Creating Water and Wildlife-Friendly Gardens with Native Plants

I met a rabbit with a moustache yesterday. He hopped up to me as I sat on the ground in the garden, coming so close that I almost expected him to climb into my lap and snuggle down for a nap. Perhaps he wondered what I was doing in his garden (our garden?) or why it was that I’d finally stopped moving, talking, and constantly bustling about.

This isn’t my mustachioed friend, but it could be a future friend.

There is a saying, “If nothing is eating your garden, then it isn’t part of the ecosystem.” It is a simple concept, and yet sometimes difficult for our inner Mr. McGregors to handle. In our developed areas, however, yards and gardens can help to form critical habitat connections for birds, bees, fox, and even mustachioed rabbits.

One simple way to improve the habitat value of your gardens is to begin incorporating plants, shrubs, and trees that are native to Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Native plants are adapted to our northern climate, tend to have deep roots that help them to soak up rain and withstand drought, and have co-evolved to provide food for native bees, birds, butterflies and mammals without suffering too much from these nibbles and munches.

Monarch butterflies require milkweed to feed their caterpillars. Other insects have similar relationships with native plants.

In contrast, many plants sold at garden stores have been bred to look pretty without actually providing ecosystem benefits. To create an anthropomorphic metaphor, we’re building gardens out of Diet Coke and sugar-free gum, when our wildlife actually need nourishing meals with protein, vitamins, and healthy fats.

The best place to start as you dip your toes into the realm of native plant gardening is with a native tree or shrub that can act as an anchor species. If there is room to go big, bur oak, white oak, black cherry, red maple, sugar maple, white pine, or paper birch are great for birds and other wildlife. Good options for small trees and shrubs include chokecherry, wild plum, hawthorn, hazelnut, serviceberry, pagoda dogwood, red-osier dogwood, and nannyberry.

Native trees, such as chokecherry, wild plum, and crabapple act as an anchor for wildlife-friendly gardens and offer early season nectar for pollinators in the spring.

From there, you can begin building outwards, replacing areas of unused turf with native plants and adding native flowers into existing gardens. The Blue Thumb – Planting for Clean Water program offers a wealth of online resources for gardeners, including a “plant finder” tool that can help you to identify native plants for sun, shade, wet, and dry soils ( You can also find a list of native plant retailers in Minnesota and western Wisconsin in the resources section of the Wild Ones – Twin Cities website (

In Washington County, sign up for a free site visit to get advice on conservation projects and learn about stewardship grants in your area: