How to start a native garden, bring wildlife to your yard and help the environment
The environmental benefits of adding native plants to yards and gardens are abundant, such as supporting local birds and butterflies, but many people might look across their lawns and not know where to start.
One Chicago area group is helping people tackle the task of incorporating more native plants into their home landscaping and teaching them why eco-friendly yardwork is important. The Conservation Foundation's initiative, "Conservation@Home," works with homeowners by giving advice on a wide range of actions like replacing turf grass, creating native gardens, installing rain barrels and reducing chemical use.
Jim Kleinwachter, who kick-started the program five years ago, said Illinois families are often invested physically, financially and emotionally in Illinois' environment. He said embracing the plants from this region can be an extension of that connection -- to both the state and nature.
"Everybody loves going to the forest preserve and parks, but how often do you actually get out there?" Kleinwachter said. "Having native plants provides a slice of that in your backyard, where you can sit out and watch a hummingbird come to a plant and have some nice experiences right in your own yard."
The major downside with foreign plants, Kleinwachter said, is that they don't engage in the environment.
With native plants comes native wildlife such as birds and butterflies. But the same can't be said for other plants because animals don't know how to benefit from them, so they're not functional in the overall local ecosystem.
For instance, the turf grasses that cover most of our lawns are not from North America, and they have "zero wildlife value," Kleinwachter said, adding that the same goes for many foreign flowering plants like roses.
Despite the lack of utility in these plants, Kleinwachter said he understands that they bring aesthetic and meaningful value to many. Rather than recommending the complete overhaul of a yard or garden, Kleinwachter encourages people to do some research, make a plan and slowly incorporate more and more natives into their yard alongside their existing greenery.
As the land preservation specialist at the Conservation Foundation, Kleinwachter does outreach and education on native plants, and also regularly visits yards to provide specific suggestions.
Kleinwachter said the organization has a number of educational resources on its website for those looking to learn more, such as guides to earth-friendly landscaping and creating native gardens.
The "Conservation@Home" program includes a certification process, where staff members survey yards in person and present property signs to yards or areas that are identified as environmentally friendly landscapes.
Des Plaines resident Stephanie Temple got her yard certified in 2017 after years of cultivating a passion for birding, botany and bettering the environment.
"I want to take my little postage stamp of a property and try to make it one of those places in the green corridor around Lake Michigan where birds and insects can come to," said Temple, who is also certified as a master naturalist through the University of Illinois Extension.
Temple added that supporting the food web is another large source of motivation for her.
Worldwide, 40% of insects are threatened with extinction, according to a 2019 Biological Conservation study. Main drivers of the phenomena -- often referred to by scientists as the "Great Insect Decline" -- are habitat loss, invasive species and pesticide use.
"Every native plant introduced is better for the environment, for the birds or for other creatures. For instance, we can't have baby birds without insects," she said. "There's this big food web, and everybody has to eat something."
The program also certifies businesses, churches and schools, covering a wide swath of the Chicago area by partnering with various environmental groups. A full list of partners by county and where you can reach them is at tinyurl.com/AtHomeConservation.
Megha Patel, a Brookfield resident whose yard was certified in 2018 by the program's Cook County partner, the University of Illinois Extension, said she initially felt intimidated by the prospect of having her yard surveyed but ultimately enjoyed gaining feedback and knowledge out of the process.
If Patel could give advice to someone beginning their journey with native plants, she said it would be to start small to avoid losing track of plants and becoming overwhelmed by what may seem like a large project. For instance, adding natives to an existing annual flower bed is one seamless way to get started.
Even one native plant can make a noticeable impact and bring more caterpillars, butterflies and birds to your home, said landscape architect Amanda Arnold, who runs a sustainable landscape design business called PlanIt LandScape Perspectives.
"Even the little things make a difference. People think, 'Oh, well, I have to have a prairie.' But most people don't have a prairie in their front yard and still have turf grass. That's OK," said Arnold, who is also a horticulture adjunct faculty member at the College of DuPage. "You can insert a few native plants into what I would call your more traditional landscape and still make it very beautiful and organized."
Arnold said even 5 or 10 square feet can sustain a beautiful garden.
"It doesn't have to be anything overwhelming," she said. "That way you're not worrying about it, and the cool part about native plants is once they get established, you're not giving constant care and maintenance."
Among the benefits of native plants is that once they settle down for a few seasons, they typically don't need to be watered.
"They are used to being in Illinois, and they've adapted to the peculiarities of our weather," Kleinwachter said. "This is the Prairie State. If you put a prairie plant back, there's no question that it will do fine because it's what was here. Where your house is, was a prairie."
• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work, click here to make a tax-deductible donation.