Here’s something fun you can do to celebrate Earth month: plant a native species garden.
According to Project Learning Tree (PLT), native plants benefit the environment, but they’re in danger in many locations.
Find out why native plants are so important to environmental and human health, and how you can get started on this fun and educational activity.
What are the Differences Between Native and Non-Native Plants?
Native plants are those that exist naturally in your area. They were there before humans moved in, having developed over hundreds to thousands of years, adapting to the climate and soil conditions around what is now your home.
Throughout North America, native plants are referred to by their particular geographic region. Sometimes these regions are divided into large areas, such as the following:
- Pacific Northwest
Other times, they are divided by states or counties. There are many online sites that you can refer to when seeking native plants for your area, which we’ll mention below.
Non-native plants are those that are introduced by humans either intentionally or accidentally. Some of these work well in the region and don’t pose a threat to other plant or animal species, but some can be invasive and problematic.
Invasive plants, in particular, disturb the surrounding plants and ecosystem, often spreading with the help of birds, strong winds, and climate change.
Before you start planting native plants around your home, be aware of any invasive plants that may be there. The U.S. Forest Service notes that invasive species have contributed to the decline of 42 percent of U.S. endangered and threatened species.
Often invasive plants are successful in a new area because they produce large quantities of seed, thrive on the soil, or have aggressive root systems that spread long distances. These root systems can then smother the root systems of surrounding vegetation, leading to a gradual takeover of the native plants.
When invading your area, these plant species:
- Compete with native species for moisture, sunlight, nutrients, and space
- Decrease overall plant diversity
- Degrade wildlife habitat
- Degrade water quality
- Reduce the quality of agricultural lands
- Increase soil erosion
- Decrease recreation opportunities
Because of invasive species—along with other factors like farming and urban sprawl—the prairie grassland in North America has declined by 99 percent, while the mixed-grass prairie has declined by 68 percent. Indeed, the prairie is now considered North America’s most endangered ecosystem.
The U.S. Forest Service works to control invasive species, but you can contribute to the effort in your own backyard.
During Earth Month, We Remember Why Native Species Are Important
It’s important to support and restore native plants for several reasons, including because they:
- Support the balance in an ecosystem
- Increase the biodiversity of a habitat
- Provide food, shelter, and nesting for local wildlife
- Give birds and other animals with food from fruits, seeds, and leaves
- Save time, energy, and resources
This last benefit may be one of the most important. Because native plants have survived in your area’s conditions, they often require fewer resources and less maintenance than non-native plants. That means less work for you in your garden!
Native plants are often pest and disease-free too, as they have developed better defenses, so you may not have to use pesticides to keep insects at bay or fertilizers to assist with growth. As a result, they will help keep the local water supply cleaner due to decreased chemical runoffs.
Finally, native plants are typically appealing to the senses. They come in a wide variety of colors and shapes and allow you to be creative in your landscaping.
Before you start working on your native species garden, it’s important to learn more about the invasive species in your area. Unfortunately, most of the landscaping plants available in nurseries, hardware, and grocery stores are alien species that are foreign to your land. Though some may be harmless, others may outcompete native species and degrade habitat.
You can begin by checking the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) invasive and noxious plants list. Simply click on your state and you’ll find a list of unwelcome weeds growing nearby.
If you see a plant around your home and you’re not sure if it’s native or not, you can take it to your local nursery or check it on the USDA’s Plants Database. NatureServe also has a nice resource of rare and endangered species that you can use to research various plants.
If you do find invasive species on your property, you can either choose to leave them alone or try to eradicate or control them. It can be difficult to do the latter, particularly if your neighbor has them too. But it may be worth asking your local nursery for the best way to manage them.
Discover Native Species for Your Earth Month Garden
Now you’re ready to start growing native plants. Where do you find them?
Your local nursery is always a good place to start. You can also check the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF’s) native plant finder database. You simply input your zip code and find the plants that are native to your area and are likely to attract more butterflies and birds.
Xerces Society also has an online resource of pollinator-friendly native plants. These are filtered by state, though not all states are represented. The U.S. Forest Service has a list of native plant societies that promote the preservation, conservation, and knowledge about native plants. You can check your state to see what organizations might be able to help you.
American Native Plants is committed to growing and distributing native plants that are critical to the establishment of biodiverse natural ecosystems. The site has an inventory of more than 400,000 native trees, shrubs, and plants. PlantNative also has a great state-based list of native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses.
Finally, the Rodale Institute has a list of native plants found in the U.S. Choose your region and you’ll find some plants that are native to your area that you may want to use.
Get Started with Your New Garden
Once you know which plants don’t belong and which ones you want to add, it’s time to get gardening! Here are some tips to get you started:
- Match your plants to your site: Check to see how much sun the plants will receive and what sort of soil you have, and choose native plants that will thrive in that area.
- Define the space: Edge your garden with some sort of perimeter, such as one made of wood, brick, limestone, or some other natural material. This helps define the borders and keep the plants more protected from any invasive species.
- Eliminate weeds first: Eradicate problem weeds before you plant.
- Design for maximum blooms: Choose plants that will bloom at different times so that your garden always looks lovely.
- Group similar plants together: Plant your wildflowers near one another, then use grasses sparingly to frame the garden or to provide a backdrop to the blooms.
Join the Earth Month Ecochallenge!
If you’d like to do more to celebrate Earth month, consider joining this Ecochallenge event. It provides a way for you to work with your friends and family to encourage sustainability in your area.
Have you planted a native species garden?
Note: Find tips on how to create an Earth-friendly skin-care routine here!