Restoring habitats one native plant at a time
We’ve been talking a lot about biodiversity loss in Fieldnotes — about how human activities across Canada are destroying habitats and causing dramatic declines in caribou, bees and other species. For many of us, it’s hard to know how to engage with such a big crisis on our own.
But programs like In the Zone prove that there are things that you can do right from home. Things that will help declining species discover new habitat where they can find food, mate and raise their young. These things start in your garden, including container gardens and community gardens. Through the simple act of choosing native plants for your front yard, back yard or balcony, you can help bring back local wildlife.
So, what are native plants anyway? They’re plants that naturally grow in a particular geographic region. Since they’re suited to the local conditions — think temperature, sunlight, soil, precipitation — they flourish without much maintenance. It also means they provide food and shelter for local insects and birds, bolstering the entire ecosystem, which then becomes the foundation of a healthy food web. And when we work together to create a whole community of native plant gardens, we create habitat networks for wildlife so they can move around freely.
Native plants also help communities adapt to some of the effects of climate change — their deeper root systems provide resiliency and absorb more water from flooding. Plus, if they’re taken care of properly, they’ll grow every year, minimizing the amount of work you have to do — and putting some of that hard-earned gardening money back in your pocket.
Finally, native plants are beautiful. People tend to think of exotic species as vibrant and colourful, but species like wild columbine or harebell will make your garden stand out. No matter where you live in Canada, there are plants native to your region. And now that we’re heading into what is (hopefully) really spring, it’s the perfect time to start planning out your own garden.
Nature to the rescue
The UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration begins next year, and restoring nature is a solution that addresses both biodiversity loss and climate change.
In response to the growing urgency around these issues, WWF-Canada and Carolinian Canada co-hosted Nature Works! Restoring our Future by 2030 on March 11. This third annual forum of our Shifting the Paradigm series featured experts from diverse fields, communities and cultures — scientists, Indigenous leaders, activists, academics, government officials and corporate reps — exploring nature-based solutions to these dual crises.
Forum participants discussed strategies to speed up and scale up these efforts, ranging from natural infrastructure, native habitats and carbon sink restoration to growing the green economy, urban and rural collaboration and, of course, the importance of citizen action.
Q&A: Building a mosaic of native gardens
Getting involved with conservation doesn’t have to be daunting. We asked Sarah Winterton, WWF-Canada’s director of Nature Connected Communities, our citizen-based programs, about how and why you should get involved with native plants.
Why can’t we just buy any old plant even if it’s not native to our area?
Native plants have evolved alongside native wildlife, and they need each other to survive and thrive. These relationships are thousands of years old and cannot be easily replaced once broken. Native plants directly provide food or places to build nests — they essentially ensure the survival of both the plant and the animal.
And while some non-native plants aren’t necessarily problematic, they take up space without providing much value for local wildlife. Other non-native plants are invasive and can destroy habitat. If you’ve never heard about the invasive Phragmites, for example, look it up online and you’ll suddenly notice it all over southern Ontario. It’s destroying shorelines and outcompeting diverse wetland plants.
The In the Zone program is all about getting people to plant native plants in their gardens, communities, and even on their balconies. How did this program come about?
This program started as a collaboration with Carolinian Canada when we were looking for practical ways to engage people and make a difference. It was all right there in the stats: the Carolinian Zone in southern Ontario is a hotspot for biodiversity. One third of Canada’s species at risk live there, but it’s also home to 25 per cent of the human population. Humans have changed the landscape here significantly, especially over the last 40–50 years.
We’ve pushed a lot of native plants and animals out, and it’s hard to bring them back because most of this area is also privately owned. The program really encourages people to restore nature on their own property. It’s a practical and fun thing people can do: to turn their properties into flourishing ecosystems.
What’s the easiest way for people to start transforming their gardens, whether they’re new gardeners or have just never gardened with native plants?
It’s very simple. You can start by just introducing one native plant into your garden. The In the Zone website has resources to help you get started, from helping you understand what types of plants work best in your local conditions to telling you where you can buy locally sourced plants. You don’t have to go through a massive garden transformation, though of course you can, if you’d like. Just one or two native plants can make a difference.
Can a single native plant garden really have an impact on biodiversity?
Yes! There are so many species that rely on native plants — insects, moths, butterflies, birds — so anything helps. Most of these animals spend their time looking for habitat and food, so finding a native plant is like hitting the jackpot. We have anecdotes from gardeners who see native bees and monarch butterflies minutes after adding even one native plant to their garden.
Ideally, we’re hoping that one native plant garden becomes many, and that we build a mosaic of gardens, because lots of animals rely on connected habitats to survive. What we’re really trying to do is grow Canada’s biggest wildlife garden and increase how much habitat is available for wildlife.
Meet a Scientist
Pete Ewins — Lead Specialist, Species Conservation
Pete joined WWF-Canada in 1996 and led WWF’s Arctic conservation work from 2000–2006. As Lead Specialist, Pete’s work centres on flagship species conservation in globally significant regions, accelerating the recovery of Species at Risk, and increasing the connection of urban citizens to wildlife species. He is very active with the Nature Connected Communities program, inspiring native plant habitat restoration in gardens and other private and public spaces within urban communities.
“With the dual crises of biodiversity loss and climate change, grassroots practical habitat restoration initiatives like In the Zone are what people want to do in order to help in very practical and meaningful ways that all add up to restoring their children’s future!”