Over the last few years, a lot of people have begun turning to alternate methods of gardening. One ‘alternative’ method is planting native plants in lieu of the typical garden plants we might be familiar with today. Let’s take a look at why – and how – this can be important for sustainable gardening.
What Are Native Plants?
There is a lot of debate as to what qualifies as a native plant in today’s world with how much humans facilitate the spread of species. Typically, a plant is considered native if it occurs naturally within a particular region or ecosystem without human introduction.
Naturalized is another term that can be used to discuss plants that are not native but have adapted to the climate and are generally supported within the local ecosystem.
Invasive is typically considered any plant that is not native (but may be naturalized) and rampantly spreads, often pushing out native species. The spread of invasive plants, which includes many common garden plants, can have negative impacts on the local climate and pollinator or wildlife populations.
Cultivated plants are bred by humans. In the garden with non-edible plants, this is typically for ornamental or decorative purposes, and serves little to no purpose in nature, preventing wildlife from accessing a food or shelter source.
Why Do People Like Native Plants?
Native species have evolved with the local climate and support the local wildlife without the need for fertilizer or pesticides. Native plants typically require less water as they are adapted to the natural rainfall cycles in the region. These plants grow in a range of sizes and heights, from groundcovers that don’t require mowing, to those that improve the quality and amount of privacy at home.
Conscientious gardening with native plants can create a self-sustaining ecosystem that requires little to no upkeep. These systems improve soil quality, support native wildlife and pollinator populations, and decrease both chemical and noise pollution.
Why Native Plants Are Important
There are many reasons why native plants are important, but first and foremost, it helps support the local ecosystem. A lot of plants have specialized pollinators, which means the native pollinator population relies on native plants to survive and thrive. Native pollinators and plants directly improve soil health and the native wildlife population.
These plants should be native ecotypes, not plants bred for ornamental value. This means a type of plant that is native to the region – which will improve its ability to withstand the local climate, pests, and diseases without fertilizer or other types of treatment.
Soil and Climate Restoration
Native plants grow abundantly and easily, creating a carbon trap that can improve climate conditions on a local scale. Native plants also create a safe haven for pollinators such as native bees, butterflies, and birds, which are sensitive to changes in the climate. Creating a healthier ecosystem on a micro scale – such as in your backyard or local pollinator gardens – directly lessens the effect of urban heat islands and creates a buffer against unseasonable climate events.
Furthermore, creating a native plant garden affects the soil ecosystem, which includes insects, minerals, and microbes. Native plants do not require fertilizer or pesticide use when they are planted in the right plant communities.
As the soil is allowed to recover, it becomes richer and supports a more diverse and dynamic range of native species. This may directly impact our immune systems, helping us develop healthier and more resilient immune responses to the spread of disease and allergens. (1) Furthermore, the decay of native plant material can act as a natural mulch that helps prevent the spread of invasive species through the soil.
Replaces Invasive Species
Between trade movement and colonial imports, invasive species of plants and animals have been in a tug-of-war with the native populations. Planting native plants help shift the balance in improving native pollinator populations, pushing back against the spread of invasive species in both animal and plant kingdoms. Plants and insects form the base of the food chain which trickles up to larger and larger animals, including people.
Non-native species dominating a space directly impacts the diversity and range of wildlife that can exist within a region. There is compelling evidence that invasive plant species spread may be a contributing factor in the current global insect decline. (2)
When native plants, pollinators, and wildlife come together in the ecosystem, we can begin to coexist naturally without damaging pesticide and fertilizer use. This coexistence not only promises to improve our daily well-being for a more fulfilling lifestyle (3) but also creates a more diverse and thriving ecosystem one community at a time.
Supports Native Species Populations
Native plants provide wildlife with a buffer from food shortages and environmental disruptions, which is increasingly important with abnormal climate patterns. With a food buffer and environmental shelter, native wildlife populations will begin to improve.
Biodiversity loss is among the top reasons why human food security is at risk. (4) Agricultural systems, for all of our human ingenuity and engineering, rely on healthy biodiversity in the region. This is particularly true in the face of a changing climate and the unhindered spread of new diseases in an inefficient and unsustainable methodology. The more native biodiversity we support, the healthier and more supported we become within that ecosystem.
Where to Buy Native Plants
You can buy native plants at specialty nurseries that specialize in native plants. Some non-specialty nurseries will carry native plants or begin carrying them upon request.
But, how do you even know which native plants you are looking for? For New England gardeners, the local conservation trust Native Plant Trust has a plant finder (external link here) that can help. Choose from a wide range of options for native plants dialed into your region.
“Search for plants by name using “quick search,” or narrow your results based on plant type, flower color, New England Level 3 ecoregion, exposure, moisture, bloom season, and even cultivation status.”
This is also an excellent tool for planning your garden, as you can select what flower color you want. The tool works best on desktop but can be used on mobile devices. This is a great way to identify which plants you want to request from a nursery.
What About Native Varieties and Ecotypes?
Native varieties or ‘local ecotypes’ are plants that occur within a smaller geographical area. For example – you can plant native species that occur naturally within New England, and you will have success with this variety. If you plant a local ecotype of a plant purchased within the western to central Massachusetts, you are planting a species that has been grown for that specific region.
Native varieties or ecotypes will always do better in the region they are meant to be planted in as these plants are genetically equipped to handle the climate and natural pests or diseases that occur within that region.
What If You Can’t Find Native Plants Near You?
If you can’t find native plants are local nurseries, you may be able to contact a local plant trust or heritage program to ask for recommendations. If this does not turn up any leads, the most important thing you can do is request native plant varieties from your local nurseries.
Even if you are requesting from a chain nursery, most stock their inventory based on what has sold in previous years, and what gardeners are showing an interest in in the current year. If nurseries see that gardeners want native plants, and they can make ends meet by supplying these local varieties, they will begin stocking them reliably.
Consistency in requesting – and following up with purchasing – is important, however, because nurseries may struggle to source native plants at first.
- Hirt H. Healthy soils for healthy plants for healthy humans: How beneficial microbes in the soil, food and gut are interconnected and how agriculture can contribute to human health. EMBO Rep. 2020 Aug 5;21(8):e51069. doi: 10.15252/embr.202051069. Epub 2020 Jul 31. PMID: 32734701; PMCID: PMC7403703.
- Yale 360, How Non-Native Plants are Contributing to a Global Insect Decline, https://e360.yale.edu/features/how-non-native-plants-are-contributing-to-a-global-insect-decline
- Harvard, A 20-minute nature break relieves stress, https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/a-20-minute-nature-break-relieves-stress
- Yale 360, Biodiversity Loss is Endangering Food Security, UN Warns, https://e360.yale.edu/digest/biodiversity-loss-is-endangering-food-security-un-warns
- Native Plant Trust, Plant Finder, https://plantfinder.nativeplanttrust.org/Plant-Search