What’s All the Buzz on Gardening with Native Plants?

Our monthly blog, edited by Dayenu (climate action and environmental justice) Circle members Chris Wynn and Sharon Smaller,  will give you ideas, information, resources, and things you can do to make this world a better place environmentally, tikkun olam. As a community, we can learn from each other, so we welcome your ideas and questions. Please share with us your successes in your endeavors to “go green.”

Even if you consider yourself an ardent gardener, you might find your energy flagging toward the end of the season. But for those of us who could rally for one more round, the fall season gives us a bonus opportunity to do some planting with cooler temps on the horizon. The Green Maven thinks this is a perfect time to consider native plants. As you look around your neighborhood, you can see how the native plants– the coneflowers, joe pye, and monarda, for example– have been able to hold up to the heat and dry spells. Planting in the fall gives those new plants a chance to put all their energy towards establishing their roots, without having to put that energy towards flowers, fruits, and seeds at the same time.

So why are native plants such a trend now? Also, how can they mitigate the impact of climate change? According to Douglas Macdonald, who is the steward of Evanston’s Morton Civic Center Habitat Garden and formerly a curator for the Chicago Botanic Garden and founder of his own landscape firm, “Native plants are better adapted to the climate situation in your area.” He continues, “In the past we had many prairie plants and prairie plants use less water. It seems like our summers are hotter and facing more drought. Most prairie plants, especially those with deep roots, can tolerate more heat and require less water.” In short, employing native plants helps to make our landscape more resilient to climate change as our weather heats up.

Another key aspect of gardening with native plants is that specific plants and specific pollinators have evolved across a geographical area to work together. For example, monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants and then when their caterpillars later emerge, they use the host plant as food. Due to manmade development and agriculture, habitats for pollinators have been drastically reduced and thus populations of many birds and insect species have declined who rely on these plants for sustenance. Here’s where we can all play a part by making our yards wildlife havens that will support native plants and pollinators, creating healthier, more diverse ecosystems.

I like to think of myself as a plant matchmaker or as the Green Maven might say a plant yente. If I want to attract a particular insect or bird to my garden, then I will need to plant this particular native. Some insects and birds are generalists as to what they eat, but most are specialists and are picky about their preferences like some toddlers you know. In these days of more screen time than nature time, you might be a bit clueless as to what type of insect and plant are compatible partners, but, fortunately, there are many resources (see the list below) to guide you to plant and pollinator matchmaking success.

With the assistance of a professional landscape company that specializes in native habitat landscapes, fellow congregant Barbara Schoenfield has transformed her yard using native plants, shrubs, and trees. As an avid bird lover, she says, “I wanted to incorporate plants that would support birds for roosting, food, and cover.” She also was trying to alleviate some flooding issues in her yard, so she wanted plants that could absorb the extra water and help with the runoff. She reports success with this strategy. Barbara emphasizes that introducing native plants doesn’t have to be all at once. “Convert some small area of your yard and support the pollinators in that way,” she says. She also notes that after the plants are established, they are easier to take care of because they require less watering than common landscaping plants.

My own personal journey with native plants has been more of a dabbling process, rather than a full outright embrace. But since last summer I’ve been transforming a former shade bed, once overflowing with ferns and hostas, to now mostly native sun-loving plants. This all began when we had to have a large diseased maple removed. That beloved tree (one consolation of the loss of the tree is that my handy son-in-law created huppah poles from the salvaged wood and now those poles will be reused and turned into a sukkah!) had shaded most of our small backyard. Overnight we went from shade to full sun. I was eager to seize the opportunity of planting native perennials and shrubs that thrive in the sun. I also was looking to create a habitat for the monarch butterfly and other pollinators.

Last summer, I planted three swamp milkweeds, which now tower above my head. It’s as if I brought the punch to the party. Suddenly, my backyard has become a buffet to goldfinches, hummingbirds, numerous types of bees, and to my delight, monarchs. This good result reinforces my motivation to do more to beckon pollinators to my yard, while savoring the quiet beauty of native plants. In a similar vein, Barabara says, “The hummingbirds and the bees, and other pollinators- I imagine that they’re happy. I’m providing a place for them in the middle of our suburban setting.”

Have I convinced you yet to try planting some native plants in your yard? Here are three easy-to-grow native perennials that Douglas Macdonald recommends for beginners:

  • Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • Prairie Dropseed (Sporobulus heterolepis)
  • Bradbury’s Beebalm or Monarda (Monarda bradburiana)

I guarantee you that when the pollinators begin to arrive, you will need no further encouragement to do just a bit more next year with native plants in your garden.  Also perfectly timed, Go Green Winnetka is holding a native plant sale this Saturday, September 9, from 9:00 – 11:00 am in Indian Hill Park. Click here for more details.

Below are resources for learning more and getting inspired. As a final note, I leave you with some reflections from Douglas Macdonald on evolving into a native plant lover.

Evolution of a native plant lover

by Douglas Macdonald

a.   You love the flowers.
b.   You like the buds and emerging leaves in the spring as much as the flowers.
c.   You are interested in which butterflies and bumblebees visit the plants.
d.   You like the seeds and how they are designed to fly or move.
e.   You learn to find butterfly eggs on host plants.
f.   You learn about ultraviolet light and how birds and insects see.
g.   You learn the plants aren’t created for humans. You learn you’re not even as important as an insect to them.
h.   You find you’re just a small part of a vast natural world, but can contribute to its health.
i.   You participate in a universe that is more wonderful and amazing than you ever could have imagined.
j.   You love native plants.

Resources for Gardening with Native Plants

An abundance of resources exists for native plants and are growing all the time! The relatively short list below will surely get you started.


  • Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy. Copyright 2007. (This book is considered the bible of creating native habitats in your backyard.)
  • Illinois Wildflowers by Don Kurz. Copyright 2021.
  • A Northern Gardener’s Guide to Native Plants and Pollinators: Creating Habitats in the Northeast, Great Lakes and Upper Midwest by Lorraine Johnson and Sheila Colla. Copyright 2023

Nurseries Specializing in Native Plants:

Both of these nurseries will ship plants and have a ton of helpful information on their websites.


Local Native Habitat Gardens to Visit (these are just a few):

  • Beth Emet’s native habitat and rain garden certified by the National Wildlife Federation and installed in 2022.
  • Jens Jensen Garden at Lighthouse Beach, 2611 Sheridan Road. Charles Smith is the steward and created this garden featuring all native plants with help from volunteers beginning three summers ago.
  • Morton Civic Center Habitat Garden, 2100 Ridge Avenue. Douglas Macdonald has been the steward there for the past 5 years. This large habitat garden contains helpful plant signage and features over 60 species of wildflowers, shrubs, and a few trees.
  • Also, all around Wilmette’s public spaces are pockets of native habitat gardens. They are beautiful enhancements to Gillson Park and downtown areas and are making Wilmette’s landscape more sustainable.