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Seven steps to add native plants to your yard to benefit birds and wildlife

MADISON — With warmer weather luring people out to their yards, state conservation biologists say now is the time to consider adding native plants to their property to welcome birds, bees and other wildlife.

“Adding even one or two native plant species can make a difference for birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife,” says Kevin Doyle, a conservation biologist and native plant expert with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

A live, online chat set for noon to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, May 5, will give people a chance to ask their questions about native trees and other native plants. To participate on that day, visit the DNR home page,, and click on the graphic or search the phrase “Ask the Experts.” People can also join the conversation via our Facebook page at by clicking the “Ask the Experts Chat” tab at the top of our page.

Neotropical songbirds and other land birds that migrate through or nest in Wisconsin depend on insects to survive, and native plants are the main source of these insects; seeds and berries of native plants are also important food sources. Even birds that are seed-eaters need insect protein to produce their eggs, and almost all North American birds other than seabirds feed their young insects, according to Doug Tallamy, professor and chair of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware and author of “Bringing Nature Home.”

Most native insects cannot or will not eat nonnative plants for a variety of reasons, including because many nonnative ornamental trees and other plants were imported precisely because they are unpalatable to insects, says Amy Staffen, a DNR conservation biologist. Native insects can survive and proliferate if the plants they evolved with are available.

In many situations, insects require a very specific native plant species or suite of plants, she says. For example, the caterpillar that turns into a Karner blue butterfly, a federally endangered species found primarily in Wisconsin, eats only the native wild lupine while the familiar monarch butterfly caterpillar needs members of the milkweed family.

Doyle, Staffen and Kelly Kearns, a fellow DNR colleague and conservation biologist, offer these steps to help people use native plants on their property to benefit birds and other wildlife as well as to add beauty.

1. Understand what kind of soils you have, how moist or dry those soils are, what growing zone you are in, and the amount of sunlight your property receives to understand what kind of native plants will work for your area.

2. Consider wildlife needs when creating the list of plants to include. Providing multiple species in flower throughout the growing season will allow multiple types of animals – birds, bees, butterflies and more — to use your garden. Plants with open, bowl-like flowers are good for bees while those with more specialized flowers, like blazing stars, mints, milkweeds etc., can be good for butterflies, hummingbirds and bees. Colors also are important in attracting a variety of animals. Hummingbirds, for example, are attracted to bright flowers. Many plants in the aster family, including coneflowers, sunflowers, asters, and goldenrods, are excellent food sources for songbirds. Native shrubs such as serviceberries, dogwoods and viburnums can supply food and shelter for song birds as well. Native grasses are used as host plants for butterflies and habitat for songbirds.

3. Do some prep work before you put your new native plants in the ground. You’ll have to remove the existing vegetation. This may be done most easily with a rototiller although, smothering the existing vegetation with mulch for up to a year is also effective and less destructive to soil. Control any weeds by pulling them out by hand, by spraying with an herbicide before you plant, or by using a weed control mat.

4. Amending your soil may be a good idea. Soil compaction can be the bane of a native planting so adding organic material can improve water infiltration and allow the roots of your young plants to establish. Generally it is best not to use commercial fertilizer for native plants.

5. Decide whether to use seed or plants. Plants will establish faster but are more costly. Seed can be cheap but some species will not appear aboveground for at least a few years. Seeding is generally more effective for prairie or wetland plants, whereas woodland plantings generally require starting with plants. For species that are difficult to geminate from seed, such as prairie cord grass, Pennsylvania sedge and hoary puccoon, you may want to use plants instead. Favor seed and plants that are locally-sourced – generally within 50 miles to the north/south, and 100 miles east/west – open pollinated and seed-grown, as they will more reliably support Wisconsin native wildlife. DNR maintains a list of native plant nurseries.

6. In a prairie garden, decide what ratio of grasses to flowering plants, or “forbs,” you want. Grasses can establish quickly and become abundant, so plant a greater percentage (by weight of total seed mix) of forbs. In a prairie garden, tall forbs may flop over if not support within a matrix of grasses. Consider using a cover crop of an annual grain like oats or rye if planting a prairie garden with seed.

7. Consider helping your local waters as well as wildlife by installing a rain garden, basically a miniature wetland in your yard that slows stormwater runoff and filters out chemicals and nutrients that would otherwise run into lakes and rivers. You may find you’ve already got a natural spot in your yard for a rain garden when ponding occurs during storms, but even if you don’t you can create a shallow basin. Make sure to carefully follow guidelines for rain garden placement, design and construction or enlist the help of a landscaper to install this most unusual and beautiful type of garden.

The work doesn’t end once the native plants are in the ground, Doyle says. “You have to be diligent to keep up the weeding, especially in the first couple seasons, to allow your native plants to gain a strong foothold,” he says. “Ultimately, a native plant garden can lessen the amount of time you spend watering, mowing and fertilizing your yard, but that doesn’t happen overnight.”

Also, he says, take time to enjoy your garden. “Study each plant and how to identify it. This will not only help you distinguish weeds from natives, but will build a stronger connection between you and your new wild space.”

Kearns counsels patience, noting that some native plant species take longer to appear than others. “Bergamot and black-eyed Susan may appear the first season, while lilies and rosinweeds may take longer,” she says. “If you don’t see all the species on your planting list right away, don’t worry. Over time and with proper care, more native plants will appear and you can take satisfaction in knowing you are playing an important role in helping wildlife around your home.”