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Naturescaping — Winter 2010 | Out Here Magazine

Landscaping with native plants creates a good ecological fit

By Jodi Torpey

Of all the trees, shrubs, and flowers on his 10 acres in southeastern Pennsylvania, Doug Tallamy's favorite is a cornus alternifolia. Not only is this alternate-leaf dogwood with beautiful blossoms a nice understory tree — it grows below the level of taller trees — it's also home to a family of blue grosbeaks.

Tallamy and his wife have spent the last 10 years digging up the alien plants that dotted their property and replacing them with wildlife-friendly native species.

Native plants are the trees, shrubs, and wildflowers that grow in a specific region where they have evolved over time. Because natives are well adapted to their environment, they help conserve resources, require less maintenance, and serve a vital role in supporting the food web of their ecological communities.

As an entomologist, Tallamy has a special interest in creating landscapes full of native plants because they're more attractive to local insects than a landscape that's mostly lawn or non-native plants.

"If we remove insects from the landscape, then birds don't have anything to eat when they're raising their young," he says.

In his book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Tallamy explains how planting native species can help solve an ecological problem caused by development that has fragmented natural habitats.

Tallamy's approach to planting with nature in mind is part of a growing trend in landscaping design called naturescaping. This environmentally-friendly alternative to conventional landscaping has homeowners replacing ordinary ornamentals with hard-working native plants.

In communities with too-little water, drought-tolerant mesquite trees, buffalo grass, and colorful Texas red sage provide attractive naturescapes that don't require watering.

Native plants also come to the rescue in areas where storms dump heavy rainfall. There, plants such as marsh milkweed, cardinal flower, bloodroot, and great blue lobelia can soak up the excess water before it can run off.

In addition to helping conserve water and improve water quality, naturescaping reduces landscape maintenance costs, helps prevent the spread of invasive plant species, and creates welcoming habitats for wildlife.

To start planning and designing a naturescape, envision what you want to do with your landscape, Tallamy says, adding that gardeners should think of themselves as important players in managing our nation's wildlife.

"Plants have many ecological roles," he says. "The most important is to support the biodiversity that should be there."

As with any traditional landscaping project, naturescaping begins with evaluating the site, learning about the soil, looking at drainage patterns, and noting the sunny and shady areas.

It's best to start small and divide the property into sections for planting. Replace non-native turf with native grasses and select a large variety of woody and herbaceous plants that provides food and cover for local wildlife and migrating visitors.

If you're not sure which plants are native to your region, check with your local county extension or state native plant organization for specific recommendations.

"Plants matter," Tallamy says. "Your choice of plants today determines what life will look like tomorrow."

Jodi Torpey's Denver back yard is filled with plant species native to the Rocky Mountain region and is certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a wildlife habitat.