Landscaping With Native Plants for a Better Environment

I recently bought a new house outside the city with one-acre of land.  As someone coming from living the last six years  in the New Orleans metro area, it felt like an opportunity to expand my patio gardening hobby into full-blown habitat creation.  I was ready to plant my yard to be not only beautiful and functional for my family, but to provide habitat and food for the wildlife I enjoy so much.  I’m hoping to summarize what I’ve learned so far, and what I’m doing in my yard to improve the environment.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a showy native shrub with bright red flowers that are coveted by Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.  Once plants are established, the large seeds (buckeyes) are easily collected.  I received mine from a local Facebook plant sharing group.

Environmental Problems With Modern Landscaping
When I was house shopping, I was disappointed to see the new developments around my town were ecologically barren.  The houses take up most of each lot except for a perfectly manicured lawn which is lined by evergreen shrubs from Asia like boxwoods (buxus) or red tips (photinia).  These neighborhoods leave no room for wildlife, the lawns are maintained by a heavy regime of chemicals and mowing, and the lack of shade trees causes a huge amount of electricity to be consumed for air conditioning in the summer.

Exotic plants offer little to no support for beneficial insects like butterflies, moths, and bees compared to native plants.  The larvae of most butterflies and moths have very specific plant needs and when those plants are removed from an area, these species are also absent.  Older neighborhoods with more established vegetation may have another problem.  Some exotic species are so successful once they’re introduced that they become invasive and spread far beyond the yards they were originally meant for, choking out wild areas and out competing native plants while offering little benefit to wildlife or in some cases, actually being harmful to wildlife.

Invasive Species
As soon as I moved in, I started working on identifying all the plants in my yard and discovered that my yard was a hotbed of invasive species.  Invasive species are plants or animals that are not originally from a region but were introduced by people and tend to spread into the wild where they can out-compete and displace native plants.  In the Gulf South, we have major problems with Chinese Tallow trees (Triadica sebifera), Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense), Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), and Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina domestica); just to name a few.   Louisiana’s unique Cheniere Plain habitat is known for its large stands of Live Oak (which attract massive amounts of migrating songbirds in the spring and fall) which are being displaced by Chinese Tallow trees.  The disappearing Longleaf Pine Savannas of the southeast that were historically maintained by periodic natural wildfires are being choked out by dense stands of Chinese Privet.  Heavenly Bamboo is now known to kill entire flocks of Cedar Waxwings that feed on its poisonous fruit.  Knowing all this, it made good sense to me to rip out all the invasive plants in my yard and start replacing them but with what?  To figure that out, I had to learn what “healthy for wildlife” actually meant.

“Louisiana” Zigzag Iris (Iris brevicaulis) is a great native alternative to the invasive Yellow Iris. My rain garden blooms are a spring treat.

Native Plants
I was first introduced to the concept of “native plants” for gardening by my grandparents who lived on a couple of acres in southern Mississippi.  My grandmother would take me out in the woods and we’d hunt for mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) to transplant to her yard*.  I thought it was neat that you could go out in the woods and bring something back to your garden that was not only desirable, but natural.   Native plants are plant species that existed in an area before it was modified by people.   These plants evolved alongside native wildlife and developed symbiotic relationships with pollinators and seed dispersing animals that kept the local ecosystem in balance.

*This practice is frowned upon nowadays for good reason.  Lots of native plants have been nearly transplanted to localized extinction.  Please buy your plants from growers or collect seeds and grow your own.

American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a weed in every sense of the word (this one sprouted in my backyard, probably from bird droppings) but it is the host plant of the gorgeous Giant Leopard Moth and the berries are highly coveted by frugivore birds. Although this plant was in an unfortunate location, I gathered seeds and hope to have a couple specimens along my back fence line this summer.

Most yard gardens feature the same popular plants (often of foreign origin) usually selected to be evergreen and hardy.  These plants are touted as “pest free” because nothing eats them.  This may be convenient for a well-manicured garden, but it is the equivalent of filling your yard with lifeless sculptures of plants.  You wouldn’t be wrong if you remember that you’ve seen hundreds of birds eating the seeds of a Chinese Tallow tree or privets.  Yards with a bunch of invasive trees may get visited like a buffet, but they won’t attract a wide variety of birds or have any sustaining power once that year’s crop is gone.  For that, you need insects.  Most nesting songbirds feed their young exclusively on insects and other bugs.  A great place to learn about the interactions between insects and plants can be found in Douglas Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home.

