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

June 23, 2022 GMT
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In this photo provided by Jessica Damiano, native Joe Pye weed grows alongside native coneflowers and nonnative spirea and catmint. (Jessica Damiano via AP)
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In this photo provided by Jessica Damiano, native Joe Pye weed grows alongside native coneflowers and nonnative spirea and catmint. (Jessica Damiano via AP)

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

In embracing the movement, these gardeners are eliminating their lawns, replacing exotic species with native plants, forgoing fall cleanups to preserve food and shelter for overwintering birds and insects, and transforming their properties into habitats.

Others, however, are worried about what they fear might be a “messy” landscape, and are intimidated by the work and potential cost of a complete garden makeover. Those living in neighborhoods governed by homeowners’ associations often face mandates on well-maintained lawns and restrictions on plant choices.

The good news is that embracing native plants doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s possible to incorporate natives into a conventional garden without embarking on a complete renovation.

Just one native potted plant that feeds one pollinator will make a difference. More is better, of course, but including a few natives alongside traditional garden plants — whether in containers or in the ground — will create a more sustainable, blended garden that attracts beneficial insects. A bonus: Native plants are generally drought-tolerant.

If replacing your entire lawn with a meadow or even native groundcover sounds daunting, consider shrinking it. Install new beds and borders -- or expand existing ones -- around its perimeter or at its center and fill them with plants native to your region. You’ll be rewarded with the buzzing of bees and fluttering of butterflies, as well as fewer mowing, weeding, watering and fertilizing chores and expenses.

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

Sowing native wildflowers would be ideal, but if a meadow aesthetic doesn’t sit well with you — or your neighbors — consider retaining a small border of manicured lawn. It will define your plantings and keep the garden looking well-tended.

In my garden just outside New York City, I embarked on a gradual conversion several years ago. I minimized the lawn and overseeded it with clover, which attracts pollinators, fixes nitrogen into the soil (free fertilizer!) and stands up to my dog’s “visits” better than turf grass.

Although I kept my beloved hydrangeas, roses and lilacs, the only new plants I bring home these days are natives. After just a few years, native plants already outnumber exotics in my garden. That ratio will continue to grow as my old garden favorites decline and are replaced with plants that belong here.

Along the way, I discovered beautiful flowering perennials like Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium caeruleum), turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) and buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), all of which provide nectar for pollinators. I interplanted the roses with native gayfeather (Liatris spicata), bee balm (Monarda didyma) and milkweed (Asclepias), which serves as the only food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars.

I’ve always loved black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Anise Hyssop (Agastache) and Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum). They’re all native to my region, although, to be honest, I didn’t know or consider that a couple of decades ago when I first brought them home.

My containers hold annuals, yes, but also native coral bells (Heuchera Americana), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum).

Autumn leaves are still raked, but instead of being bagged up and placed on the curb, they’re pushed into garden beds to serve as winter mulch and a hideout for beneficial insects.

I’m gradually working to replace the monkey grass (Liriope muscari) with my region’s native sedge (Carex pensylvanica), which also could serve as a lovely lawn alternative.

I foresee the transition taking several more years to complete, but it’s another step in the right direction. In gardening, as in life, we do well to strive for progress — not perfection.