There are several practical reasons to plant at least a few natives. The practicality is personal–as in watering your yard less–and environmental, as in improving water quality. Whether you live in the city or country, whatever the size of your property, you’ll also be doing your part to replace the vast amount of land lost to development or compromised by invasive nonnative plants.
Sobering news: 95% of natural areas in the U.S. have been appropriated for development or seriously degraded by human abuse. By landscaping with Michigan native plants, you provide wildlife with the food and shelter they need. Especially insect food: 96% of all bird species–even those that, as adults, feed primarily on seeds and berries–rely on insects and spiders to feed young nestlings. What’s more, a surprising number of animals–such as foxes–include insects in their diet. And native insects need native plants to survive—the vast majority can’t recognize or digest anything else. Native plants provide a continuous supply of foliage, nectar and pollen from early spring to late fall.
Plants that evolved here are easier to grow and maintain because they are well adapted to our soils and climate, even with its extremes of weather. Once established, plants native to Michigan will thrive–and help keep our local environment clean and healthy–for many reasons:
- Require no fertilizer
- Do not need pesticides
- Require less water, thanks to extensive root systems
- Sequester carbon, prevent erosion, filter pollutants and recharge groundwater
Beautiful & diverse
Gardening with native plants does require a different esthetic–more natural, you might say. However, there are many choices in plant height and shape, even ground covers. You’ll also find showy blossoms, a variety of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs, and a range of plants for all types of site conditions: wet or dry, sunny or shady. In every season, native plants can delight you.
NATIVE PLANTS FAQ
Q: How do you determine what plants are native?
A: The Michigan Native Plant Producers Association defines native plants as species that occurred in our area prior to European settlement, with “Michigan genotypes.” These were determined by the Floristic Quality Assessment, developed in 2001 by the state DNR’s Natural Resources Natural Heritage Program.
Q: I don’t have a big yard; is it still worthwhile for me to use native plants?
A: Absolutely. A small plot (15×15 feet) incorporating just a few milkweed was shown to help sustain 150 Monarch butterflies. Placing carefully selected native plants in your yard makes a definite impact – and could influence your neighbors to do the same, to help create a matrix of habitable area.
Q: Southwest Michigan seems to have several natural areas left. Why are you so concerned?
A: Habitat is still being lost to development each and every day. What’s more, several areas you may think of as “natural” have been invaded by non-native plants. These have escaped from landscaped areas, e.g. myrtle (Vinca) or were deliberately planted for wildlife cover and food, e.g. non-native autumn olive, and have spread relentlessly. Invasives dominate native plants physically and may even change soil chemistry, as garlic mustard does.
Q: Is there a book about native plants you can recommend?
A: There are several excellent books available, including wonderful general justification and guidelines for using native plants titled Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, by Douglas Tallamy.
Q: I don’t think my neighbors will like the look of native plants. Any suggestions?
A: There are plenty of ways to help neighbors understand that you’re not just neglecting your property (or parts of it). Use paths and a low fence or border–even large branches–to delineate areas. Post garden ornaments and signage along sidewalks and roadways: e.g., “Michigan Prairie Plants” or “Butterfly Garden.” Place a bench or bird feeders next to tall plant groupings.
Q: I have a vegetable garden and don’t want native plants attracting wildlife to it.
A: Food plants require pollinators, and a border or patch of native plants helps attract both pollinators (such as bees and butterflies) and beneficial, predatory insects that help keep plant-eating insects under control and reduce the need for pesticides.
Q: But non-natives are advertised as “pest free”…
A: No plant is completely free of pests, and several non-native pests have also been introduced to our landscape, e.g. emerald ash borer. Native plants have evolved in harmony with native insects to create a viable balance, call it “win/win.” There is a cost for “pest free”—the loss of our wildlife.