We asked an expert how to identify the varieties that are original to your region and help them thrive.

Not only can growing native plants in your garden benefit the natural environment, but doing so can help local wildlife, too. "A plant is considered native if it has occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without human introduction," says Mary Phillips, director of Garden for Wildlife by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). "Native plants have formed relationships with native wildlife over thousands of years, so they offer the best food, shelter, and sustainable habitat."

wooden behave in wildflower garden
Credit: Jacky Parker Photography / Getty Images

Native plants help the local ecosystem the most when planted in places that match their growing requirements, which Phillips says will also help lighten your gardening load. "Native plants thrive in the soils, moisture, and weather of your region, which means less supplemental watering (which can be wasteful), and less pest problems that require toxic chemicals." Whether you're a gardening novice with a small balcony or a gardening pro with a few acres, Phillips says anyone can grow native plants in their backyard. From how to determine which varieties are original to your area to growing tips and more, Phillips shares her advice for starting a native plant garden ahead.

Determine which plants are native to your area.

If you aren't sure which plants are native to your geographic region, Phillips says the NWF's online native plant finder is a great place to start. "You can input your zip code to find plants that host the highest numbers of butterflies and moths to feed birds and other wildlife where you live," she explains

To eliminate the guesswork involved with selecting certain native plants, the NWF also offers an assortment of native plant kits designed for various regions that you can have delivered straight to your front door. "The Garden for Wildlife Native Plant Collections are backed by science to include Keystone plants that help the highest numbers of butterflies, bees, and birds in a specific region," she explains. "Right now, they're available in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and parts of the Midwest, but the more support the program gets, the more regions we can provide plants for."

Find the right location.

Once you have an idea of which native plants you'd like to grow, Phillips says it's crucial to select a location in your garden where they will thrive. "Look at your landscape for spots where your native garden can receive the appropriate amount of sun and shade," she explains. "For example, in the Northeast, sun-loving natives such as Beard Tongue Foxglove, Orange Butterfly Weed, and Smooth Blue Aster need at least six hours of sun. Otherwise look at shade-loving native varieties such as Wild Geranium, Big Leafed Aster, and Great Blue Lobelia."

Prep the soil.

Before actually planting your native varieties, Phillips says you will need to prepare the soil for planting. "First remove any weeds from the bed before planting (and keep up with it during the season), as they can be detrimental to any garden's health and take over in just one season," she explains. Once the weeds are removed, Phillips recommends adding food compost to the area to create a nutrient-rich soil without the need for potentially toxic fertilizers. "The best amendment for a native habitat garden is compost," she explains. "Compost conserves kitchen waste and naturally enriches the soil."

Plant a diverse selection.

To ensure your native garden supplies an abundance of nectar and pollen all year long, Phillips recommends planting a variety of plants that bloom in succession, including early spring, spring, summer, and fall. "This is more interesting for you, and for pollinators," she explains. "Different insect species rely on plants for food in all four seasons and a diverse garden will provide that."

Place your native plants close together to prevent weeds.

When planted densely in your backyard, Phillips says that native plants can naturally crowd out weeds once they have matured, so you won't need to rely on chemical-based killers that could potentially harm local wildlife. "Native plants do not need chemicals to thrive, just natural compost, and until they fill in, a layer of non-treated mulch," she explains. "After time, your wildlife garden shouldn't need any mulch, it should be covered with a combination of tall, medium, short and ground cover plants to shade the soil and reduce weeds."


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