Landscaping with native plants is very rewarding. You'll enjoy providing benefits to wildlife, insects, soil, and water. Not to mention the stunning beauty and hardiness of these plants that are well adapted to central and southern Indiana!
Here are some tips and links to helpful resources to inspire you to create your own native garden at home.
Landscaping with Native Plants
According to the Indiana Native Plant Society (INPS), native plants are the flowers, grasses, shrubs, ferns, and trees that are indigenous to a geographical region and have occurred naturally in an area for a very long time.
Why are we so fond of them? It’s not just their abundant variety of colors, shapes, sizes, and species. Native plants play an essential role in the web of life. Because they have lived in Indiana for thousands of years, Indiana’s native plants are especially adapted to our climate and landscape and sustain a wide range of wildlife that have adapted to feed on them, including mammals, birds, insects, fungi, and other plants.
We can all participate in protecting and restoring habitat that has been lost to development. By landscaping with native plants in your yard, you can help create wildlife habitat to support biodiversity.
Swallowtail butterfly in the garden of Susan Haislip Daleke, Sycamore’s Administrative Director
Many exotic and invasive species not only crowd out native plants, they are inedible to wildlife and insects. As food sources for these creatures declines, so do their populations. North America has lost three billion birds in the past 50 years due to habitat loss and other factors. Declining biodiversity affects humans as much as every other species, impacting agriculture production and threatening the future of our food systems.
You might think you need exotic plants to make your yard stunning. But there are some truly breathtaking plants that are native to Indiana, including wild bergamot, ostrich fern, and swamp rose mallow. Many have some of the most creative plant names you’ll come across, like autumn sneezeweed, hairy foxglove, wild sweet william, and rough blazing star.
Rough blazing star Liatris aspera
Just like there are a million genres of music, and everyone’s tastes are different, there are also many ways to landscape your yard. Some like a neat, tidy look. Others prefer a bountiful, busier garden. Whatever your preference, you can accomplish that with native plants. For more photo inspiration of native plants you can grow in your yard, check out this photo page from INPS.
The Native Plant Project garden at Helmsburg Elementary, grown and tended with help from Sycamore’s Environmental Education program.
Cedar Crest Rock Wall Garden
In 2021 at our office at Cedar Crest, we enhanced our Rock Wall Garden and other areas of the property to create life-sustaining habitat. With the help of volunteers Kate Mulligan and Jim Shearn and many other botany experts, we carefully chose plants for their many benefits to wildlife. They are of particular importance to native bees and butterflies, vital pollinators that transfer pollen to promote plant growth including for many of the foods we eat. Many pollinators have experienced severe population decline due to pesticide use and habitat loss.
The plants in Cedar Crest Rock Wall Garden were also chosen for their ability to thrive in mesic (not wet, not dry) conditions with full or partial sun. Since all parts of the plants can be important to a variety of small mammals, birds, bees, and butterflies and their larvae, insecticides should not be used in a wildflower garden. Native wildflowers do not need fertilizers and most can survive short drought conditions.
Smooth Beardtongue Penstemon laevigatus
Golden Alexander Zizia aurea
The spring blooms of smooth beardtongue and golden alexanders provide an early food source for a variety of bees, butterflies and moths. Golden alexander provides pollen and nectar to many insects while the caterpillars of the black swallowtail feed on the leaves and flowers. Spring rains are enjoyed by these plants as they prefer a moist soil.
All species of liatris and milkweed provide summer blooms for bees and butterflies. Rough blazing star attracts bees including bumblebees and honeybees and butterflies including monarchs, painted ladies, black swallowtails, sulfurs and others. Rabbits, deer, and groundhogs enjoy eating the foliage and stems.
Butterfly Milkweed Asclepias tuberosa
Butterflyweed provides a striking orange flowerhead to attract the monarch butterfly that not only feeds on the nectar but lays its eggs on the leaves so that the larvae may feed. It also attracts many bees and butterflies including honeybees, fritillaries, and swallowtails.
Asters Aster spp.
Asters and goldenrods provide a fall nectar and pollen source to bees, butterflies, and skippers while other insects feed on the leaves. In addition to providing nectar and pollen, the smooth aster provides seeds for tree sparrows as well as other birds. The white footed mouse as well as a variety of other mammals browse the seeds and leaves. Fall wildflowers are an important food source to migrating butterflies and songbirds as they complete their journeys.
Goldenrods Solidago spp.
Goldenrod’s nectar and pollen feed a wide variety of insects like the endangered rusty-patched bumble bee while insect larvae feed on the leaves, plant juices, and flowerheads. Songbirds including the American goldfinch, indigo bunting and many species of sparrows feed on the seeds.
More than Flowers
No doubt about it, native Indiana flowers are stunning. But there are many beautiful native grasses, sedges, shrubs, and trees that will bring even more vibrance to your natural landscape. Consider converting some of your mowed grass lawn into a native grassland. No matter the size of your plot, you can make some incredible views with native grasses and sedges. And you never know what kind of wildlife you’ll attract with this habitat that is increasingly hard to find in Indiana.
These Sycamore volunteers helped to briefly catch and tag monarch butterflies in the prairie at our Powell Preserve, to help scientists track the butterflies on their annual migration to Mexico.
Trees Support Life
If you have a little more space in your yard, consider planting a native tree. Trees amplify the benefits of smaller native plants. For example, an oak tree can support between 300 and 500 species of insects, birds, mammals, and other critters. They produce hundreds of acorns each year, which are a critical food source for many types of animals. Birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches hunt for insects in their bark.
If you live near Bloomington, come pick up a free native tree seedling at our annual Arbor Day Tree Giveaway.
Oaks and maples at Scarlet Oak Woods, by Robert Stoffer
For more information about planning your landscaping with native Indiana plants, Indiana Native Plant Society (INPS) has some great resources:
- Getting started with landscaping
- Plants sorted by landscape use (butterfly food, bird habitat, autumn colors, etc)
- Plants sorted by habitat and plant type
You can grow native plants in your yard wherever you live! To learn more about growing native plants in North America, check out these native plant resources:
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
- National Audubon Society
Here are some of our favorite books on gardening with native plants at home:
- Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas Tallamy
- Planting Native to Attract Birds to Your Yard, by Sharon Sorenson of Evansville, IN!
- 100 Plants to Feed the Bees, by the Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation
- Nature’s Best Hope, by Douglas Tallamy