Greenlaurel: Bring birds and butterflies to your backyard with native plants

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Crossing your fingers that lots of butterflies, birds, and bees will visit your outdoor space this summer? Integrating native plants into your backyard is the secret to building habitats for these pollinators. Plus, natives are affordable and just as beautiful as the usual garden plant suspects.

Long before European settlers brought their perfect lawns and Asian flora and fauna to North America, native plants and our local bugs, birds and animals evolved together as an ecosystem, depending on each other for survival and reproduction.

Over time, as we’ve replaced our yards and farmlands with lawns and alien plants from other continents, we’ve suppressed the native habitats that our local creatures live and feast on.

“Our sense of the ‘ideal’ garden has changed over time from natural landscapes that are less structured with less contrast dominated by wildflowers, to more controlled and tidier gardens with bolder colors,” said Sara Tangren, an agent associate for the University of Maryland Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources, where she teaches about native plants and sustainable landscaping.

For many of us, the modern “ideal” garden that Tangren mentioned relies on alien plants primarily from Asia and South America–roses, petunias, day lilies, English ivy and impatiens, to name a few–that local insects and animals don’t feed upon. Insects are key to habitats, as most local birds feed insects and larvae to their young. No bugs, no birds.

Tangren offers an example of how this native-to-alien plant phenomenon has played out closer to home.

“The gorgeous pink Rosy Maple moth feeds on native Sugar Maple trees, the same tree that provides maple syrup,” she said. “Yet over time, Norway maples were planted and have been crowding out and replacing the native maple trees. Not only do we now have fewer sugar maples that boast a magnificent orange in the fall, but the Rosy Maple Moth populations have decreased.”

Native Sugar maple trees provide autumn color as well as Rosy Maple Moth habitats.

Tangren’s tips for adding native plants to your yard:

Find ones to attract pollinators and hummingbirds.

“Plant milkweeds if you’d like to invite more pollinators, bees and Monarch butterflies into your garden. Hummingbirds love the plant known as Eastern red columbine with its red flowers.”

Another suggestion for your yard’s shadier patches: Hummingbirds are attracted to the red Cardinal flower. If you plant it, they will come.

Keep it low-maintenance.

Native plants adapt to our weather conditions, and if planted correctly, can also be of low maintenance.

“When buying natives, try and match the plant’s growing needs to specific growing conditions in your garden,” Tangren says. Before you shop for native plants, map out your garden’s various areas like hot spaces, wetter areas and shade areas, and then choose native plants that thrive in those conditions.”

Natives not your thing?

“If a gardener prefers non-native plants, I encourage them to consider replacing any invasive species found on their property over time,” Tangren says.

Invasive plants and their seeds end up in forests via birds or carried by winds and, once introduced, will eventually crowd out native varieties.

A native ground cover,
plantain leaf pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) are a good option to replace invasive ground covers.

Tangren’s go-to suggestion for replacing invasive ground covers, like the ever-popular English ivy and pachysandra, is to choose the native white-flowered pussytoes.

“I’m head over heels with this easy-to-grow ground cover. It’s evergreen for most of the year and grows a beautiful white flower that resembles a kitten’s toe.”

Where to buy them.

Before you head out to buy native plants at the local spring sales or garden centers mentioned below, consider visiting these excellent online resources.

Now, for the sales:

  • Baltimore Native Plant Sale – Sunday, April 14, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Church of the Redeemer, located at 5603 N. Charles Street in Baltimore. More information here.
  • Howard County GreenFest Native Plant Sale – Saturday, April 21, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Howard County Community College. More information here.
  • Lake Roland Native Plant Sale – Saturday, May 5, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. At Lake Roland. more information here.
  • Herring Run Nursery. The waterway restoration nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore operates the Herring Run Nursery on the Mt. Pleasant Golf Course. Specializing in native plants grown in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the nursery is equipped with staff who are all native plant experts and can help you choose native varieties that will thrive in your garden. Open Wednesday to Sunday through July, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Hours and more information on the nursery’s website.

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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