Walking through the crowded aisles of your local nursery, you smell the sweet purple blossoms of Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) and stroke the velvety leaves of Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina). In most aspects of our modern lives, globalization has brought us both the blessing and the curse of choice. Gardening is no exception. We have grown accustomed to plant nurseries that bear a striking resemblance to exotic botanical gardens, but should you welcome these plants into your backyard?
While non-native plants may give you the bamboo forest of your dreams or the ivy-covered brick walls that remind you of English dramas, the cost may be steeper than you realize. At a minimum, non-native plants have higher resource requirements and offer fewer benefits to local insect and animal populations, many of whom are already hurting due to habitat destruction. In extreme cases, non-native invasive plants can cause serious, long-term, and potentially irreversible damage to local ecosystems.
Alarmed? Not sure what to plant in that long-neglected corner of your yard? Fear not. Wildscaping, a sustainable landscaping methodology, has arisen as an alternative to traditional origin-blind processes. Wildscaping, as defined by the Texas Native Plant Society, is “a way of designing your home’s landscape to attract and benefit wildlife, especially birds and butterflies, by providing the required food, water, and shelter.” Wildscaping is heavily reliant on designing your outdoor sanctuary around native plant species – the very plants that would have existed in your backyard had humans never disturbed the peace.
• New plant parents, rejoice! Native plants are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions so they are more likely to thrive with minimal human intervention.
• Native plants are essential to preserving keystone species, the species on which all others rely, in local ecosystems. Pollinators, such as bees, birds, butterflies, and hummingbirds, are critical to plant reproduction, and they preserve genetic diversity within plant populations. This process ultimately leads to hardier plants and healthier gardens. Preserving pollinator populations will allow not only your garden, but the whole neighborhood to thrive.
• Native plants should not require expensive fertilizers, nor should they require as many pesticides as non-native species – great news for your pets, your children, and your wallet.
• Native plants are better adapted to water availability in your area, so they are much less likely to run up your water bill than the pristine green lawn that much of America covets. Water conservation is also an important consideration for the health of our planet and our ability to keep gardening for generations to come.
• Insects rely on the native plants that co-evolved with them. Native gardening revives and strengthens these populations. Other visitors, like songbirds and bats, will return to your yard to feast on these creepy crawlies.
• Native plants add far more visual interest to your yard than the water-greedy monocrop also known as grass. Many native plants have interesting seeds, stunning blossoms, and lovely seasonal color changes.
If you’re ready to go native, you’ll need to dedicate a few hours to research. Because wildscaping is a location-specific design process, you’ll need to consider not only sun versus shade, but also your zip code and your yard’s unique soil conditions. If you were to review a list of Texas-specific natives, most of them would only thrive in a small subset of the state. Unfortunately, that stunning Texas Sage bush from your friend’s garden on the other side of the state may not be a good fit for your local ecosystem. However, how about that native plant that’s thriving by your next-door neighbor’s shed? Sounds like it’s time to take your several-months-late housewarming gift across the driveway and make a new friend.
While this might sound overwhelming, don’t fret. Luckily, a plethora of resources already exist to help you on this journey. The best resource is an oft-forgotten state service: the U.S. Department of Agriculture County Extension agent or Natural Resources Conservation Services agent. To find local services, visit farmers.gov and search for your state and county. Your local office can suggest appropriate native plant species and even help you develop a soil testing plan to assess the soil conditions in your garden!
Once you know the pH of your soil, the agent can better suggest plants that will flourish without a lot of extra effort from you—sounds like a win for both you and your flowers. If you’re looking for an in-person alternative, ask the experts at your favorite local plant nursery or the members of your local gardening club for native plant recommendations.
If you’re not quite ready to go full native, or you’re not planning to alter your current landscape anytime soon, it’s okay. There are still some changes you can make to positively impact your local ecosystem. First, stop mowing your grass twice a week. You’ll have a thicker, more lush lawn if you mow it every seven to 10 days and aim for about four inches in height. Less mowing will also result in a deeper root system, allowing your lawn to survive with less frequent watering.
Second, start loving the weeds in your garden. A weed is not a real classification of plants; a weed is just a plant that someone didn’t love. Kenneth Raggette, horticulturist, master gardener and landscape superintendent for the City of Beaumont, Texas, explained, “The weeds in your lawn are actually the pollen producers. Let them go through their cycle. Then, cut them after the bees have their fun.”
You might have learned to dislike the patches of clover that break up your monotonous sea of grass, but Kenneth loves them—and bees love them too.
Is this article your first exposure to wildscaping, native plants, and sustainable gardening considerations? You’re not alone. “We have to start now because we should have started 50 years ago,” Kenneth said.
Thankfully, more and more people are looking to sustainable gardening options, like wildscaping, as alternatives to traditional landscape designs— and the pandemic lifestyle gave some people more time to do their homework before picking up their gardening trowels.