If you visited a favourite steak restaurant and found it under new management, the menu in a different language, and food you didn’t recognize on the plates, you might be alarmed. You might just leave.
That is what can happen when birds, butterflies and insects visit gardens full of exotic and non-native plants. They don’t recognize them as food and may leave, particularly if the nectar, fruit or nuts aren’t available when they expect them.
In his book, Bringing Nature Home, Douglas Tallamy, professor of entomology and wildlife ecology, writes that native plants evolved with native wildlife, “so everything from the shape and structure of the flowers to the chemical content of the leaves is tailored to the feeding habits of native insects, birds and animals.”
Such things as the bloom time of plants connect with insect pollinator cycles. Native insects attract birds, especially during nesting season. Without this insect food, the nestlings will starve. Native plants correspond with the feeding and reproductive cycles of native leaf eaters. Birds seek the fibres and twigs of native plants for nest building. Fruit, berries and nut maturity are timed to bird and animal life cycles.
Tallamy stresses that “native plants are an integral part of the natural lives of everything from bacteria to birds to people.” You might think anything that important and complex would be difficult to grow, but that is not the case. They evolved in our area, so native plants are perfectly suited to our soil, our rainfall and our temperature, and will flourish in our gardens with little maintenance.
Native plants evolved to grow in local conditions and to predictable sizes. They do not require watering (except when first transplanted), chemical pesticides and fertilizers, nor frequent cutting. They also do not require raking because leaves are a soil builder, weed suppressor and natural fertilizer. Using native plants saves money because the naturescapes practically take care of themselves.
In order to add the correct plants to your garden, you need to know what your yard contains. Is your soil sandy, loamy or clay? Does your yard bask in six or more hours of direct sunlight each day or is it partly sunny or even shady most of the time? And what about moisture? Is your garden well drained and dry, generally moist but not wet or is there standing water that rarely dries out? Once you know these three things you can head for the nursery.
Find a nursery with staff knowledgeable about native plants. Be sure to ask for the original native plant species because many of the native cultivars (varieties cultivated by plant specialists to create such changes as bigger blooms or shorter plants, for examples) may have changed the plant in such a way that it loses its use to the habitat.
The more variety of native species you include in your garden, the more types of insects and birds you will attract, especially if you choose plants that provide nectar and food from spring until fall. This in turn will minimize pests and diseases and begin to balance your ecosystem, leading to less maintenance.
After a few seasons of adding native plants to your garden it will come alive with pollinators and birds—nature’s gardeners, an added benefit that comes free with the planting.
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum): It grows up to 35 metres tall with a beautiful shady canopy in summer and orange and yellow leaf colour in autumn.
Trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides): Fully grown at 25 metres, this tree gives the delightful rustling of its leaves in the slightest breeze. Autumn colour is yellow.
Balsam fir (Abies balsamea): About 15 metres tall at maturity, this evergreen is attractive year round and provides protection and nesting sites for birds.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata): Sometimes called Canada Holly, it boasts evergreen leaves and bright red berries during the winter, and is small enough for most gardens.
Wild raisin (Viburnum cassinoides): Known by our ancestors as “witherod” and used for brooms and basket making. It grows in dappled shade to 3.5 meters with umbrella-shaped clusters of white flowers in spring that turn to varying shades of green, white, pink and dark purple berries in all stages of ripening at once.
Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica): These deciduous shrubs will grow in poor soil because they are nitrogen fixers but prefer full sun. Their main attraction is the berries they produce which give winter interest. These shrubs do well along roadsides or oceans where salt is present and they even deter deer.
Virgin’s Bower (Clematis Virginiana): This is a pretty perennial flowering vine with cream/yellow blossoms that does well in a sunny spot. Its fragrant flowers attract bees, butterflies and birds. It will need something to climb, like a twig structure or lattice.
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium): This tall (up to 2 metres) perennial with pink to burgundy flower clusters in August is excellent as a background plant in a border or to hide an unwanted view. Beloved by all pollinators.
Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolour): You will often see this iris growing wild and it looks just as beautiful in your own garden. A perennial that blooms at various times from May to August, it requires moist to wet soil and sun. Once established, it will spread. Attracts hummingbirds.