Adding even one or two native plant species to a property, whether a city lot of hundreds of acres, can make a difference for birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife, state conservation biologists say.
They encourage gardeners to dip a toe in the water – or jump right in – this planting season by following these steps.
- Figure out what kind of soils you have, how moist or dry those soils are, what growing zone you are in, and the amount of sunlight your property receives to determine what kind of native plants will work for your area.
- Consider wildlife needs when creating the list of plants to include. Providing multiple species in flower throughout the growing season will allow multiple types of animals — birds, bees, butterflies and more — to use your garden. Plants with open, bowl-like flowers are good for bees while those with more specialized flowers, like blazing stars, mints, milkweeds etc., can be good for butterflies, hummingbirds and bees. Colors also are important in attracting a variety of animals. Hummingbirds, for example, are attracted to bright flowers. Many plants in the aster family, including coneflowers, sunflowers, asters, and goldenrods, are excellent food sources for songbirds by attracting insects in the spring and providing seeds in the fall. Native shrubs such as serviceberries, dogwoods and viburnums can supply food and shelter for song birds as well. Native grasses can be used as host plants for butterflies and habitat for songbirds.
- Do some prep work before you put your new native plants in the ground. You’ll have to remove the existing vegetation. This may be done most easily with a rototiller, although smothering the existing vegetation with mulch for up to a year is also effective and less destructive to soil. You may also spray a systemic herbicide a few weeks before planting.
- Amending soils may be a good idea, particularly if they are compacted. Incorporating organic materials such as compost or peat moss can battle compaction by improving water infiltration, allowing young plants to establish. Generally, it is unnecessary to fertilize native plants; fertilizing may only encourage weeds.
- Decide whether to use seed or plants. Plants will establish faster but cost more. Seed can be cheap but some species are difficult to establish by seed and others will not appear aboveground for a few years. Seeding is generally more effective for prairie or wetland plants, whereas woodland plantings generally require starting with plants. Favor seed and plants that are locally-sourced (generally within 50 miles to the north/south, and 100 miles east/west), open pollinated, and seed-grown, as they will more reliably support Wisconsin’s native wildlife.
- In a prairie garden, decide what ratio of grasses to flowering plants, or “forbs,” you want. Grasses can establish quickly and become abundant, so plant a greater percentage (by weight of total seed mix) of forbs. In a prairie garden, tall forbs may flop over if not supported within a matrix of grasses. Consider using a cover crop of an annual grain like oats or rye if planting a prairie garden with seed.
- Once the plants are in the ground, keep up the weeding, especially in the first couple seasons, to allow native plants to gain a strong foothold. Ultimately, a native plant garden can lessen the amount of time you spend watering, mowing and fertilizing your yard, but it may take a few years.
For more information on what native plants will do well in your area to support a variety of wildlife, for specific recommendations for pollinators and for birds, and where to get native plants, check out these resources:
- Wisconsin Native Plants: Recommendations for Landscaping and Native Community Restoration. [PDF]
- Wisconsin Stopover Bird Habitat links (exit DNR)
- Saving Wisconsin’s Pollinators
- Wisconsin Native Plant Nurseries [PDF]