Lorraine Johnson is a community advocate and author who has written numerous books on gardening with native plants—species that occured naturally in North America prior to European colonization. Over thousands of years, these plants have co-evolved with other native flora and fauna, forming complex and symbiotic relationships.
It’s been 30 years since Johnson created her first native plant garden, a block from the corner of Bathurst and Bloor in Toronto. Here, near one of the city’s busiest commercial intersections, Johnson set out to create a meadow. She planted a variety of native wildflowers, like swamp milkweed, blazing star, black-eyed Susans, rigid goldenrod, and New England aster.
That first summer, Johnson was out in the garden when she heard a thrum. She looked over, and there was a hummingbird flitting from flower to flower. She knew then that her project was working.
“If you plant it, they will find you,” she says.
You don’t have to be a plant expert to create your own native plant garden. Here’s why you should consider gardening with native plants, and how to go about it.
Native plants are better for birds
Gardening with native plants is a great way to support birds—and birds need all the help they can get. Thanks to habitat loss, predation from cats, window collisions, and other threats, bird populations have declined by 29 percent since 1970. Victims include common backyard birds like dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows—the very types of birds that will flock to a native plant garden.
Gregor Beck is a senior strategist with Birds Canada, a Canadian charity dedicated to bird conservation. When he moved into his first home, a small semi-detached in Toronto, the yard was just a 24-foot-wide patch of grass. Within a couple of years, Beck gradually naturalized his yard, replacing the lawn with native plants.
He started with some coniferous trees like eastern white cedar and eastern white pine, as well as deciduous trees like white birch and chokecherry. Then he added some shrubs, like common juniper and wild rose. Over time, he planted more and more herbaceous plants, like trilliums and trout lily.
By the end of his eight years in that garden, he had recorded 82 bird species. He has kept in touch with the new owner, and the list of species has since reached 125.
“Every time he gets a new bird in the garden, I hear about it,” says Beck.
Beck was one of the leads on BirdGardens.ca, a website dedicated to helping people create habitat for birds by gardening with native plants.
The site’s interactive map will help you determine what’s called your Bird Gardening Zone, plus a list of plants that will grow there. You can refine the list by filtering for your property’s soil type, sun, and moisture. And you can even search for plant type (tree, shrub, vine, or herb), and features such as size, flowering season, and evergreen or deciduous. But what really makes the website unique is the option to filter for wildlife features. For instance, if you want to attract birds like thrushes and cedar waxwings, which eat berries, you can filter for berry-producing plants.
Even though you can put up bird feeders, gardening with native plants will bring more bird diversity; whereas feeders attract mainly seed eaters, plants produce food for birds that sip nectar, harvest berries and munch on insects. And native plants offer more than food—they provide important habitat year-round.
Beck recommends creating some structural diversity—different heights and shapes of plants for different types of birds. You can include low shrubs like a conifer patch for ground birds to take cover in, or taller shrubs and trees for perching birds.
Beck says that with such awful things happening in the environment, and birds in such serious decline, creating a bird garden is a tangible way to help, and you’ll see real results.
“People can be part of this solution,” he says. “And in doing that you’re going to get a chance to see nature.”
Native plants protect pollinators
Pollinators are the hummingbirds and insects—bees, butterflies, wasps, flies, and beetles—that transfer pollen from flower to flower, fertilizing plants in the process. Pollination is essential to fruit and seed production: 80 percent of flowering plants depend on pollinators to reproduce.
Sadly, pollinators are under threat. They are susceptible to pesticide poisoning, whether they are sprayed directly or ingest chemical residues. And we continue to destroy their habitat every time we mow down native plants and replace them with lawns, monoculture crops, or invasive species.
“Lawns are a monoculture that offer virtually nothing,” says Johnson. “You might as well have concrete.”
According to the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF), there are about 6.2 million lawns in Canada, and replacing just one quarter of those lawns with native species would create 14,400 hectares of habitat for pollinators.
Although non-native flowers can provide pollen and nectar, native species are critical because they have co-evolved with pollinators for a millenia. In some cases pollinators are reliant on certain native plants for their survival.
“One of the best examples of a pollinator that is directly dependent on a specific type of plant is the monarch butterfly,” says Jode Roberts, the lead of the Nature in Cities program at DSF.
Monarch butterflies only lay eggs on milkweed, a native wildflower. When the caterpillars hatch, they eat the leaves, which contain trace amounts of a bitter-tasting chemical that makes them taste bad—and protects them from predators.
“Monarchs have evolved with this host plant because it provides benefits in evolutionary terms, so over time it’s helped them survive,” says Roberts. “So unless there’s milkweed in their local environment, they can’t reproduce—they won’t find a place to lay their eggs.”
Later in the summer when the milkweed flowers, it provides nectar for the adult butterflies. This late-season source of nectar is critical, as the monarchs fuel up before migrating to Mexico.
Monarchs have become a sort of mascot for pollinators, but they are just one species amongst thousands that we depend on—and that in turn, depend on native plants. Bees are the most abundant pollinators, with more than 800 species in Canada.
Roberts points out that private yards make up more greenspace in an urban area than parks and other public land—and that means we can have a huge impact on pollinators and contribute to the ecological health of our community simply by planting some native plants.
“There’s tangible conservation actions that we can take in our yard that we know have direct benefits for birds and bees and butterflies.”
Native plants create biodiversity
When you visit a nursery or garden centre, it can be hard—if not impossible—to know which plants are native and which are introduced.
“Most of the plants that you will find at a nursery are introduced species,” says Johnson.
