. In Habitat Network, we refer to this and any action that encourages native plants, as “managing for natives.”
  • Reduce the size of your lawn. This high-maintenance, low-value environment can be replaced by smothering with newspaper and mulch in the fall and planted with native plants in the spring.
  • Make better selections for your existing gardens. Use our Local Resource Tool to make informed decisions when choosing what to plant. It will help you find local native plant nurseries as well, so you can avoid the big box stores.
  • Grow native plants in pots, planters, and other containers. Container gardening allows you to control the soil types, moisture levels, and sun exposure to grow an incredible variety of native species in any location.
  • Let Habitat Network help you discover more information on native plantings like installing and maintaining a native lawns, identifying native plants, and improving native plant aesthetics so you can continue to be increasingly successful at native plant landscaping.

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    Monarch butterfly caterpillar enjoying Antelope horn milkweed (Asclepias asperula) in tallgrass prairie.

    Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Chris Helzer)

    Because of the potential importance of native plants to the ecological function of landscapes we’ve included managing for natives as an important action you can take while working towards several goals for a site. From adding a native shrub, to trying to complete our lofty 5Managing for natives on 50% of planted area action, native plants have an important role to play throughout our planning tool.

    Map it: Tell us about what is native on your map

    After mapping any habitat or object, make sure to fill out the characteristics for each feature. The information provided to scientists through filling out the characteristics allows for a more detailed analysis of the data. To set characteristics on any habitat or object, simply:

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    Photo ©

    1. Click on the feature (habitat or object) on the map.
    2. In the overview panel on the left, you will see the habitat or object highlighted. Use the information button to access the characteristics for that habitat or object.

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    Photo ©

    3. The information window will load and on the left-hand side, the menu bar will help you navigate through the information for this habitat or object. To set the characteristics use the characteristics tab in the menu.
    4. The characteristics tab will open and asks you important information about your habitat or object you have added to your map, like native or non-native and whether or not you “manage for natives.” Please fill out this information so that we have a complete understanding of the habitat on the property and can properly award your actions.

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