Native plants are all the rage right now — or all the buzz, considering how much pollinators love native flowers. But finding a nursery that sells the right native plants for your area can be a challenge. To explain why native plants are vital to wildlife and how we can find native plant collections that are the correct fit for our ecoregions, Mary Phillips of the National Wildlife Federation joins me on the podcast this week.
Mary has been with the National Wildlife Federation, the United States’ largest private nonprofit conservation education and advocacy organization, since 2014. She’s always had a passion for wildlife, wildflowers and native plants. As a child, she would go out with her Instamatic camera and take photos of wildlife interacting with plants. She now manages NWF’s Garden for Wildlife program, which has been around since 1973, when it started with the founding of the Certified Wildlife Habitat initiative, which this week hit 274,500 certified habitats.
Mary says the job was a perfect example of worlds colliding: She worked in nonprofit management for a long time and consulted with green organizations, and for five years prior she ran The Abundant Backyard, a Midatlantic consulting business to encourage schools, community groups and individuals to start pollinator gardens and integrate native plants into their landscapes.
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Certified Wildlife Habitat Program
I bet there are a lot of people who listen to “The joe gardener Show” podcast who have a Certified Wildlife Habitat. I have one myself. For those who aren’t familiar with this important program, Mary breaks it down.
NWF will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Certified Wildlife Habitat effort next year. It started because of two amazing U.S. Forest Service researchers, Richard DeGraaf and Jack Ward Thomas, who had been studying all the elements of habitat — food, water, cover, places to raise young, etc. — in public lands and restoration areas.
The researchers asked: If you replicated those same features in a small, urban or suburban landscape, could you support wildlife? The answer was yes, you can.
Based on that research, NWF began working with those researchers to create the elements of the Certified Wildlife Habitat program. (Back then it was just called Backyard Habitat.)
Native Plant Finder
NWF offers Native Plant Finder, a tool developed based on the research of Dr. Doug Tallamy, an author and renowned entomologist who has been a guest on this podcast multiple times to discuss the importance of native plants and their connection to supporting wildlife. Native Plant Finder allows users to search by ZIP code to find plants that host the highest numbers of butterflies and moths to feed birds and other wildlife where they live.
Doug taught Mary, as he has taught many others, that incredible plants co-evolved with certain butterflies and moths to become irreplaceable host plants. NWF has done additional research with pollinator conservationists on the native bees that absolutely depend on certain native plants. These pollen specialist bees will disappear if their flowering host plants are unavailable to them.
Working with Doug in 2016, NWF’s Naomi Edelson was the visionary who dug into the nationwide data to create Native Plant Finder. Not only does it include which native plants to grow, customized by ZIP code, but it also shows which Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) live in each ZIP code. More than 11,000 butterfly and moth species are in the database, along with more than 4,000 plant genera.
Doug has furthered his research by identifying keystone plants, the 14 percent of the plants in a given area that support 90% of the local butterfly and moth species that are essential to the food chain.
“All of this work has increased the interest in native plants,” Mary says, noting that other organizations are working on the same track as NWF.
Garden for Wildlife Native Plant Collections
Working with the National Garden Association, NWF found that in 2019, one in four survey respondents purchased plants specifically to help butterflies, bees and birds. As of last year, it’s now one in three.
The challenge is getting the right plants to people. Amazing Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists have the time to do the work and seek out the right plants for where they live, but it can be a challenge for the average gardener.
Many new gardeners, particularly millennial gardeners, want to do right by the planet but don’t have the time to research the best plants to buy or they just don’t know where to start. “So what we’ve decided to do is really start educating growers and building a grower network based on the science that we have of what plants are so essential and start getting those into the pipeline,” Mary says.
Native plant growers do a lot of wholesale contracts for restoration projects and municipalities as their bread and butter, but there wasn’t much of a market to sell to consumers. The market, predictability and profit just weren’t there for growers.
