The growing interest in wildlife gardening is driven by the escalating biodiversity crisis, in particular, the well-documented risk to bees and other pollinators.
As we all know, the loss of pollinators is a considerable risk to food security.
We need to reduce and change our use of pesticides but also provide trees, shrubs, flowers and water to encourage pollinators to thrive.
But it’s not only pollinators at risk.
Increased urbanisation, urban density and extreme weather are placing continuing pressure on urban nature.
Creating wildlife-friendly gardens in our backyards and apartment balconies is important to increase habitats for birds, reptiles, insects and small mammals.
A common question is what kind of plants should you grow in your backyard for biodiversity?
Native vs Indigenous vs Endemic Plants
If you’re looking to attract native wildlife and improve biodiversity in your garden, it’s recommended to grow plants that originated in your local area, essentially replicating the original ecosystems by providing food and shelter for wildlife.
It’s not an easy thing and to be honest, it is rarely achievable but it’s an admirable goal.
You can do this by planting trees, shrubs and ground covers that are native, indigenous or endemic to your specific neighbourhood.
What is the difference between native, indigenous and endemic plants?
There is some debate regarding definitions and native and indigenous are often used interchangeably, but in general:
- Native plants are ones that occur naturally in a particular region without human intervention. For example, a plant might be native to the United States or Australia.
- Indigenous plants are also ones that occur naturally but in a localised geographical area, so for example a plant species might be indigenous to the coastal area of Seattle. You might find these plants elsewhere but they originated in one specific area and are therefore indigenous to that original area.
- Endemic plants occur naturally in a limited area and nowhere else, like those you find in biodiversity hotspots.
Plant Selection for Wildlife Gardens
If you live in an area where you find endemic species, it’s important to conserve these species to maintain biodiversity, especially in a changing climate.
If you have unique species in your garden, you may be able to propagate them or collect the seeds for friends or neighbours or simply grow more yourself.
However, you might want to check with your local council before doing this as some species are protected.
The next best option is to grow indigenous plant species.
Again, your local council is a great resource for finding out which plants are local to your neighbourhood and which should be given priority for biodiversity conservation.
If you have a native garden nursery nearby, these are also valuable for not only finding information but to get the plants yourself.
Otherwise, online social media groups and marketplaces can be useful if you’re looking for a specific plant.
If you can’t find plants originating from your specific geographical location or you just want more variety, then plants that are native to your broader region are best.
Just be aware that some natives can be considered invasive species when grown in different locations or climates. Check carefully before you buy.
Your final option is exotic plants which shouldn’t be ruled out as part of a successful garden and these plants can often support native wildlife as well as provide food and aesthetic greening.
I’m an advocate of edible gardens and fruits and vegetables are often non-native.
You can read more about edible gardens and sustainable urban gardening.
Growing your own food can be therapeutic and it is shown to contribute to improved health, wellbeing and mood.
Vegetable gardening is also a great step to becoming more self-sufficient and frugal, especially if you can grow from seeds or cuttings.
So if you want fruit trees and a veggie patch then go for it.
What about ornamental exotics?
In my opinion, there is no reason not to grow non-native ornamentals, so long as they aren’t invasive species.
But I do think everyone should plant at least some native species.
If you love ornamentals and can’t go without them in your garden, I suggest setting aside a section of your garden as a wildlife garden with indigenous or native plants and then another section with everything else.
Give priority to indigenous and native species and look to include as much diversity as possible.
Should You Replace Non-Natives?
It’s best to avoid cutting down established trees or large shrubs with the intention of replacing them with natives.
Many trees are very slow-growing and provide valuable shade and air filtering benefits.
Please don’t remove these unless they are invasive.
Invasive plants are weeds that you definitely don’t want in your garden.
Weeds typically spread quickly and can overtake native species if not kept under control.
Note that native plants can also be considered weeds.
For example, a plant that grows in harmony with others might reproduce rapidly and crowd out indigenous plants elsewhere.
Plants in a Changing Climate
Unfortunately, as our climate changes, some indigenous and native plant species can no longer survive or thrive in their original locations.
There is debate regarding whether or not to plant native species in these cases.
Some scientists believe we should continue to plant natives no matter what.
Others are more pragmatic, accepting it’s best to plant species that will do best under these changed conditions.
The choice is yours on how you tackle this issue.
Maybe grow a combination of natives but accept that it might be prudent to plant non-natives which are well adapted to projected changes.
As our climate changes, we may have to accept that many of these endemic and indigenous species will be lost from their original locations and potentially face extinction.