As home gardeners become increasingly educated about the role of native plants in the ecosystem – and their importance to pollinators, wildlife and humans – many are turning to “re-wildening.” This term refers to a landscaping approach that depends on the use of native plants to retain insects, bees, birds and butterflies.
These gardeners are embracing the movement and destroying their lawns, replacing exotic species with native plants, giving up autumn clean-ups to preserve food and shelter for wintering birds and insects, and transforming their habitats into habitats.
However, others fear what a “messy” landscape might be, and are terrified of the work and potential cost of completing the garden. Those who live in neighborhoods run by homeowners’ associations often face a mandate for well-maintained lawns and restrictions on plant selection.
The good news is that adopting native plants may not be an all or nothing solution. It is possible to incorporate the natives into a common garden without embarking on a complete renovation.
Only one original potted plant that feeds one pollinator will make a difference. Of course, more is better, but incorporating several natives alongside traditional garden plants – whether in pots or in the ground – will create a more sustainable mixed garden that attracts useful insects. Bonus: Native plants are generally drought resistant.
If replacing the entire lawn with a meadow or even the original ground cover sounds daunting, consider reducing it. Install new flowerbeds and borders – or extend existing ones – around or around its perimeter and fill them with plants from your region. The reward will be the buzzing of bees and the fluttering of butterflies, as well as less mowing, weeding, watering and fertilizing, labor and expenses.
And your flowering plants, fruits and vegetables will bloom better with the help of the new inhabitants of your garden.
It would be ideal to sow the original wild flowers, but if the aesthetics of the meadow do not suit you – or your neighbors, consider maintaining a small edge of the cultivated lawn. It defines your planting and keeps the garden well maintained.
In my garden just outside New York City, I embarked on a gradual transformation a few years ago. I minimized the lawn and sifted it with clover, which attracts pollinators, fixes nitrogen in the soil (free fertilizer!) And dog “visits” will do better than grass.
Although I have kept my beloved hydrangeas, roses and lilacs, the only new plants I bring home these days are the natives. After only a few years in my garden, the original plants exceed the exotic ones. This ratio will continue to grow as my old favorite gardeners will decline and be replaced by the plants that belong here.
Along the way, I discovered beautifully flowering perennials such as Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium caeruleum), Chlone obliqua (Chelone obliqua) and Buttonworm (Cephalanthus occidentalis), all of which provide nectar to pollinators. I planted roses with domestic geyser (Liatris spicata), bee balm (Monarda didyma) and milk (Asclepias), which serves as the only food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars.
I have always loved black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), anise hyssop (Agastache) and Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum). They all come from my region, although, to be honest, a few decades ago, when I first brought them home, I didn’t know or even thought about it.
In my containers are annuals, yes, but also the original corals (Heuchera Americana), New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and Blue Milkweed (Conoclinium coelestinum).
Autumn leaves are still being picked, but instead of being packed in sacks and laid on the curb, they are tucked into garden beds to serve as winter mulch and shelter for useful insects.
I am gradually working to replace the monkey grass (Liriope muscari) with the original sedge from my region (Carex pensylvanica), which could also serve as a beautiful alternative to the lawn.
I assume that the transition will take several more years to complete, but it is another step in the right direction. In horticulture, as in life, we do well when we strive for progress – not perfection.