5 Reasons Why You Should Landscape Your Yard or Garden with Colorado Native Plants

Posted by Susan Quinlan, JAX Conservation Manager | 04.04.2019


Showy Fleabane photo credit: Susan Quinlan, JAX Conservation Manager


It’s about that time of year to start planning your garden. Did you know that the plants you use can make an impact on the local population of songbirds, bees, and butterflies?


Wildlife biologist and conservation manager at JAX, Susan Quinlan explains why native plant landscaping is beneficial for Colorado residents.


Colorado is Facing Solvable Ecological Problems

It’s no secret that populations of many birds, butterflies, bees and other insects are declining rapidly. In 2016, biologists listed 82 North American bird species endangered and 432 species with seriously declining populations.1 Recent estimates indicate that North America’s breeding bird populations have decreased by 1.5 billion birds in the past 40 years alone.2


Insect populations are also declining. Populations of the well-known Monarch Butterfly have decreased by over 90% in just the past twenty years.3 While the populations of most other butterflies and insects are not well monitored, recent research suggests that insect populations worldwide may be declining at the rate of 2.5% per year. Some scientists even predict the loss of 40% of insect species worldwide within the next few decades.4


More research is needed to determine exactly what is happening, but declining insect populations pose a potentially dire situation. About 75% of flowering plants, including over one-third of the food plants needed by people, depend on insects for pollination.5 Without pollinators, these plants won’t produce fruits or seeds. A host of animals in addition to birds feed mainly on insects including frogs, toads, lizards, snakes, shrews, bats, and most predatory invertebrates such as dragonflies, spiders, and centipedes. Consequently, the disappearance of insects threatens dramatic and devastating changes to almost all of Earth’s ecosystems.


Restoring Nature One Yard at a Time

Many factors play a role, but one of the most critical problems facing populations of both birds and insects is loss of habitat. That means there is something that every one of us can do to help make a positive difference—start gardening and landscaping with native plants!


Grass lawns cover more acreage in the United States than any other human-grown crop. These vast expanses of green Kentucky bluegrass (a plant that is actually from Asia, not Kentucky!) provide almost no habitat value for birds or pollinators. Imagine how much of a difference it would make if we simply used native plants on our lawns instead?



Desert Four O'clock photo credit: Susan Quinlan, JAX Conservation Manager


#1 – Native Plants Provide Habitat for Pollinators

Most of our beautiful flower gardens, and even many of the shrubs and trees in our yards, don’t provide habitat for wildlife because the majority of plants most of us are growing are non-native. With petunias from South America, forsythia from China, ice plants and geraniums from Africa, and lilac bushes from Europe, our gardens are filled with a mishmash of beautiful, but foreign plants. Unfortunately, these exotic plant species are inedible for local wildlife, and in some cases deadly poisonous, for our native insects and birds.


There are all kinds of native plants that are just as beautiful, but still provide shelter and nourishment for our native insects and birds.


#2 – Native Plants Provide Critical Nesting Habitat for Songbirds

Many adult songbirds feed mainly on insects. Even hummingbirds, which we think of as primarily nectar feeders, require a diet made up of 80% insects. More critically, 96% of America’s songbird species can only raise young if the adults are able to find enough caterpillars and other insects to feed their young.


A single pair of chickadees must gather 6000 to 9000 caterpillars during the 16 days it takes to raise a single clutch of baby chickadees! That’s a lot of caterpillars. If the parents can’t find enough caterpillars to feed their chicks, the baby birds soon starve.


If we want to continue to hear the melodies of songbirds in our own Colorado backyard, we have got to start providing more habitat for caterpillars and other insects. Approximately 90% of insects are only able to eat and survive on the native plants with which they have co-existed for thousands or millions of years.


Like the monarch butterfly—which requires milkweed plants for its caterpillars—the majority of butterflies, moths, bees, beetles, and other herbivorous insects need specific kinds of plants to survive and reproduce.


If we want our songbirds to have enough food to raise their young, and we want to continue to have butterflies and bees around to pollinate our flowers and food crops, we need to start growing more native North American plants and fewer exotic species.


#3 – Native Plants Require Less Water and Less Maintenance

Growing native plant species isn’t difficult for beginner gardeners and offers many benefits for gardeners of all skill levels. Native plants are those that have naturally grown in the wild places around us for millenia, and because they’ve lived here for so long, these plants are well adapted to our local climate—the winds, temperature variations, poor soil, and low levels of precipitation.


Once established, native plants need a lot less care than a Kentucky bluegrass lawn or a garden of exotic plants. Instead of having to continually water and fertilize them, native trees, shrubs, and flowering plants can survive and flourish with comparatively little care.



