9/14/2022 | By Annie Tobey

The plants that you nurture at your home, from lawns and landscaping to potted plants on your porch, reach far beyond the beauty of your yard. Some can have a negative effect on the wider environment, both in space and time. Native plants, on the other hand, benefit the environment and native wildlife.

Ah, the blessed coolness of autumn months is upon us. The heat has finally begun to dissipate and I can finally walk out to my garden without an ice water-soaked cool towel and my two-foot-wide sun hat (though I probably should keep the hat, given my redhead paleness …). Home improvement store aisles are buzzing with folks planning fall gardens and contemplating where to drop new grass seed, along with the fertilizer and lawn additives that come along with it.

What drives the decision of what to plant? If it’s “what is pretty?” or even “what is cheapest,” I beg you to consider looking beyond the typical, uniform lushness of the stereotypical American lawn, landscaping, and plants that look good with no regard to their impact on the environment.

Why? Opting for native plants and biodiversity in your spaces is not only responsible, but it also helps maintain our environment for future generations. Although a lush green lawn may be pretty to look at (to some people – after all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder), what is it doing for native species?

Something as simple as switch to a native clover lawn can help. It may not be as uniform or adhere to modern lawn standards, but it has important benefits: it can cut down on mowing, watering, fertilizer, and insecticide – and will attract wildlife and pollinators.

Personally, as a homesteader, not only does clover attract wildlife species to my farm, but it also brings pollinators that assist in the growth of the vegetables and fruit trees that feed my family. Can your grass do that for you? And this is just one example of many.

What is a native plant?

A native plant is one that naturally “belongs.” It has been in a particular region for centuries and is part of the area’s ecosystem. These plants have adapted to the climate and physical conditions of the area in which they are found. From a technical standpoint, plants are only considered native to the United States if they were found in the area before European settlement.

Why use native plants?

bumblebee on a native Black-eyed Susan. Photo by Mary Ann Artz, Dreamstime. Plants that you nurture at your home affect the environment. Choose native plants to  benefit the environment and native wildlife.

From a convenience perspective, using native plants may make your life easier. Why? A native plant is more likely to happy in its natural habitat, so it needs to be fertilized and watered less, which means less time, work, and money for you.

Perhaps you have all the time in the world, money is not an issue, and whenever you turn on the spigot, water comes out. That is fortunate, but must not be taken for granted. It is important for each of us to make a simple shift in thinking to a larger, global level: water overuse along with climate change is a growing problem that leads to devastating circumstances and serious fear for farmers and ordinary citizens who depend upon this water. And forget faraway countries who are struggling from water shortage, such as Israel, Lebanon, Iraq – the problem is not that far from home. For example, Las Vegas depends on the Colorado River for 90% of its water, which is dwindling significantly due to human overuse. Up and down the river, farmers also rely on the water. What happens when it is gone?

In addition, native plants species are inextricably tied to and have co-evolved with native wildlife that they are dependent on. Lose one, and you will eventually lose the other. Sadly, small changes to the ecosystem have a larger impact all the way up the chain.

On the flip side, non-native invasive plants spread and grow. They often choke out native plants, which has a negative impact that grows quickly and exponentially.

Related: A local local at the benefits of native plants

How do I know what is native to my area?

Ready to make the switch? It may take a bit of time and effort initially, but there are many resources to help you find plants that are native to your area.

  • Online search tools such as Audubon Native Plants Database use your zip code to identify plants native to your region. This particular database also indicates which native birds these native plants will help attract. Other databases are formatted specifically with native plants that will attract pollinators.
  • If you still enjoy a good ol’ physical book (remember those?), check out Ecobeneficial’s list of recommended books on native plants and gardening. There are many books offered by region or specific subject to help you choose the best native plants. Do you want plants that attract bees? There’s a book for that! Are you concerned about sustaining local wildlife with your plants? Do you only want native flowers? Are you looking to plant natives in a difficult-to-grow spot? There are books to support just about any subject matter regarding native plants.
  • Check with your local cooperative extension. This office will be staffed by experts who can help you determine what native plants will be most fitting in your space. Local Master Gardener groups are also a great resource.
  • Shop for plants at a local nursery or greenhouse instead of a big-box or home improvement store. These specialized plant retailers are typically be staffed by folks who are trained to know what plants are native and will work well in your space, based on the amount of sun and shade you have.

Choosing native plants helps you to be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem. Even the potted plants you line your balcony with can contribute positively, considering that plants frequently spread their seeds, which can be carried by the wind and birds to other places.

In addition to the enjoyment that native plant species will bring to your space, it should bring you some contentment and satisfaction knowing that you are contributing to the greater good of the environment for years to come.

Related: ‘Glaciers’: An Excerpt

Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey