Five Reasons to Plant Natives

Not all plants sold at local garden centers and home improvement stores are native; in fact, many are not

|  STORY BY MEGHAN MCMAHON |

Those among us with green thumbs relish this time of year, when spring has sprung and our yards are beginning to become lush once again. But every gardener knows there’s always work to be done: plants to tend, weeds to pull, new beds to fill. 

For many flowers and plants, May is planting season. Now is the time of year when we are plotting and planning what to add to our yards and gardens for planting in a few weeks, when the threat of frost has passed. Using native plants in home landscapes is a growing trend, and one that benefits the environment and ecosystem around us. 

Native plants are the plants — grasses, flowers, shrubs and trees — that grow naturally in the region in which they evolved. The plants native to Will County and northern Illinois are adapted to our climate and soil, according to the U.S. Forest Service. They’re meant to grow here because they have historically. 
In many areas of the country, native plants are struggling because of changes in how land is being used and the impact of climate change, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In turn, this causes problems for animals that depend on these plants for food and shelter. 

There are many compelling reasons to include native plants in your home landscape, many of which are outlined below. If the reasons below persuade you to include native plants in your yard, consult with reputable nurseries and garden centers, the USDA advises. Remember that not all plants sold at local garden centers and home improvement stores are native; in fact, many are not. 

You can research plants native to your specific area with the National Audubon Society’s comprehensive Native Plants Database. The database can be filtered based on the types of plants you want to include in your yard and even the types of birds you want to attract.  

They require less water

Buttonbush (Photo via iStock)

Americans use a lot of water on their lawns and gardens. The average American family uses 320 gallons of water a day, and 30 percent is for outdoor use, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Of that 30 percent, half is used for watering our lawns and gardens. In fact, our lawns are the most irrigated crop in America, with more water devoted to watering grass than corn, soybeans and other crops, Popular Science reports.

But when you use native plants in your landscape, your watering needs decrease. That’s because native plants have deep root systems, which allow them to store more water than plants like grass, which have shallow roots. This ability to store more water in their deep roots also reduces water runoff and flooding, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  

They don’t need as much regular maintenance

Red trillium (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Plants that are native to northern Illinois and the Midwest are meant to grow here, so they thrive without much human intervention. They’re less prone to disease. You don’t have to mow them, like you do your lawn, and they don’t require fertilizers, according to the Forest Service. Native plants also require fewer pesticides.
Americans use a lot of fertilizers and pesticides on their lawns, and they can run off into lakes, rivers and streams. When the chemicals in these products enter our waterways, it can harm or even kill the fish, insects and other aquatic life, according to the EPA. Because native plants require very little in the way of pesticides, they are less likely to contribute to this pollution. 

They clean the air

Mayapple (Photo by Chad Merda)

Replacing some of the grass in your yard with native plants will help reduce air pollution. That’s because native plants don’t need to be mowed, and gas-powered lawn mowers and garden tools emit 5% of the air pollution in the United States, according to the EPA.

But that’s not the only way native plants help reduce air pollution. Their deep root systems allow the plants to remove more carbon dioxide from the air by storing the carbon in their roots, according to the Mid-America Regional Council. So while all plants are beneficial for reducing air pollution, even the grass in your lawn, native plants do a lot more good. 

They feed and shelter wildlife

Ruby-throated hummingbird on cardinal flower. (Photo by Suzy Lyttle)

If you want your yard to be a welcoming place for all manner of wildlife, planting native plants is the way to do it. These flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees are the plants that are meant to be here, so naturally they provide food and shelter for the animals that live here too. 

Creatures from every class of animals in the animal kingdom rely on the fruits, nuts and seeds from native plants for their diet. Native plants provide nectar for important pollinators, including hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and moths, according to the National Audubon Society. Even mammals are frequent visitors to yards filled with native plants because they provide shelter from the weather and potential predators.  

They are beautiful

Common milkweed. (Photo by Suzy Lyttle)

If the above reasons aren’t enough to convince you to add some native plants to your landscape this year, maybe appealing to your aesthetics will. For many of us, the plants and flowers we include in our yards add color and beauty to an otherwise monochrome landscape of green. Native plants are no exception; they produce blooms in every color of the rainbow and then some. 

No matter what your color preference, there’s a native plant for it. Cardinal flower produces stunning red flowers, while many people adore the striking blue flowers of Virginia bluebells. Coneflower comes in shades of yellow and purple, while native milkweeds produce flowers in pink, orange and more.   

And remember that native plants aren’t just wildflowers. Dozens of bushes, shrubs and trees are native to northern Illinois, and these will add color to your landscape, especially in the spring and fall. 

(Lead image of black-eyed Susan by Glenn P. Knoblock)

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