We’ve all seen the food pyramid, with healthier foods forming the base and chocolate cheesecake with cholesterol sauce at the top (mmmm…. cholesterol sauce). Though nutritionists argue about the specifics, it’s a great concept because it makes healthy eating a bit simpler to visualize.
Preserving the connections between wildlife and the plants that support them is just like healthy eating – there’s no need to be extreme and cut out the roses, dahlias and “dessert” plants that bring you joy. Life’s better when we indulge a bit. (Below, Heuchera planted among my native Columbine.)
But there’s also no denying that many insect and animal species rely on very specific types of plants in order to breed and eat. We don’t yet understand all the connections between plants and wildlife, but one thing is clear: plants have evolved over time alongside the insect and animal populations that feed and reproduce on them, so planting a variety of plants native to your area is one of the simplest ways of helping out your local wildlife.
But planting for wildlife can be rife with questions and unknowns. Is something still native if it normally grows in a different part of the state? Is that gorgeous cultivated variety of a native plant still helpful? In the interest of keeping things simple, I’ve created the Planting Pyramid, below.
The base of the pyramid – native plants:
When choosing plants to benefit wildlife, there are three major things to consider:
What’s native?: Many people define what is native to their area on a state-by-state basis. But this ignores that fact that most states have a variety of habitats and types of wildlife. I live in the redwoods of Northern California, and the plants that grow wild in my area bear little resemblance to the plants that grow naturally down near the California/ Mexico border.
So it makes sense when choosing natives to think about the natural areas closest to your home. In fact, many native plant nurseries and societies are propagating plants from local seeds and cuttings so that you not only have a variety that is native, but a locally-sourced version of that native. This helps ensure that local wildlife is adapted to the plants and that they’ll grow successfully in your garden.
Woody natives: On the whole, woody plants like trees and shrubs provide food and shelter to the greatest variety of wildlife. So when choosing where you can have the most impact for your local wildlife, shrubs and trees can be a better bet than perennials and small flowers.
Nativars: Many natives are being bred to have better characteristics for landscaping, such as more brilliantly-colored flowers, ruffly blooms, or a variety of sizes that fit into home gardens more easily. While the naturally-occurring plant variety is sure to be a good fit for wildlife, it’s likely that many of the wildlife benefits of native plants are still found in hybrids and selected varieties.
However, there are two times when cultivated varieties of natives are definitely not as helpful:
When flowers have become more ruffly or have changed shape in some way. Flower shape is really important in allowing pollinators to feed, so when people breed in more petals, they often breed out wildlife value. Even so, a floofy-petaled native still retains more wildlife benefit then its non-native counterpart, because there may be other insects, birds, or beneficial soil microbes that can still form a community with the plant. (Below, a Douglas iris in its natural state and a new floofy one.)
When the cultivated variety is of a single sex. For example, Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’ is a male version of my locally-native silk tassel. It’s been bred to have longer tassels and no fruit, which makes it more visually appealing during tassel-time, and easier to plant in commercial installations such as in a parking lot, where fruit can be slippery and messy. The problem with this is that local birds are used to eating the fruit from female silk tassels, so when only the male is planted, birds lose out on a nutritious feast.
Bottom line? Cultivated varieties of natives are still highly beneficial, but if it’s not a big difference to you, a locally-grown species is often the most helpful for wildlife.
The middle of the pyramid – generalist wildlife value and feeding people:
Generalist wildlife value: Many birds and insects are “generalists”, that is, they can drink most types of nectar, eat most kinds of seed or berry, and generally get along fine with whatever food we care to provide in our gardens for them.
These types of wildlife are usually not in danger of going extinct, so we don’t usually worry about their numbers in the way we do “specialist” bugs and birds, which rely on particular natives to survive. However, it’s still a fine thing to provide food and shelter to them, and they are easy to attract and enjoy watching in your garden.
Plants that have good generalist value are non-native ornamental grasses and seed-setting perennials, shrubs with berries, and plants with ample nectar like those in the mint family. Woody plants – shrubs and trees – are also of great benefit to wildlife because they provide places to nest and hide.
Feeding people: Humans are wildlife, too, and though we aren’t reliant on our backyards to feed us, it’s a noble thing to become more so! The gas/ oil used in shipping food to us, and the chemicals used in agriculture have a detrimental effect on our wildlife populations. Feeding yourself fresh, healthy food from your garden or a local organic farm is hugely beneficial in protecting wildlife.
The top of the pyramid – purely for visual impact or functional purposes:
So, I’m a landscaper. My whole career is built on the idea that beauty is important. A gorgeous garden feeds our souls, connects us to nature and invites us outdoors, and recharges us so that we can keep doing the things in our lives that feel most true and important to us. So when I say that the top of the pyramid – the smallest portion – might best be made up of plants with purely aesthetic value or that serve a functional purpose (like a lawn to play on), I don’t want you to feel judged.
I love flowers! I love playing on my lawn! And I plant beautiful things in my garden that do nothing but infuse my life with wonder and color. And you should, too!
But let’s get real: a lot of the time, when we’re thinking about what to plant, an impulse purchase, nursery sale, or a quick “I want!” makes the decision for us, when a little bit of planning and research might have yielded a plant that could satisfy our soul AND provide some additional benefit. (Below, Cryptomeria and my native Ceanothus mingle in a local nursery’s landscape.)
It’s about mindfulness. If a non-native dahlia that needs protecting from pests makes your soul sing, then by all means, plant some dahlias! But plant them right up where you’ll see them every day, and only plant as many as you need to lavishly participate in the dahlia-loving experience. Then nestle in a couple of native shrubs and some edible plants alongside so that your dahlias take their place within a deliciously varied and useful landscape.
Remember that the goal here isn’t “perfection”, whatever that is. It’s about finding a balance in your own garden that allows you to contribute to the environment as effectively as possible, while leaving ample room for you – your artistic input, your hobbies, and your experience of the garden.
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