American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) has vibrant purple clusters of berries in late summer through early fall which are fed on by many birds. As an added bonus, the crushed leaves are a traditional folk remedy to repel mosquitoes that has recently been proven to work!

Host Plants
An interesting and central concept from Tallamy’s book is that of the importance of host plants.  Some insects only lay their eggs on specific plants because their young have evolved to only eat certain leaves or be camouflaged on a specific bark.  In our area, the Southern Live Oak can host over 100 different species of insect as opposed to the Chinese Tallow, which hosts little to none.  Although there are some generalist species that may adapt to use exotic plants, the amount of life that native plants support compared to exotics is high.   This problem was brought to the public eye in my lifetime as the Monarch Butterfly’s population crashed.  Milkweeds (Asclepias species), once incredibly common, were being wiped out for agriculture and development.  Monarchs only lay their eggs on milkweed so the population crashed.  A public movement to plant milkweed in our gardens as well as reduction of pesticides, herbicides and other conservation efforts have begun to turn this trend around.

Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is the host plant of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly. I planted one vine in my yard last year and within weeks, I had those butterflies flitting around the yard.

A Gulf Fritillary caterpillar devouring what’s left of my passionflower vine. The first year the vine was nearly eaten to the ground but this year it has come back even stronger.

Using Native Plants for Gardening
Purchasing native plants for use in your yard can be a bit daunting and strangely enough, before recent decades, were very hard to find.  Big box stores are typically not a place to find native plants ESPECIALLY if they’ve been treated with neonicotinoids, an insecticide that can kill any caterpillars that eat the leaves or butterflies or bees that drink the nectar.  The best place to find them are small, local nurseries, local plant sales/swaps, and the internet.

There has been always been a rumor that native plants are easier to grow and care for which I’ve found not to be true.  Native plants, like all plants, have specific requirements for sun, soil types, and water depending on the plant.  However, when planted in appropriate habitat, they can be champs which survive and thrive without constant watering and fertilizing.

Native plants are also eaten by local insects, so holes in the leaves are not uncommon but shouldn’t be taken as a sign of a problem.  This is a sign that you’re supporting life.  Native perennials may be appear to be hit hard by this in their first year, but as they become established the yearly damage becomes more manageable for the plant.

I think one of the most influential yet least talked about hurdles for using native plants in gardening is that these species have generally not been selected as garden plants.  Native perennials are typically not fast growing which tends to leave people underwhelmed when they plant something and not have it bloom in the first year.  When you could go to a big box store and get a flat of plants overflowing with blooms you get a sense of immediate satisfaction when you plant them.   The other issue is that many great specimens are deciduous and you may feel like your garden looks great in the warmer parts of the year, but dead in the winter.  This isn’t an issue in nature, but I find a good way to combat this in the garden is to alternate deciduous and evergreen plants so even when some of your trees and shrubs are barren in the winter, there’s still some leaf cover.  An added bonus to deciduous trees for bird watchers is that birds love having open perches to wait in line for the feeder buffet and it can be a great chance to see them.

The Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is a beautiful native perennial which is fed on by Ruby-throated hummingbirds and butterflies and is a host plant for several species of butterflies and moths.

Finding Balance Between Ecology and Aesthetics
I am a big advocate of using native plants, but that doesn’t mean that I use them exclusively.  As long as you’re using non-invasive species, non-natives can still be used to beautify your yard.  I have a sunny bed where Day Lilies (Hemerocallis sp.) border my native Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  My shady woodland border garden includes a non-native hummingbird magnet, Firespike (Odontonema strictum) right alongside my native Florida Anise (Illicium floridanum) and Red Buckeyes.  It’s important to find the balance that’s right for your yard.

I hope you enjoyed this article and will consider using more native plants in your home garden.  In the future, I’ll be profiling plants that I enjoy in my yard and giving my tips on how to incorporate them into your home gardens.