By Karen Heisz

Everywhere you look these days – gardening magazines, wildlife organization webinars and websites, Facebook – you will be urged to grow native plants in your garden. Why? What’s all the fuss?

Native plants are those that occur naturally in a region without human intervention. Over time they have evolved with our native insects, and they need each other to survive and thrive.

Native plants provide shelter and food to the insects. The stems of many native plant flowers are hollow, providing nesting sites for cavity-dwelling insects and native bees. Although some insects enjoy a leafy buffet, there are many instances of extreme specificity, like the monarch butterfly caterpillar. If we don’t have native milkweed species in our garden for the caterpillars to eat, we don’t have monarch butterflies.

Our native insects, in turn, provide protection and pollination services to the plants. In the larval or adult stage, many insects are predators of other insects, keeping the populations of potentially destructive soft-bodied insects in check.

The pollination of flowers relies heavily on the activities of native bees, wasps, flies and moths. Again, we see some very specific relationships. For example, some flowers, like blueberry and squash flowers, require native bees whose wings beat at a specific frequency to shake the pollen out! How cool is that?

It is important to stress that the vast majority of our native insects are harmless and their populations are in serious decline. This spells trouble for our migratory songbirds: up to 95 percent of a young bird’s diet is caterpillars and larvae. The only way that we can increase the populations of our native insects, protect our bird populations, and recreate healthy ecosystems is to plant the plants that sustain them – native plants. 

So, where and how to begin?  I am sure you have a troublesome area of your yard; perhaps it is too moist, too shady, too sunny, under a tree, on a steep slope. All of these are ideal places to start a native plant garden. Databases like those of the North American Native Plant Society or Canadian Wildlife Federation suggest plants that will be successful in response to the growing condition details you provide. 

Purchase your plants from local native plant nurseries such as Native Plants in Claremont or Grow Wild! where the plants are grown from seed. Always ensure that pesticides were NEVER used and put your own spray bottles away. Mother Nature has a solution for every problem. Be patient.

Every garden, patio or balcony can be home to a native plant or two to start, and together we can provide food and shelter to our critically important native insects. Nature can’t be somewhere we drive to; it has to be in our community, all around us.

If you want to learn more, check out the David Suzuki Foundation’s Butterflyway Project, or the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s “Gardening for Wildlife” resources. You can always reach out to me, too. I’m on Facebook.