Why you should add native plants to your garden (2024)

  • Environment

​Amid climate change and a biodiversity crisis, gardeners are bringing native plants back to their yards.

The suburban yard of Drake White’s San Antonio home doesn’t have what most yards have—grass. Instead, there are violet pillars of bluebonnets, pillowy white flowers blooming on jimsonweed, and delicate red blooms dotting a sprawling Texas betony.

“I started with an old sandbox and turned that into a little garden. And very quickly it just took off,” says White. “It went from creating a pollinator space to a whole ecosystem.”

That ecosystem has hosted a pair of great horned owls living in a live oak tree, monarchs stopping for milkweed nectar on their thousand-mile migrations, and a variety of songbirds that make White’s yard sound as wild as it looks. Her urban oasis exists thanks to native plants—flowers, trees, grasses, and vines that spent years coevolving with the local fauna of south central Texas.

And while native, these plants can be hard to find, which is why White recently opened a nursery called The Nectar Bar devoted to selling native plants. She’s part of a growing trend of people turning away from imported species of grass and shrubs and opting for gardens full of native species.

Survey data collected by the National Gardening Association indicates interest in planting native plants is growing. Fourteen percent of participants sought native plants in 2019, compared to 26 percent in 2022.

A native plant garden is one way individuals can help wildlife, say scientists.

“Even in a small suburban garden, you can still provide small habitats that can be very beneficial to a wide range of species,” says Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University. “Plant a few milkweed, and monarchs will be forever grateful.”

Plants for the birds and the bees

To understand why native plants can be so much more beneficial to the ecosystem than foreign ones, look to monarchs.

These orange and black butterflies that stop to rest in White’s yard are endangered, the number in existence precipitously declining every year. While climate change and habitat loss drive their decline, so too does the loss of milkweed, which has been lost to habitat destruction and widespread use of pesticides. Milkweed is the sole source of food for monarch caterpillars and a snack for adult butterflies fueling up for migrations spanning North America.

In the past century, both milkweed and monarch populations have declined, hand-in-hand, studies show. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that over 800 million milkweed stems disappeared from North America in the past decade, and as many as two billion new stems are needed to help monarch populations rebound.

Monarchs aren’t the only bug fighting for existence. Insects around the world are vanishing at such an alarming rate, a disturbing swing scientists have dubbed an insect “apocalypse.”

Restoring native habitat could help prevent that loss. One studyestimated that if 10 percent of the lawn in every home, school, and park was converted to native plants, insects would have access to four million acres of livable habitat.

(Reducing light pollution can also help save insects. Learn how to reduce yours here.)

Native plants dig deeper

Twenty years ago when Meg Inglis began building her home in Dripping Springs, Texas, just outside of Austin, she and her husband sought out drought-tolerant plants that could survive on the limited water collected by her rainwater system.

Choosing native plants was a “no brainer,” says Inglis, now the executive director of the Native Plant Society of Texas. They use about half as much water as non-native plants like turf grass and have longer roots adapted to reach more than a foot underground to access water.

It’s an important decision as drought-stricken states from Texas to California are expected to see less and less rainfall as the planet warms. In dry climates in the U.S., a single household can devote as much as 60 percent of their water usage toward landscaping.

Some local governments evenoffer incentives to homeowners who conserve water by replacing their turf grass with native plants.

Where to find them

Membership in Inglis’ organization has grown by 11 percent every year for the last five years, she says. If educating people on the importance of native plants was her first hurdle, supplying enough to go around is the second—they’re not normally found in standard nurseries.

Instead, she recommends looking out for native plant sales at botanic gardens and native plant societies. Online vendors sometimes ship plants, but their supply is limited and may not serve your specific region.

One online vendor is seeing sales grow. Garden for Wildlife, an e-commerce site under the National Wildlife Federation launched two years ago to supply native plants. In the first year of operating, the company sold a million dollars in plants, says Garden for Wildlife’s CEO Shubber Ali.

He doesn’t see that business slowing any time soon.

“I honestly believe this is a trend that’s only going to go in one direction,” he says.

Not as intimidating as it seems

In San Antonio, White’s love of native plants is catching on. On the first day her shop opened this past March, 80 percent of her stock sold out within the first two hours.

For people who might be daunted by native plants, she suggests starting small, planting them in a small plot or even a small pot on a balcony: “You can create an ecosystem in a 20 inch pot.”

Native plants don’t need the same nutrient-rich commercial potting soil as non-native plants, and they grow without herbicides and pesticides. Many of them are perennial, meaning they don’t need to be replanted every year.

“The first year you plant them it will feel like nothing has happened,” says Ali. “In year three, they just explode. It’s amazing.”

Nurseries like White’s and native plant groups can help teach people how to care for their plants. They can also advise on how to landscape a native lawn so that it looks just as tidy and nice, or even better, than a field of grass.

Inglis promises the work it takes to learn about native plants is worth the benefits.

“I feel like I've accomplished so much. I’ve made my landscape resilient again,” she says. “I feel like I've contributed back to the Earth—I know that sounds hokey but it’s true.”

Why you should add native plants to your garden (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Prof. Nancy Dach

Last Updated:

Views: 5993

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (57 voted)

Reviews: 80% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Prof. Nancy Dach

Birthday: 1993-08-23

Address: 569 Waelchi Ports, South Blainebury, LA 11589

Phone: +9958996486049

Job: Sales Manager

Hobby: Web surfing, Scuba diving, Mountaineering, Writing, Sailing, Dance, Blacksmithing

Introduction: My name is Prof. Nancy Dach, I am a lively, joyous, courageous, lovely, tender, charming, open person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.