Garden for Wildlife Native Plant Collections are designed to create grower networks and easily marketable collections that can support high levels of wildlife in specific ecoregions. There are now Garden for Wildlife Native Plant Collections in 36 states, including states east of the Mississippi River and in the Midwest and eastern Texas counties. The ultimate goal is to have collections available to all 50 states.
I’m thrilled that NWF offered me the opportunity to trial some of their plants. It’s amazing what can be done by mail order these days. Healthy, sturdy plants were delivered to me. I potted them up, and they just took off. Some of them are already blooming, and it’s fantastic to see.
NWF’s goal is to include more growers so they can customize some really cool collections for smaller groupings of states, Mary says. The existing collections are sets of plants that are broadly applicable, meaning they are considered native plants in a number of states. As they progress, they want to create native collections that get down to more specific, more local levels.
These collections go through a variety of levels of vetting by NWF scientists. Each collection considers three seasons of blooms, aesthetics, keystone impacts, and other specialist impacts.
There are collections that are great for hummingbirds (Hummingbird Heroes) or great for monarch butterflies (Monarch Munchables) — and these collections help many other species at the same time. Monarch Munchable collections have milkweed, the host plants that monarch caterpillars require, as well as various plants to provide nectar in three seasons. Pollinator Power supports a high number of pollinator species, and Spring Bee Buffett includes a number of spring ephemerals such as wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) which is necessary for the distant mining bee (Andrena distans), and golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) which supports swallowtail butterflies.
Other collections that are now available now or will be soon are designed for songbirds and fireflies.
The plants come in 2-by-2-by-3-inch pots, enclosed in a clamshell container. NWR is exploring options other than plastic clamshells to make the initiative more environmentally sustainable.
Each collection comes with stickers and other fun inserts, plus a QR code that leads to planting tips and digital designs based on growing time and bloom time.
Because these are plants, they will only be ready at certain times and can only ship at certain times, Mary points out. Some people who are used to two-day shipping for nearly everything they order don’t understand this about plants, and explaining that has been one of the challenges NWF faces. NWF will take orders through June and July but will stop shipping in July because it is too hot to be shipping sensitive plants.
If gardeners succeed in planting those collections (they have purchased 10,000 sold since spring 2021) and getting them established, those native plants will set seed and spread, compounding the benefits. NWF knows what ZIP codes all the collections were shipped to, so the organization has an idea of where the effort is making an impact. The goal is to have 1 million collections in the ground by 2027.
Garden for Wildlife Month
This month is the 10th May that NWF has celebrated Garden for Wildlife Month.
NWF chose May because it is when much of the country is in planting season, and it’s when many wildlife species are raising their young. “It’s really important to start planting these plants that are so critical to their survival,” she says.
How the Pandemic Affected Gardens
“About 2 million acres a year are wiped out by development — by us,” Mary says. But, she adds, we have the data and the research that proves we can create pollinator hotspots within communities that will give back some of that lost habitat — food, water, and cover — for these essential plants.
It was moving to see how many people looked to their surroundings and their gardens while being home more often during the pandemic, Mary says. They saw their ability to effect change and were empowered. It led to an influx of interest in NWF, and the garden industry as a whole, in the last two years.
“We felt honored to be able to provide those resources and the stories for people to really do something,” Mary says.
We have lost a staggering number of songbirds in the last 50 years (nearly 3 billion birds) and as more people become attuned to the problem, they realize the significance their gardening decisions have.
“We want to hear from people,” Mary says. “We want to hear their interest, what kind of species they want to help or hope to help.”
NWF also wants to bring more growers on board that are enthusiastic about the mission and that hold to the principles of sustainability.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Mary Phillips. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
How have you changed your garden to help wildlife? Let us know your results and experience in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
Garden for Wildlife Native Plant Collections
Certified Wildlife Habitat – Get certified
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, PittMoss, Territorial Seed Company, and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.