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An introduction to the impact of native planting

I love a happy ending, especially when it comes to anything relating to nature. You may have seen that I'm very engrossed in researching native plants and putting together my plant list as I build out my garden.

Planting natives has such a tremendous positive impact on wildlife diversity, all the way from bugs to birds. I've recently loved reading the work of Doug Tallamy who has a goal to reintroduce natives and wildlife into our backyards.

In one home study he did in 2014, he counted the number of caterpillars he saw on one native white oak tree: 410 caterpillars and 19 different species. On one native tree. On one native black cherry, he found 239 caterpillars and 14 different species. Then, he took a look at a non-native plant; his Callery pear tree. On that tree he found one inchworm. That's it. One worm.

And you may think: well, I don't want caterpillars because they eat the leaves of my plants. But what you're missing is that caterpillars are the main source of food for the majority of baby birds. In fact it takes over 5,000 bugs (mainly caterpillars) to raise one clutch of baby birds. Having insects in your yard supports biodiversity and increases all types of wildlife that are just looking for food and shelter to survive.

What makes a plant native to an area?

If we're considering planting only or mainly natives in our gardens, the first question that might come up is, what makes a plant native to an area? A friend asked me this recently, and it was a great question (thanks AJ!).

The answer is more convoluted than you might think.

According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) a plant is considered native if it has "occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without human introduction".

The U.S. Forest Service adds that for North America specifically, a plant is considered native if it meets the criteria above and was present prior to the introduction of European settlers.

Another important aspect that isn't considered directly in the definitions above, but is touched on, is that many native plants co-evolved with wildlife that either depend on them for food, shelter, or breeding ground. Often, native plants have a symbiotic relationship with wildlife that is highly region-specific. The Fender's Blue Butterfly is a great example of this.

If you're interested in planting native plants in your garden, remember that each region has specific natives. To start, do a google search similar to "native plants of Portland, Oregon", or whatever your city and state might be. That will lead you to figure out what region you're in (e.g. Portland is in the Willamette Valley), and you can start to find local resources on native plants.

And when you're buying plants, remember to match the scientific names at the nursery to your plant list, not the common names. Common names can be very confusing, and are often wrong when identifying natives.

Why should I focus on native plants in my garden?

In short, native plants will help you achieve almost any goal you might have for your garden.

There are so many goals that people garden for, and when you say "I did some gardening today", it likely conjures up different activities depending on who you're speaking with.

Some people garden specifically for an edible garden. They're trying to get as much food out of their garden as possible. Others garden for blooms, attempting to get a view full of flowers. And others garden for wildlife, using plantings to create homes and food for whatever animals may be outside their door.

And even others actually highly dislike gardening, but happen to have a yard, so they want to do as little as possible to maintain beauty but also not spend much time or money.

Happily, selecting the right native plants can achieve every single one of these goals above, depending on what you plant and the density at which you plant it.

Personally, I love gardening for wildlife. I love my home and also love the natural world around me, so want to support that life in the best way possible.

Getting started with native planting

If you're in the USA and are interested in learning more about native planting in your area, the Native Plant Societies page on the U.S. Forest Service site is a great place to start! A little tip: search for your state on the page by hitting command F (or control F) and then type in your state. The plant societies are not uniformly named and so your state may be difficult to find.

Happy Planting!! 🌻

An Arbutus menziesii (Pacific Madrone). Photo courtesy of Xera Plants.

Image of a huge Arbutus menziesii (Pacific Madrone). These trees have deep red bark with winding and twisting branches. The leaves are small, dark green, and broad-leaf.

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