So You Have Your List of Native Plants. Now What?

Doing a little prep and research before you go to the nursery will save headaches and ensure you build the best habitat possible.

Okay, so you’ve taken the first step and learned which plants are native to your area by using our native plants database. Next you just have to narrow down your options and puzzle together the perfect backyard masterpiece. Don’t worry—you won’t have to go it alone. We’ve put together some guidelines for choosing the plants that will max out your garden’s bird-friendliness. Print out your Audubon list of recommended plants, grab a notebook, and follow these easy steps below.

Get to Know Your Space

Not all the plants on your list will thrive—or fit—in your garden. But by taking a closer look at your yard’s environment, you can choose a mix that will stay healthy and cater to a variety of native bird needs for years. Head out to your yard and answer these questions:

  1. Plants are usually labeled as growing best in full-sun, partial shade, or full shade. How much of the planting area is covered in shade? Is it shaded all-day, only sometimes, or never at all?

  2. How damp is the soil? Do you have to water frequently to keep grass alive? Does the soil remain wet for long periods of time?

  3. What is your soil type? Is it light and full of sand or heavy with clay? Is it almost black, like peaty soil, or is it very smooth, like silt soil? (If you’re not sure, don’t worry. Many plants do well in a variety of soils, and a local nursery may be able to advise on this.)

For more details on assessing your yard, keep reading here.

Pick Your Plants

Now it’s time to decide what you will plant and where. If you have space for just a couple pots or plantings, this may be simple. If you have more room, think about creating a habitat to provide food and shelter for both resident and migrating birds throughout the year. Take a look at your options. Do the plants on your list provide nectar, fruit, or nuts at different times of the year? Are there shrubs or trees where birds can nest, as well as annuals, perennials, and groundcover? (Learn more strategies for creating a bird-friendly yard here. Or if you are creating a container garden on a balcony or patio, get some tips here.) Take a look at your plant list and see what plants will best provide for your birds, and fit the conditions of your space.

For further research, you can check the online databases offered by the USDA or the National Gardening Association for information about bloom and fruiting time, growing seasons, or full-grown plant dimensions. If you would like more than what these two sites provide, you can fill in some gaps by searching online.

Plan Out Your Garden

Now it’s time start planning your garden. Head back outside and draw up your plot on paper, using circles to represent individual plants. Imagine what your garden will look like and see what will best fit in your space. Remember that plants grow! Erin Reed, education manager for the Patterson Park Audubon Center, says it’s crucial to consider your surroundings. Native plants have a tendency to spread, often rapidly, so your garden may affect your living space or neighbor's yard. “As opposed to just going to your nursery and picking what’s prettiest, know what plants make the most sense,” Reed says. On your yard and garden map, she suggests creating a crossing out the areas where you want to walk or do activities.

As for the beds themselves, try not to overcrowd the plants, and if you’re choosing any perennials—ones that come back each year on their own—Reed suggests “planting in masses” of five plants or more to make for a more attractive look and create a more successful habitat (pollinators prefer to feed from clumps of the same flower). Aim for a range of plant heights, colors, and textures; diversity is key. Usually it works best to keep larger plants in the back of a border or plot, and smaller plants in front.

Decide When to Plant

When you are happy with your layout, choose the best time to plant. The hottest days of summer can be a challenge for young plants, so try to avoid those. Nurseries offer a wide selection of flowering plants in spring, though perennials may be discounted in the fall, which is when trees and shrubs do particularly well. Winter planting is possible, too, if you’re in the South or on the West Coast. That’s also when wildflower seeds are likely to be less expensive. Once you have your ideal map of different species laid out and know when you want to plant, call your local nurseries.

Call the Nursery Ahead of Time

Look to your Audubon native plants database Local Resources list to see which nurseries  near you are recommended. If you don’t have any recommended nurseries nearby, other local nurseries may be able to help. Additionally, because nurseries aren’t always knowledgeable about native plants, Kristin Lamberson and Mitch Robinson, the native plant specialist and conservation education and land manager at Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, respectively, also suggest asking your local nature center or Audubon center about the bird-friendly plants that grow best in your area or neighborhood.

Before going over, give the nursery a ring and find out:

  1. Do they have the plants you’re looking for? If not now, when might they have them available?

  2. If they don’t have the exact plant you’re looking for, they may offer cultivars of the type you want. While the original species is always best, cultivars, or versions bred for a couple specific traits, can sometimes be a fine substitute. It’s best to avoid hybrids with non-native species. Read more on the topic here.

  3. Are any of the plants treated with systemic pesticides like neonicotinoids? Systemic treatments dissolve in water and get absorbed into the plant itself, instead of just coating the plant’s surface. Such chemicals can be harmful to both insects and birds, so they should be avoided. Read more here.

If the nursery offers the pesticide-free plants you’re looking for, head on over.

Once You’re at the Nursery

Start scoping for the plants you want to include in your yard. If you find other options from your list and realize you want to change up your plan a little, that’s okay. You might end up making a few trips to and from the nursery, bringing things home, and seeing where they fit to build the right assortment of plant diversity.

If you need some more help navigating this process, see our FAQs and another short article on the topic. Otherwise, get planting!