Nativescaping: Habitat Restoration, One Garden at a Time

Go wild in your garden

Looking to heal our world? The first step is in your own backyard: One of the easiest ways to restore the wild is to prioritize native plants in your home garden.

California Native Garden "English Cottage" style - Pasadena, CAPhoto by Pete Veilleux/East Bay Wilds NurseryA Northern California native garden.

Nowadays, the world is blanketed with buildings, roads, farms, factories and trash. So where do the wild things go? Answer: anywhere that feels like home, “home” defined as any functional habitat. That could mean your backyard, your front yard, on your rooftop, balcony, office, factory and in hedgerows and ditches on your farm.

Every ecosystem has a highly localized plant palette evolved over millennia to suit the local geology and hydrology. When we you put these local native plants back into the landscape, we also make homes for the other creatures that depend upon them, including native bees, butterflies, amphibians, and reptiles.

So, how do you go wild in your garden?

Step One: Fall in love with the native plants that make up the glory of your own region. Get inspired with a hike, a run or a stroll in a nearby regional park or nature preserve. If you’re looking to see what your own ecosystem would look like under native conditions, you can always start with the closest National Park. In my home ecosystem, the closest parks are Malibu State Park and Topanga State Park.

When you visit your local parks, make sure to bring a guidebook. I’m fond of the classic Flowers of the Santa Monica Mountains, because Milt McAuley, the old man who wrote it, used to give wonderful wild flower tours every spring. Find the old guy or old gal in your neck of the woods and sign up for a flower or tree tour.

Step Two: Learn the names and habits of native plants. Figure our where the closest native plants botanical garden is and take a tour. Many universities often have botanical gardens, as do natural history museums. Note that most botanical gardens – like, say, the New York Botanical Garden or the Chicago Botanic Garden – feature plants from all over the world, with smaller gardens focused on regional native plants. Other botanic gardens exist only to teach about native plants and are thus better sources for information about nativescaping. Great examples are the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center outside of Austin, Texas and Southern California’s Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.

A biologist, Jennifer Shelstead, once told me that it takes hearing a plant’s name at least five times before it sticks. So persist.

Getting serious? There are classes focused entirely on your own ecosystem’s native plants. Birmingham Botanical Gardens, for example, offers a Native Plants Certificate.

Overwhelmed? Call the National Association of Conservation Districts and ask how to contact your local conservation district, and the staff will help you find the resources you need to get started. Other key resources are your state’s native plants society. In my own state, we have the California Native Plants Society. Want to nourish your inner scientist? Typically each region has a key book on local botany. In California, the hardcore go out and buy the door-stop Jepson Manual. Contacts at local universities can help you find this level of source-book.

Step Three: Bring the wild home. Find a local native plants nursery – and bring your wallet. For me, it is all about Matilija Nursery in Moorpark. Consider hiring a landscape architect or designer who has a proven track record with nativescaping. Call the biology department at your local university and find out who is teaching ecology; you may be able to bring on some graduate students to help you with your vision.

Remember that just because a plant is native to your zip code doesn’t guarantee it will like your yard. When you are out hiking, think about what microclimates match what you have at home. For example, the balcony on my apartment is quite hot and gets direct sun. Plants that thrive in shade along a creekbed would not be very happy here. Every plant has unique soil requirements, water requirements, and sunlight requirements Some plants do better in combination with other native species. If you are planting in pots, rooftops or on balconies, expect to have to water more frequently because the plants’ roots cannot go as deep or retain as much water as they would in the ground.

As you dive into nativescaping your yard, you’ll need to do your homework and you’ll probably have to experiment a bit. You might have some plants die on you. Just don’t give up. Your ecosystem needs you to go wild.

Suggested Plantings

Native plants have charm and personality that compel gardeners to make the switch and go wild at home. Local plants bring a vitality to the landscape that is endlessly engaging. Native gardens frequently just feel right.

Pawpaws, tropical tree fruitsphoto by IITA Image Library, on FlickrPawpaw tree

No matter where you live (unless it’s in the vast deserts of the West), you should consider some local grasses. Native grasses are the most endangered habitat. If you really want to do heroic work, take on restoring a grassland, small or big, with local grasses. If you do this in your front yard in a suburban community You’ll get a Nativescaping Medal of Honor. I mean this literally. The National Wildlife Federation has a program that certifies wildlife-friendly gardens.

Water Conservation
Governor Jerry Brown recently announced that California is entering a major drought, and a years-long drought still grips much of Texas. In this context, it is imperative to note that most native plants require less water than plants from far away ecosystems. Native plants are designed for a water regime that makes sense for where you live; after the first two years, most working nativescaping gardens require no external irrigation.

Loblolly pine - reproductive by The_Gut, on FlickrLoblolly pine

The iconic trees of the hardwood forest of the East are always good choices for backyard shade and/or color: Eastern redbud, dogwood, maple, white oak, Virginia pine and more. The region’s edible fruits and berries entrance birds and schoolchildren alike, including pawpaw, huckleberry and lowbush blueberry. Perhaps most enchanting for the home garden are some of our ferns such as royal fern, cinnamon fern and famous wildflowers like black-eyed Susan, common blue violet and lupine.

Yuccaphoto by Gertrud K., on FlickrYucca

No one has ever said no to a magnolia, while the live oak is iconic. On a lighter note, I love the loblolly pine with a name as fun as a title by Dr. Seuss. To bring in birds, consider the elderberry or highbush blueberry or wild grape. Kids, birds, bees, butterflies all adore coral honeysuckle. And though the reference is meant to be Bilblical, purple passionflower strikes me as a perfect find for Valentine’s Day.

The Southwest
The Southwest is a vast region, as you know if you’ve ever done a roadtrip in the area. Determine if you are planting in desert, high desert, mountain or plain, and then shop accordingly. Note that bringing in a native plant from an ecosystem another state away may appeal to you but it does not restore habitat. Think local. That being said, here are some favorites from the Southwest region: cholla, prickly pear, Western redbud, desert willow, Mormon tea, chamisa, buckwheat, winterfat, yucca, Arizona walnut or California Walnut.

Get some Rosa Californica to plant outside your bedroom window – the flowers are truly the scent of love. Nab some hummingbird sage: its leaves smell like pineapple, its deep purple flowers smell like rich honey. When it blooms, you are guaranteed a visit from big fat native bumble bees and Anna’s hummingbirds. Love monarch butterflies? They’re on the edge of becoming endangered: plant a patch of milkweed to give them a place to fuel up as they migrate.

Hummingbird Sagephoto by Steve Corey, on FlickrHummingbird Sage

Every native plant comes with great stories attached. Artemisa californica is usually called cowboy sage or cowboy perfume and has a wonderful dusty, summery scent that lasts for months after the plant is dried. In the nineteenth century, the cowboys, after weeks on the trail with nary a bath in sight, would take cowboy perfume and rub it all over themselves before heading into town. Whether visiting saloons or churches or both, the scent blends well with the aura of human males in the summer. Apparently this sufficed to allow for success in wooing the ladies. Between us? It still works.

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