Create a back-yard buffet for birds, bees

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 2012 - 9:06 AM

More gardeners are choosing native plants with an eye to providing habitat for birds and pollinators.

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Michelle Kalantari has replaced all her lawn, front and back, with native plants, to provide habitat for wildlife.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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The landscaping on Michelle Kalantari's small Richfield yard used to be generic: a carpet of turf grass surrounding a couple of small garden beds.

"I was mowing my lawn like everybody else," said Kalantari, a nature photography hobbyist who used to have to go to her cabin or to a public garden to find wildlife.

Not anymore. Now her yard is alive with butterflies, birds and bugs. "I'm amazed how many can find my little Shangri-La -- it's like I'm in a nature preserve," she said.

What's Kalantari's secret? It started with a lightbulb moment several years ago after she planted a single meadow blazing star plant because she liked its purple flower. Like magic, Monarch butterflies started fluttering around it. "Before, they used to fly by," she said. "I realized, 'Oh! I need native plants to attract native birds and insects.'"

So she replaced all of her lawn, first in back, then in front, with mostly native plants, more than 150 different species. Since then, she's never lacked for photographic subjects. "The more variety you have in plants, the more variety you have in things that depend on plants," she said.

Few gardeners go as far as Kalantari, who works for the Nature Conservancy, but a growing number are incorporating native plants into their landscapes. Natives have been identified as a top trend by both the Garden Media Group and the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Minnesota was ahead of the curve, with more native-plant nurseries than most other states, according to Steve Milburn, president of the Minnesota Native Plant Society, a nonprofit devoted to conservation and education. "You do see more interest in native plants, more acceptance and more availability, especially in the Midwest."

Landscape Alternatives, a native-plant nursery near Marine on St. Croix, reports a widening of its customer base since it first opened in 1986. "It's a pretty broad spectrum now, from new homeowners looking for hardy, low-maintenance plants that are attractive to look at and attractive to wildlife, to longtime gardeners looking for something a little different," said co-owner Roy Robison.

Natives are naturally low-maintenance because they've adapted to thrive in local conditions, he said. "It's much easier to keep natives happy. You don't have to be out watering and fertilizing."

Homeowners want to see what native-plant landscapes look like, he said, so his nursery has added demonstration gardens showing landscapes at different stages, from new to mature, at its St. Croix location.

Because most native-plant nurseries, including Out Back Nursery in Hastings, Minnesota Native Landscapes in Otsego and Dragonfly in Amery, Wis., are located on the outskirts of the metro area, a visit requires more time than some homeowners are willing or able to spend, said Karen Eckman of Shoreview, native-plant advocate and educator.

"A bunch of us got so frustrated," she said. "We would teach people about native plants and then they'd go and buy cultivars. When it really struck me was realizing my daughter would have to drive an hour each way to get to one of the native plant companies. I thought, 'Darn, we've got to do something about this.'"

So last year, Eckman and others organized Landscape Revival, a Native Plant Expo & Market in Roseville. It proved so popular that they're doing it again this year, on June 2. Ten organizations will have tables to educate people about the benefits of native plants, Eckman said, and 11 native-plant suppliers will be on hand to sell plants.

Education is important because "there's some bad information out there about what is and isn't a native," Robison said. "If there's a varietal name, like 'Karl Foerster' grass, it's a cultivar or perennial, not a native."

Cultivated varietals are selected or bred for traits to attract humans, such as more flowers, Robison said.

"That usually translates into something that's less attractive to butterflies. It changes the plant at the gene level, and the first thing that goes is the nectar."

Daylilies, for example, are sometimes thought to be native plants because they're easy to grow and low-maintenance. "But they're not going to be a butterfly magnet like meadow blazing star," Robison said.

Some gardeners are wary of native plants because they fear they'll grow shaggy and messy, but that's easily avoided, Robison said.

"That was a common concern a decade ago, but it's about finding the right plant for the right spot," he said. "You can take ornamental grasses that get to 6 feet tall, put them on the boulevard and it looks like a weed patch. But with a little time and effort, it's not a problem."

Kalantari tries to keep her unconventional landscape within neighborhood norms by making it "showy" along the boulevard. "I put in a scalloped rock area for setback, and put zinnias and cosmos [low-growing non-native garden flowers] up front, so it looks like a garden," she said.

She also makes an effort to talk to her neighbors about what she's trying to accomplish, she said. "People would walk by and I'd say, 'Want to see what I did in back? I'm going to do more in front. Come and see the butterflies.' It's important to educate people."

A native-plant landscape may be low-maintenance but it's not maintenance-free, she noted. "I trim shrubs," she said. "I need to keep the gooseberry bushes trimmed because I want to be able to walk to my grill. Every year I do some editing. I may dig something out and give it away."

She bans bunnies from the back yard, using chicken wire, and picks Japanese beetles off her plants. But other than that, all critters are welcome.

She's had to get used to other insects nibbling her plants, she said.

"Your first instinct, when you see a plant being eaten by insects, is to want to stop it. But a plant can lose 25 percent of its leaves and still be fine. It's OK to get eaten. That's why it's there."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

  • Landscape revival: native plant expo & market

    What: An event where visitors can learn about native plants from local conservation organizations and buy Minnesota plants from a variety of local growers.

    When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. June 2.

    Where: Rainbow Foods Community Pavilion, 1201 Larpenteur Av. W., Roseville.

    Admission: Free. For more information, visit www.saintpaulaudubon.org and www.bluethumb.org.

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