Gayefeather photo credit: Kate Hogan, Audubon of the Rockies


#4 – Landscaping with Native Plants Maintains a Sense of Place

Native plants can also help create a sense of place. Colorado is a naturally beautiful and biological diverse state, so why would we plant a garden that looks like it belongs in Great Britain or southeast Asia? We don't live in New England, so it doesn’t make sense to fill our gardens and yards with plants that do best in a cool, wet New England climate.

Plants adapted to our soils, cold, dry winters, summer rains and heat survive better with much less effort and expense. Landscaping with native plants helps create a natural western look to our lands. Drought-tolerant plants like yucca, apache plume, and rabbitbrush naturally flourish here in Colorado and a host of native wildflowers can provide striking natural beauty without the need for extensive maintenance and the high costs of watering.


Instead of growing roses and petunias, consider growing chocolate flowers, penstemons, and wild asters to create a yard that looks and feels like our beautiful state of Colorado.


#5 – Landscaping with Native Plants Supports Local, Colorado Businesses

Finding native plants to grow can be a challenge as most greenhouses and plant nurseries still sell mainly exotic species. As a locally-owned Colorado company, JAX is aiming to help solve this problem and support native plant landscaping. That's why you'll find several kinds of native grass and wildflower seeds in our stores. JAX also carries nursery stock of several kinds of native Colorado trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. We hope you will shop local and plant local. 



Rocky Mountain Penstemons photo credit: Donna Baker, Audubon of the Rockies


Tips for Planning Your Native Landscape Project


Use a Variety of Native Plants

Over the long term, you will want to include a good variety of native plants in your yard from trees and shrubs to flowering plants. Offering a diversity of plants is important because different insect species need different kinds of plants. Also, different species of native plants bloom at different times, offer different kinds of cover for insects and birds, and may flourish or languish in years with differing weather patterns.


By offering a variety of plants in your yard, you will provide better habitat for more species of insects and birds. You can find more information about choosing native plants at the websites appended to this article.


Limit planting these non-native plants found in your garden that aren’t beneficial to local wildlife:


- Lilacs

- Petunias

- Forsythia

- Tulips

- Roses

- Daffodils

- Geraniums

- Kentucky Bluegrass


Instead, plant these native Colorado plants found at JAX Ranch & Home stores* that support the natural habitats of songbirds and pollinators:


- Purple Prairie Clover

- Showy Fleabane

- Sulfur Flower

- Native Blanket Flower

- Maximilian Flower

- Dotted Blazing Star

- Blue Flax

- Black-eyed Susan

- Palmer’s Penstemon


*Selection varies based on location. If you are looking for a specific plant variety, call the store to see if it is available at your nearest location.


Establish Roots

Getting the plants established requires some initial intensive care. Though many native species require less water to survive, they have to first get their roots established deep in the soil.

Spreading wildflower seeds in fall or late winter will help ensure they will sprout in spring and have enough moisture to get established. Covering the seeds with burlap or pea gravel and keeping the soil moist for a few months will increase survival of the seedlings. Keep the soil around nursery starts moist for the first year or two after planting. Gravel mulch or burlap can help retain moisture, but avoid wood chip mulch as natural chemicals that leach from the wood tends to discourage native plants.


Signs of Flourishing Life

When growing a landscape of native plants, the goal is to create natural beauty and provide a home for birds and insects. If you see chew holes in the leaves of your plants, that is a good sign—not an indication that you need to spray! Those holes indicate the presence of caterpillars which means your yard is starting to provide habitat for butterflies, other pollinators, and songbirds. Pesticide use can hurt local insect and bird populations, so avoid using these chemicals.


Care for Your Colorado Backyard

Forty million acres of comparatively barren green lawns in the United States alone are soaking up water while providing almost no habitat for birds or insects. If enough of us design our yards and gardens using patches or expanses of native plants, we can help ensure a future for our songbirds, butterflies, and bees. Every single yard will help by providing a little more usable habitat.


So, what would it look like if those 40 million acres were transformed back into thriving habitats for our songbirds and pollinators?


The answer to that question is up to you.



About the Author

Susan E. Quinlan is a wildlife biologist, who has worked for many years as a field biologist and outdoor educator. Her love of nature comes from many years spent hiking, camping and exploring outdoors, both as a child and later as an adult.




Learn More About Susan Quinlan or find one of her latest books.



Find the next free or low-cost class on native plant landscaping and beekeeping offered at your local JAX!


Learn more about native plants, seeds, and nursery stock* available this year at Colorado JAX Ranch & Home stores.


*Selection varies based on location. If you are looking for a specific plant variety, call the store to see if it is available at your nearest location.



More Resources for Native Plant Gardeners

Plants Associated with Specific Caterpillars

Plants Used by Specific Birds

What Kinds of Native Plants to Grow Along the Front Range of Colorado

The Differing Values of Native Versus Non-native Plants to Insects









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