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Native Plants in Your Garden: How Many Make a Difference?

Thinking about your goal.

phlox and heuchera
Phlox and Heuchera

Gardeners are planting more and more native plants as we realize even our small back yards (and front yards) create habitat and reestablish critical links between natural areas. Scientists say these efforts have enormous potential to help insect and bird populations.

You may have added a native shrub or perhaps a garden bed filled with your favorite natives. Maybe you have started to layer in native trees, shrubs, perennials or ground covers or perhaps you have started with keystone species -- those scientists have told us support the most insects and birds.

native perennials
Green and gold ground cover, pink turtlehead and heuchera "Autumn Bride"

We have used a little of each of these approaches in the garden we came to eight years ago. We live on a fairly busy corner and still have the ornamental yews screening the road that were here when we arrived. There are several more ornamental trees that are just not practical to remove at this time. Our garden also has a lawn.

Using native plants does not have to be all or nothing. The main point is to create a garden you love and connect with - one you want to enjoy. You may adore peonies or architectural Japanese evergreens. Every garden has room for those plants with special meaning to you. I plant pansies every year because they were one of my grandmother's favorites.

How do you know when you have reached a critical mass with your native plants though? How do you know if you have been successful in creating enough native habitat to have done your part? The nation's guru on native plants has answered that question. Dr. Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware believes if you can get about 70% of your plants to be native, you will have done your part.

When I first read that, I thought ok, I'll count the plants. Of course, native trees and shrubs are, for the most part, going to support far more insects than perennials will. At the same time, you need those perennial flowers to feed pollinators. I quickly realized calculating 70% will not be an exact science. So, I stepped outside and tried to critically assess whether 7/10ths of this garden is native. In some sections yes; in some no. And big picture, we have a ways to go!

Ornamental yews with native hollies, magnolia, amsonia, inkberry and virginia creeper along the fence

We all know about aspirational goals. I am not thinking 70% is one of those. It is something to work toward and think of the gardening fun along the way. The good news is that there are a lot of really cool native plants to help us get there. What do you think? Is 70% doable? If you have one native plant, you are underway!


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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