Embracing native plants doesn’t have to be all or nothing | Leaf Probably

As home gardeners learn more about the role of native plants in the ecosystem and their importance to pollinators, wildlife and people, many are turning to “rewilding”. The term refers to a landscaping approach that depends on the use of native plants to conserve insects, bees, birds and butterflies.

By embracing the movement, these gardeners are eliminating their lawns, replacing exotic species with native plants, forgoing fall clean-ups to provide food and shelter for wintering birds and insects, and turning their lots into habitats.

Others, however, worry about what they see as a “messy” landscape and are intimidated by the work and potential expense of a complete garden makeover. Those who live in neighborhoods governed by homeowners’ associations often face restrictions on well-manicured lawns and restrictions on plant selection.

The good news is that adopting native plants doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. It is possible to incorporate natives into a conventional garden without having to tackle a full renovation.

Just a native potted plant feeding a pollinator will make a difference. More is better, of course, but including a few native plants—whether in containers or in the ground—along with traditional garden plants will create a more sustainable, mixed garden that attracts beneficial insects. A bonus: native plants are generally drought tolerant.

If replacing your entire lawn with a meadow or even native ground cover sounds daunting, consider trimming it down. Install new beds and borders—or expand existing ones—around its perimeter or in its center and fill them with plants native to your area. You will be rewarded with the hum of bees and the flutter of butterflies, as well as less mowing, weeding, watering and fertilizing and costs.

And your flowering plants, fruits and vegetables will bloom better with the help of the new residents of your garden.

Seeding native wildflowers would be ideal, but if a meadow aesthetic doesn’t sit well with you — or your neighbors — consider maintaining a small border of manicured lawns. It will define your planting and make the garden look neat.

In my garden just outside of New York City, I started a gradual transition a few years ago. I’ve minimized the lawn and covered it with clover, which attracts pollinators, fixes nitrogen in the soil (free fertilizer!), and survives my dog’s “visit” better than peat grass.

Although I’ve kept my beloved hydrangeas, roses and lilacs, the only new plants I’m bringing home these days are native ones. After just a few years, native plants outweigh the exotic ones in my garden. This ratio will continue to grow as my old garden favorites decline and are replaced with plants that belong here.

Along the way I spotted beautiful flowering perennials such as Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium caeruleum), Tortoise’s Head (Chelone obliqua) and Spitzbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), all of which provide nectar for pollinators. I planted the roses with native Goldfeather (Liatris spicata), Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) and Spurge (Asclepias), which serves as the sole food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars.

I’ve always loved black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), aniseed hyssop (Agastache) and joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum). They are all native to my region, although to be honest I didn’t know or take this into account when I first brought them home a few decades ago.

My containers include annuals, yes, but also native Coralbells (Heuchera Americana), New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), and Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum).

Fall leaves are still raked, but instead of being bagged and placed on the curb, they are pushed into garden beds to serve as winter mulch and hiding places for beneficial insects.

I am working on gradually replacing the monkey grass (Liriope muscari) with the sedge (Carex pensylvanica) native to my area, which could also serve as a nice lawn alternative.

I expect the transition will take a few more years, but it’s another step in the right direction. In gardening, as in life, we do well to strive for progress – not perfection.

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