An open lawn, vibrant green blades of turfgrass cut exactingly short, is the traditional hallmark of a well-maintained yard.
It may also be misguided.
Lawns are one of the largest crops in the U.S., accounting for about 40 million acres of land in the lower 48. For wildlife, including all-important pollinators, this represents essentially dismantled habitat. And maintaining a lawn requires immense amounts of water — amounts that may not be available during drought spells.
All of which has homeowners turning toward native plants.
A National Wildlife Federation survey found about 14% of American adults bought a plant native to where they live in 2019. And about 9% converted at least a portion of their lawn to a natural, wildflower landscape.
"The great thing about native vegetation is that it's from here and it's adapted to our local conditions, and it's been that way since longer than we've been here," Said Bre Bauerly, a habitat specialist with Minnesota Native Landscapes, an ecological restoration company.
Native plants can withstand even extreme weather swings, such as drought, harsh winters and extreme precipitation, she said. All while providing helpful habitat for pollinators and other wildlife.
"They've kind of been through it all in terms of growing conditions," Bauerly added.
How to get started with native planting
Check out Bring Me The News' three-part guide to creating your own native garden:
- Site preparation and defining the space
- Sunlight, soil and other factors
- Plant species suggestions to get started
Because they're so well-adapted to local conditions, native plants generally don't need as much water or fertilizer as non-native ornamentals. They're also generally more resistant to disease and pests.
That means a yard owner, over the long-term, is using less water, spending less money and even doing less work.
But the benefits go beyond the practical, to what Julia Vanatta described as "the unexpected joys of gardening with native plants."
"We think we're going in there for whatever purpose it is," said the 70-year-old Vanatta. Water conservation, a pretty garden, simply feeling like you're doing "the right thing."
"But then you discover weird little things, like you start noticing insects that you've never seen before. You start noticing the bees and the butterflies. You start noticing birds eating off of seed heads," she explained.
Vanatta, who started the Native Plants Gardens in the Midwest Facebook group and is on the education committee of Wild Ones Twin Cities, said she still marvels at the visitors to her Minneapolis garden.
"You don't understand until you actually get something in the ground and it's happening that you experience this joy," she said.
If you're interested in turning a portion of your lawn or existing garden into an area with native plants, you don't have to go full-bore.
"I always say you can't start too small," Bauerly said. "If all you did was add 36 plants to an existing perennial bed, you're still doing something impactful for habitat and for pollinator value."