Written by Alison Mitchell

By spring only a few weeks, and there is much to expect; longer and warmer days, blooming flowers, the first green foliage on the trees and the singing of returning birds.

If you’re among those who can’t wait to return to your backyard or garden, you’re probably already thinking of planting this year. Perhaps you are browsing catalogs of seeds and nurseries or looking forward to a trip to your local garden center.

Many of us choose plants for aesthetic reasons; we like their color or shape or the way they smell. But plants that catch the eye in garden centers are not always the ones that support healthy ecosystems for creatures, including birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife.

Many garden centers are filled with flowers, shrubs and trees native to other continents. At best, these “exotic” plants look like an empty pantry, little to ensure the maintenance of wildlife. At worst, they can be invasive and spread aggressively throughout the landscape, displacing beneficial local plants.

Why not do a favor to wildlife this year and “go native” to your backyard and garden?

What is a local plant? Natives are those that occur in nature, without the introduction of man, in a certain place. Only plants found in New Jersey before European settlement are considered native to the state in which we are located. The New Jersey Local Plant Society has identified more than 2,000 native plant species.

The advantage of native plants is that they are well adapted to the local climate and soil, making them generally more cordial than foreign ones.

When planted in the right place locals thrive with minimal care. Once established, they grow well in normal rainfall and do not need additional fuel, if any. They also do not need fertilizers and pesticides, which protects water resources from pollution.

If you think that local plants are not as beautiful and colorful as the exotic, think again. The Garden State has a wide selection of local flowers, shrubs and trees that look great and provide food and shelter for wildlife.

Cardinal flower, oriental columbine, bee balm, orange butterfly weed, purple conifer, black-eyed Susan, wild geranium, pink mallow, Virginia bells and New England aster – these are just some of the spectacular local wildflowers that look beautiful and look attractive.

So where to start? First, find out which plants are native to your particular place, as soil and climate can make a big difference.

Then determine how much grassy lawn you really need. Replacing lawn areas with local plantings can be of great benefit. In addition to providing food and shelter for wildlife, you will spend less time on mowing and watering, and can give up harmful pesticides and fertilizers.

There are many online resources to help you decide what locals will plant and where. One good one is the New Jersey Yards website at www.jerseyyards.org

New Jersey Yards has an extensive database of local New Jersey plants and “Jersey-friendly” non-natives that are not distributed. The search feature allows people to filter by a variety of criteria including region, soil type, lighting requirements, flowering time, deer resilience and the type of wildlife to be involved. So, whether you have a sunny yard in the Pine Deserts or a shady spot in the mountainous areas, you will be able to choose plants that will thrive.

One caveat: when buying local plants, consult a garden center to make sure they are not grown using seeds or soil treated with neonicotinoid pesticides. If you treat “neonics”, they will kill pollinating insects, which should benefit from their presence.

Another good bet is to visit local plant sales sponsored by conservation groups who are interested in offering quality plants.

In northern New Jersey, check out the Great Swamp Watershed Association sale at www.greatswamp.org/native-plant-sale/

Find out about the Pinelands Preservation Alliance sale in southern New Jersey at https://pinelandsalliance.org/explore-the-pinelands/pinelands-events-and-programs/spring-native-plant-sales/

To find out which plants to avoid, see the “Don’t Plant” list on the New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team website at https://www.fohvos.info/invasive-species-strike-team/info-center/

Native Plants Society. New Jersey is another great resource. On March 5, the society will hold an annual spring conference, and the virtual event is free for all. Speakers include:

• Dr. Douglas Talami, a professor at the University of Delaware, who will talk about the complex and exciting network of wildlife maintained by oaks;

• Dr. Jay Kelly, a professor at Raritan Valley Public College, who will discuss how excessive numbers of deer and invasive plant species significantly alter the characteristics of forests in central and northern New Jersey;

• Don Torino, president of the Bergen branch of the Audubon National Society, who will talk about how to make your backyard a habitat for migratory birds and pollinators;

• Rebecca McMakin, Director of Horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park, who will talk about the strategies used to design an ecological park and the methods of cultivating parks with biodiversity.

To register or learn more, go to the New Jersey Local Plant Society website at https://npsnj.org. The site also has a guide to the state’s local plants.

Going home is a win-win situation; you get a healthier environment and less yard work!

Alison Mitchell is co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She can be contacted at info@njconservation.org

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