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Diggin' It

Native plants help birds and small wildlife

There are many reasons to grow plants native to where we live. One is that they help feed, sustain, and shelter birds and beneficial insects.

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Early on, most of those plants were decimated by large herds of deer that stroll through our one-acre garden. As a result, I began adding ornamental plants that they wouldn’t touch — things like Japanese tree lilacs, caryopteris, and non-native ornamental grasses.

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Sustain wildlife with native plants

After reading Doug Tallamy’s fascinating book, “Bringing Nature Home: How you can sustain wildlife with native plants,” I’m pondering how I can transform our current garden so that at least half of the plants are natives that originally grew in northeastern Illinois.

Why is that important? Because, as Mr. Tallamy states, our native insects rely on those plants for food, shelter, and a place to grow their offspring. “When native plants disappear, the insects disappear, impoverishing the food source for birds and other animals,” he says.

In turn, those insects make up the food chain that supplies the birds that inhabit our gardens. Ironically, the Japanese beetles that chow down on basil, hibiscus, Japanese weeping cherry tree, and other non-native plants in my garden, are scorned by the birds.

As Tallamy points out, local birds didn’t evolve with Japanese beetles and therefore won’t eat them. The beetles are essentially useless in the food chain except for the occasional praying mantises that catch them.

The choice of native versus ornamental plant is a struggle for gardeners who will soon be visiting local garden centers, buoyed after a long winter and looking forward to buying anything that’s flowering. There is a way to have the best of both worlds if we design gardens to include both.

The butterflies and hummingbirds in our garden also use non-native parsley, buddleia, fennel, and other plants for nectar and for their eggs. As I redesign and rearrange my borders, I’ll make sure to add other natives as well — woodland asters, columbine, paw paw trees, and many others. There are plenty to choose from. And, a new line of native perennials, marketed under the name American Beauties, can help fill both the need for ornamentals and natives.


Nina Koziol gardens on a deer-infested acre southwest of Chicago where her beds and borders are designed for butterflies, hummingbirds and other wildlife. She teaches at the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum. Find out more on her website, This Garden Cooks. Read Nina's previous posts here at Diggin' It by clicking here.

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