By Deb Lebow Aal. Updated October 2023 by Jen Smith.
We garden for beauty. We love to make our landscapes look nice, and that is a wonderful reason to be a gardener. But, we can balance gardening for beauty with gardening to ensure we are in harmony with the ecosystem; that we are providing a place for wildlife, and we are gardening with nature instead of fighting it.
And, really, what is Wild Ones about? It’s about restoring a healthy ecosystem. It’s about improving the climate resilience of our landscapes. It’s about changing the paradigm of home landscapes. What we have now is an average of five species of plants in our front yards, including the big one, Kentucky blue grass. We have made cities and surrounding suburbia an ecological desert, devoid of anything edible for any species. And we can do so much better. The typical landscape I see in my urban neighborhood consists of one tree, three or four small shrubs near the house, and an expanse of Kentucky blue grass. That’s it. That’s the default. We can and must change this! If each of us treated our little patch of land as part of the bigger picture of the ecosystem we are in, and invited wild birds and butterflies and insects – yes insects, to share that space with us, instead of banishing them, we could be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
We need a diversity of plant species to bring the ecosystem back from the brink of disaster. In the words of Sara Stein1, an icon in the native plants movement, “We cannot in all fairness rail against those who destroy the rainforest or threaten the spotted owl when we have made our own yards uninhabitable.”
Am I sounding an alarm prematurely? I don’t think so, and I am certainly not the only one sounding an alarm. We are losing species at an unprecedented rate. Some estimate that we have lost more than a third of our insect species – even before we know what many of them are. If this is your first time reading a Front Range Wild One’s article, I’m repeating the information that seems to resonate with everyone about why native plants in particular are so important to include in your landscape. We need native plants to host the native insects to feed the birds. Caterpillars, in particular, are a critical food source for over 96 percent of songbirds (e.g., a pair of Carolina chickadees requires between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars to successfully raise just one brood of young). The power of native plants is their ability to host many, many more species of caterpillars than non-native plants.
In addition to doing what we need to do to restore the ecosystem, there is another reason to add natives to your landscape, and that is to restore a sense of place. You can plant what makes the Front Range unique; plant species that grow well here, that historically have been here, and that celebrate the diversity of plants here. Plant what you can’t plant in New England or California. Plant serviceberry and mahonia repens and rabbit brush instead of Japanese maples, barberry, and burning bush. Make it a Colorado garden. When I moved to the Front Range from Maryland, years ago, I was all set to put in the plants I liked from the east coast. And I did, for a few years until it dawned on me, rather slowly I must admit, that this is not what a Colorado garden should look like. So, here’s a list of favorites that just might replace your east coast, west coast, or Midwest favorites. They don’t exactly mirror your favorites, but they will most likely make you just as happy. They also use much less water than your non-natives. I will be developing a more formal “plant this, not that,” list in the future. (link to it)
Instead of lilac bushes, plant chokecherry. Granted, the flowers are not as pretty, but let’s face it, lilacs are only beautiful for two to three weeks a year. The rest of the time, they are a pretty scruffy looking bush. I know – that’s blasphemy. People really love their lilacs. But, Chokecherry, while it doesn’t have the two week “oh my god” quality, can be a lovely bush or tree, most of the year, and supports an astounding number of caterpillar and other insect species2.
In the sun, instead of phlox, plant Rocky mountain bee plant; instead of daylilies, plant wild geranium. Plant zinnias and leadplant and pussytoes and sulphur flower for a very xeric garden. And more blasphemy – instead of mums, plant rabbitbrush. It’s a lot wilder looking, but that’s the look we hopefully are going for.
Plant mountain mahagony, and snowberry and staghorn sumac (Rhus trilobata is our native, and yes it suckers!) and New Mexico privet. If you want to see what these plants look like, head to Denver Botanic Gardens. There are good specimens of all of them, and lots more.
In the shade, instead of impatients and hostas, plant prairie smoke geum and mahonia repens. Again, they don’t have the flower power that the non-natives do, but they are beautiful in their own right, and you will see more wildlife in your garden. We are trying to change landscaping from only good for humans to good for many species.
For roses, our native rosa woodsii is gorgeous and the Japanese beetles don’t bother it. It does sucker, but it’s worth it. Plant it where you are not going to walk, and let the birds have some cover.
And, a few more tips for making your yard a patch of habitat wonder. Dead trees are important. Many, many species use dead trees as their “host.” So, unless it’s going to endanger life or property, leave some dead branches or even a complete dead tree, standing. It can actually be a beautiful addition to your landscape, if incorporated well. I leave some dead sunflower stalks, pruned to fit in, because I like the look, and I don’t have any dead trees – yet. I’m not sure what, if anything, uses my dead sunflower stalks, but if anything does, I’m happy!
Wildlife needs water. Set out shallow basins, and clean them out every day. Yes, every day if you don’t want your birds to get diseases. So, place your shallow basins close to your water source. If you find that no birds are coming to your water basins, they are probably not in the right place. Play with them a bit.
And, don’t forget to leave some dead leaves down on the ground. They are another important source of “host” material. Something like 1500 different creatures (I really can’t remember where I saw that statistic, but it’s out there) live in the leaf mulch and the soil right below. Leave the seedheads on your flowers through the winter. Not only are they beautiful, they are an important source of seed for birds in the off season.
Also remember, a healthy garden has lots of insects, which means you will have lots of leaves with bites out of them. Rejoice if you see leaf cutter bee bites! If you have little mice and snakes, your garden is working! They are needed to feed owls and other larger creatures. Now, I’m not saying they should be in your house, but in your garden, yes.
And rejoice when your garden looks like it belongs in our harsh but beautiful Colorado environment. You’ve done your part.
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Curious to learn more about transforming your garden into a habitat with Colorado native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees? Check out our native gardening toolkit, register for an upcoming event, subscribe to our newsletter, and/or become a member – if you’re not one already!
- Sara Stein was an advocate of the use of native plants in our gardens, and, to use her term, to become an “ungardener,” early on. She wrote several books, including Noah’s Garden. ↩︎
- The National Wildlife Federation’s Native Pant Finder states that 261 species of caterpillars and moths use chokecherry as a host plant. Use this amazing tool to put in your zip code and find which native plants in your immediate vicinity host the most caterpillar and moth species. Caterpillars, remember, become butterflies! ↩︎