She uses periwinkle as an example. This familiar ground cover blossoms with pretty purple flowers in the spring. But periwinkle doesn’t always stay in the garden—it finds its way into woodlands, where it outcompetes native flora. By killing off native plants like trilliums and wild ginger, which in turn support other species, periwinkle destroys the biodiversity of a woodland understory. Yet nurseries continue to sell periwinkle.
As consumers, we aren’t informed about the harm a little $5 plant can do to the environment. In fact, if you Google periwinkle, the top result talks only about how attractive it is and how to grow it. Nurseries are full of plants like this.
“We’ve all basically been duped into thinking that the only plants suitable for a garden are these introduced plants that are available all over the place through the nursery trade,” says Johnson.
Native plants, on the other hand, have evolved relationships with other flora and fauna. They support and sustain biodiversity—and biodiversity equals resilience.
Native plants are more resilient
Native plants have evolved for a millenia with native insects, so they don’t require pesticides (which would run counter to the goal of supporting pollinators, anyway). And because they are suited to the local climate and soil conditions, they take little maintenance. You’ll want to water them in the first season, but after they are established, native plants don’t need to be irrigated. Why waste precious water if you don’t need to?
Because native plants are hardier, they can better withstand extreme weather like droughts or flooding. And their deep roots create healthy soil, prevent erosion, filter and slow stormwater runoff, and capture carbon. All of these features make native plants critical to climate change adaptation.
“Gardening with native plants is a climate action,” says Johnson.
Not only do monocultures like lawns provide little to no habitat—they are more vulnerable systems. Whereas a variety of native plants draws water from different soil depths, monocultures have uniform root lengths, drawing water from the same level. This puts them at greater risk from drought and extreme weather events. Monocultures are also more vulnerable to pests and disease.
“Biodiversity creates resiliency in the landscape,” says Johnson. “And in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss, resiliency is what we need.”
Native plants offer medicine
“My grandfather used to take his finger and put it in the seeds every spring,” says Isaac Crosby. “He would talk to them, waking them up.”
Crosby is the lead in urban agriculture at Evergreen Brickworks, where he teaches visitors about Indigenous gardening. An Ojibwa-Black Canadian, he grew up near Windsor, Ont. in an Afro-Indigenous farming community. As a kid, he didn’t understand his grandpa talking to seeds, but he gets it now.
“We view seeds as our relatives,” he says. “They are one of us. They are here to take care of us, and we are here to take care of them.”
It’s a very different perspective than the colonial approach to gardening, which tends to focus on aesthetics and controlling nature. When Crosby studied horticulture at Humber College, the curriculum focused on how plants looked or how big they grew. Nobody taught the medicinal or nutritional benefits of native plants—like how echinacea can be used to make a medicinal tea.
“It’s easy, it’s a beautiful plant, it’s great for the pollinators, it’s great for the soil, but it’s also medicinal,” he says.
He says with many native plants you can use the whole plant—not just the parts we’re accustomed to. The leaves of wild strawberries, for example, are rich in Vitamin C. Cornsilk is a powerful diuretic.
Crosby is in the process of learning the Anishinaabemowin names of native plants—knowledge he didn’t grow up with.
“My grandfather did,” says Crosby, “but he never passed it on because when he was younger, he got beaten [by the teachers] for speaking his language.”
Considering how colonization repressed Indigenous knowledge of plant medicine—and introduced plants that have themselves colonized the landscape—gardening with native plants has been termed “botanical decolonization.”
Crosby agrees. “If you really want to decolonize, learn the original names of the plants.”
How to get started with native plants
It can be a bit overwhelming to get started with native plants—or gardening in general— especially if you don’t know what’s already growing in your yard. (If you’re like me, you might be tempted to rip everything out and start from scratch.)
“I honestly think that one of the most important things is actually to slow down and just observe,” says Johnson. “That’s one of the things that ecological gardening in general calls us to.”
If you live somewhere with a lawn, Johnson recommends figuring out how much you actually use for the things lawns offer (like stomping around and playing games). She says you’ll probably find you only need a small portion of that, if any. Rip up what you don’t need and plant some native shrubs.
“Keep them watered the first year, and after that there’s virtually no maintenance. And right there you’ve created amazing habitat.”
Don’t know what to plant? There are plenty of resources to teach you about native plants, including websites like the North American Native Plant Society, and books like Johnson’s 100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants for Canadian Gardens. To figure out what plants will work in your yard, use the BirdGardens.ca plant selector—it will give you great recommendations even if you’re not trying to attract birds.
If you don’t know what’s growing in your yard, try a plant ID app—all you have to do is take a picture and the app will identify the plant for you. Not so tech savvy? Johnson says there are plenty of gardeners who are happy to share their knowledge. You can find gardening experts at local arboretums, gardening clubs, Facebook groups, or your nearest Master Gardeners chapter.
“There are native plant groups all over the country,” says Johnson. “As native plant people, we’re on a mission to get more people enthused about planting native plants on the landscape.”
Where to find native plants
If your local garden centre has a native plant section, you’re in luck. But many don’t, so it’s a good idea to come with a list of the species you want. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask the staff to help. But don’t be surprised—or disappointed—if they aren’t available.
Your best bet is to search out a local nursery that specializes in native plants. CanPlant has an interactive web map that helps you find nurseries and stores specializing in native plants across Canada.
Some nurseries will even deliver seeds or seedlings to your door. Seeds are a great option because you can find an amazing variety—and it’s much cheaper to start your own seeds than buy a plant. Not to mention you eliminate the need for a plastic container. (Local charities often sell native plant seeds, such as this native plant garden kit from Carolinian Canada.)
Whether you have a balcony or a sprawling yard, you can make a difference by planting a few native species.
“Pay attention to what happens,” says Johnson. “You’ll see the birds and the butterflies and the bees that visit, and maybe that will get you excited about planting more.”
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