The Plant Native

I’m so overwhelmed. How do I start?

Planting a native garden doesn’t require a landscape architecture degree. Don’t be scared by zones, terms like partial shade (or partial sun?!) Don’t worry if your soil is clay or loam.

Here are four easy steps to help get you started. These steps maximize helping butterflies and birds and minimize stress and decision-making. 

STEP ONE

Remove invasive plants

Take a walk around your yard: do you have any invasive plants? Invasive plants are plants that are non-native to your home area, yet thrive in your area. They are so successful at growing and spreading that they need to be removed before they choke out native plants, trees, and wildlife.

Sadly, lots of invasive plants are still used in landscaping. Here are some common invasive plants to remove from our gardens:

  • Butterfly bush. Don’t let the name fool you!
  • English ivy. Unless you are in the UK, this one needs to go.
  • Mondo or Monkey Grass. Super common, super bad.
  • Burning bush. Turns out its red leaves are actually a signifier of danger.

Step Two

Pick a spot + meet the sun

Maybe you already have a spot in mind to plant your native garden, or you’ll replace the invasive you removed with native. If so, you know where to start.

If you don’t know where to plant, go inside and look out the window. Where do you want a gorgeous view? That’s where to start your native plant garden. We spend so much of our lives inside our homes. Pick a spot where you can enjoy the garden from outside and inside, year-round.

Once you’ve found your spot, figure out the sun situation. It’s much easier than it may sound:

  • Full sun = areas that have no trees or buildings around them
  • Partial sun = edge areas: areas on the edges of trees or buildings that are not northern facing
  • Shade = Areas always under trees or buildings, or edge areas that are north-facing


If you’re not sure about the sun, don’t worry! Take a picture of the spot and bring it to your local nursery. The staff will help figure it out.

Step Three

Plant for butterflies

It can be overwhelming to show up to a nursery or plant sale and see hundreds (if not thousands!) of options available. Let’s make it easier. 

Rebecca McMackin, the former director of horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park says it best, “the best thing to do is to plant butterfly host plants.” A host plant is a specific plant that a butterfly lays its eggs on, and its caterpillars eat. Some of us were taught as kids that caterpillars eat lots of different leaves—but that’s actually mostly untrue. Most caterpillars eat only ONE PLANT—their host plant—including beloved favorites like Monarchs.

These singular, special host plants that are the basis of butterfly existence are what you should start planting first. Explore our butterfly plant guide and find your favorites. Once you’ve found a few that you love, bring these to your nursery or plant sale and ask if they have them available.

Step Four

Let’s get planting!

Visit local plant nurseries, plant swaps, and plant sales to find native host plants in your area. Native plants are the secret to cheap (or even free!) gardening. There are so many ways to get free or cheap native plants:

  • Facebook gardening groups: Almost every community or county has native gardening groups on Facebook where gardeners post about giving away plants from their gardens—for free. Search Facebook for gardening groups in your town/city and county. Join and scroll through the posts to see what goodies are available.
  • Master Gardener plant sales: The federal government designates Master Gardeners as highly trained in horticulture; there are Master Gardener groups in almost every county in America. Master Gardener groups across the US host spring plant sales, offering native plants priced as little as $1. Search for ‘Master gardener [insert your county here]‘ to find them!
  • Non-profit/community Plant Sales: Hundreds of arboretums and parks throughout the country host plant sales (typically in the spring and fall) with extremely well-priced native plants. 
  • Local plant nurseries: there are so many local, family-owned nurseries throughout the US that specialize in native plants or have native plants available; their prices range but are often very affordable (especially compared to lawns and non-natives!)

What if you can't find native plants at your local nursery?

Most local nurseries will order specific plants for their customers. And most of the time, they won’t charge extra for the special order, either. Many local nurseries order weekly shipments from larger wholesale sellers. Sometimes all it takes to get a specific native plant is for them to add it to their wholesale order. Speak with a plant nursery staff member to ask about making a custom order of native plants.

Still stuck?

Plant Milkweed!

Milkweed is the host plant for Monarch butterflies. Monarch butterflies are endangered and need milkweed to survive.

Milkweed is native to every state except Alaska and Hawaii.

There are 100+ species of Milkweed native to North America. Visit your local plant nursery; they will most certainly have Milkweed. 

Milkweed is so easy to plant and care for. In return, your yard will instantly be a nursery for monarch butterflies. If you’re feeling paralyzed with decisions (it happens to us all!), it’s a no-brainer to start with Milkweed.

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