Updated: Oct 5
An animal, plant, or other organism living in its “natural” range — that is, the ecosystem in which it evolved and for which it is specially adapted to survive — is considered native. For example: piping plovers nesting on the shores of Lake Michigan, purple coneflowers growing in Midwestern prairies.
Those organisms living in an area where they were not naturally found, typically introduced by humans — intentionally or otherwise — are called non-native, or sometimes "exotic" species. For example: peach trees, which originated in China; house sparrows, which originated in the Middle East.
A non-native species that spreads aggressively through an ecosystem, causing ecological, environmental, and/or economic harm, is considered invasive. For example: Asian carp, currently pushing up the Mississippi River basin towards Lake Michigan; garlic mustard, which was introduced from Europe and disrupts the understory of American forest ecosystems.
Parkways for Pollinators: A program to transform public parkways into natural spaces for pollinator forage and habitat, including efforts to remediate soil and capture carbon.
Andersonville Native Plant Planters Program: In collaboration with business stakeholders, we're growing native plants in dozens of planters along Clark St. in the Andersonville area, and embedding educational resources into the plantings.
Benefits of a Native Garden
Requires less maintenance: Since native plants are well-adapted to local conditions and wildlife, they more readily thrive (once established) without human interventions such as fertilizer, pesticides, and watering. This saves you time, effort, and money! Native plants are generally easy to grow and resilient to adverse conditions, so you can enjoy them year after year with minimal fuss.
Reduces flooding and erosion from stormwater: Most of the native plants in this starter kit grow deep roots, which means they can soak up and store lots of water from the soil, like a sponge. This helps to reduce flooding from storms — and takes pressure off Chicago’s sewer system! It also prevents soil erosion, since the root systems better hold fertile topsoil in place.
Beautifies your neighborhood: Native plants come in a diverse mix of shapes, colors, configurations, and vibes. They provide a variety of blooms from spring to fall, not to mention interesting textures and colors during the winter — they’re much more interesting than turf grass! Some have lovely aromas, too, that entice your other senses.
Improves biodiversity and environmental health: Local wildlife require suitable habitats in which to feed, shelter, and mate, and many are specially adapted to the conditions afforded by native plants. In urban settings, native gardens are essential destinations for all sorts of critters — especially pollinators like birds, bees, and butterflies. Native plants also help to improve soil quality, regulate local climate, and reduce the prevalence of toxic chemicals in the environment.
Promotes sustainable stewardship of nature: Though we sometimes forget it, humans are intrinsically connected to and dependent upon our natural environment. Cultivating and maintaining a native garden fosters a deeper connection to the land, enriches your sense of place, and provides an instructive example in achieving success through balance and diversity.
Establishing a Native Garden
Variety: Select seeds for particular sun exposure levels, medium to dry soils, and various desirable traits such as hardiness and pollinator-friendliness. Seed germination can be unpredictable, and even after sprouting, certain species may do better or worse than others depending on the specific conditions of the planting site. In short, each native garden’s plant variety will be unique — and that’s okay! If by chance, your garden comes out unusually unbalanced, you should feel empowered to supplement the original plantings with new ones.
Development: Patience is key! Native plants typically prioritize root growth before blooms, so they may take a couple of seasons to become established and show their full potential.
Season 1: Wildflower seedlings will emerge in springtime as the soil warms, but they’ll grow low to the ground and few will bloom. Remember that most of the action is taking place underground! Weeds may out-grow the native plants, so you’ll have to keep them under control.
Season 2: Wildflowers will grow faster, larger, and denser this season; many will bloom, and some prolifically. Grasses may still be a bit under-developed. Weeds should be much less of a problem.
Season 3: If all goes well, you will see a dense and diverse mixture of wildflowers blooming from spring through fall, drawing a variety of pollinators to your garden. Grasses will fill in gaps and clump together, providing cover for more wildlife.
Maintenance: Once established, native gardens are very low-maintenance, but they do require some care and attention in their first couple of seasons to get going. Early on, the most important thing is to ensure that the plants get enough water by giving them a soak once or twice a week (unless nature obliges with a decent rain). Controlling/removing weeds during the first two seasons is also crucial, as it will reduce competition for resources and allow the native plants to thrive. Longer-term, some amount of trimming may be required, but that’ll depend on your aesthetic tastes and how well the plants take to your site.
Where to Buy Supplies
Gethsemane Garden Center: Family-owned and -operated gardening store located in Andersonville, stocked with a huge variety of plants, seeds, soil supplies, gardening tools, and more. Probably has what you need, but is a bit expensive.
Prairie Friends: Up-and-coming native plant nursery located here in Edgewater — owned and operated by an EEC member!
Native Plant Nurseries list, assembled by the Illinois Native Plant Society
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Get RainReady with Native Plants (pdf) guide
The Field Museum’s Planting Your Native Garden
Wild Ones nonprofit, promoting sustainable landscaping practices and the preservation, restoration, and establishment of native plant communities
Collecting Native Seed guide by the US Forest Service
Join a community of gardeners and naturalists to explore, share, and identify observations with this iNaturalist Project Page