Wayne Oliver, owner of River Bend Gardens in Washtenaw County, has a home garden in Farmington Hills full of native Michigan plants. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Oliver)
Wayne Oliver, owner of River Bend Gardens in Washtenaw County, has a home garden in Farmington Hills full of native Michigan plants. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Oliver)

Plants native to your local ecosystem are good for animals, insects, and the environment — oh, and they’re way easier to care for. Here’s how to get them in your yard.

MICHIGAN — Whether you’re a seasoned grower or a newbie to the world of seed starters and soil, home gardening is an excellent way to catch some rays and keep busy during the lazy days of this socially distant summer. 

But one question for ’Ganders bringing green to their garden beds, patios, windowboxes, more: Did you know that if you take care to select plants native to Michigan for your garden, they’ll be easier to take care of and they’ll make a more positive impact on the local ecosystem? 

It’s not difficult to start a native Michigan garden, either. If you’re looking to pick up a new hobby that’ll get you outdoors, to get connected with nature, or just get some beautiful things springing up outside your abode, we’ve got tips from local experts on how to get started. 

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Wayne Oliver’s home garden in Farmington Hills is made up of native Michigan plants worked into perennial beds. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Oliver)

How Does Your Garden Grow? A Beginner’s Guide to Native Michigan Gardening 

Oakland County resident Wayne Oliver is an accountant by trade, but he said he’s been a gardener his whole life. 

“I slowly got into naturalizing and doing things that were more productive for native species and insects, and one thing just led to another,” he said. 

Last year, Oliver and his wife Julie established River Bend Gardens, a 65-acre private botanical garden and aviary in Washtenaw County dedicated to restoring an oak opening and preserving native Michigan species in their natural habitats. 

While they’re hoping someday to accept visitors to River Bend Gardens’ natural plant communities, Oliver provided The ’Gander with info on how people can take a similar initiative at home. 

Where to Start: Hit the Books

His first suggestion? Get educated on naturalization. 

Oliver recommended starting with Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy. (For a more concise read, another local source recommended Tallamy’s second book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard.) 

“Douglas’ book is amazing for anyone that wants to really go into what the benefits [of naturalization] are,” Oliver said. “You know, a ginkgo tree is a very common tree we plant in suburban America, but there’s only about four species that can actually use the ginkgo tree as a food source. But an oak tree, there’s almost 450 species that can use an oak tree as food. So that’s the difference between an ornamental and native species.” 

Online Databases and Local Sales: Where to Find Plants for Your Ecosystem

Next, Oliver said, look for resources from your county conservation district as you decide which plants you want to bring home. 

“In Michigan, we have fantastic resources like the Michigan State University Natural Features Inventory,” he said. “That’s a fantastic resource to understand the natural community where your home is.

“Another resource is the University of Michigan. They have the Michigan Flora Database. So you can go in there and put whatever county you live in, and it will spit out a list of all the native plants for your county. And you can get even more specifically into what type of natural community you’re in, and you can get the information and what would be found in your backyard.” 

Native ostrich ferns and purple iris soak up the sun in Oliver’s garden. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Oliver)

Getting Your Hands Dirty

After that? If you’ve already got a home with beds, just jump in, Oliver said. 

“County conservation districts typically will have native plant sales, and that’s probably the most tangible resource for most people spread all over the state,” he said. 

Seeing as these sorts of sales may be on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, you can also contact your local nursery and see if you can arrange a pickup. Oliver said he’s currently getting his plants from Wildtype Native Plant Nursery in Mason.

“I would say just buy a flat of some natives and sink them in your garden and get started,” Oliver said. “There’s really nothing holding you back other than just becoming aware of the huge, huge benefits of converting your beds and putting in natives.” 

And those huge benefits really are boundless. 

“There are so many more benefits to the native plants that you just don’t get from the ornamentals,” he said. “It starts to really bring your yard alive, and you’ll see more life in your yard than you would typically otherwise see. It’s an amazing transformation.” 

There’s pragmatic reasons people should be planting natives as opposed to ornamentals too, Oliver said.

“The native plants are accustomed to our environment and our rainfall and our climate, so they require less maintenance,” he said. “Actually, they require less watering. And if you set your garden up correctly, they require no additional watering. The other aspect of them is that they’re more disease- and pest-resistant. … So there’s those types of tangible benefits to planting natives, that they just aren’t as tender and don’t require as much nursing along.”

While native plants are heartier than ornamentals in their natural environment, gardening remains a skill. For beginners just starting to flex their green thumb, Oliver said his biggest single line of advice is just keep trying. 

“I think part of it is knowing the plant and knowing the soil types and where they would prefer to be,” he said, “and some of it can be just trial and error. Sometimes you read all the books and then you stick something in to start where it’s not supposed to be and it goes crazy. … Just keep trying.”

Browse more photos from Wayne Oliver’s garden:

Need Help With Your Home Garden? This Company’s Bringing Native Plants to the People

But if you’re looking for some more hands-on support as you embark on growing your native Michigan garden, one local community-based landscaping company’s got your back. 

Through crowdfunding, education, and the dedicated work of the Ann Arbor family behind the business, Adapt is building native plant and food gardens on small parcels of privately and publicly owned land — for free. 

“Adapt got started over the winter,” said William Kirst, who founded and runs the effort with his wife, Nell. “Many years ago I worked for the City of Ann Arbor Natural Area Preservation doing ecological restoration in the city’s natural areas.” 

Kirst got started building gardens for people through that work, then took some time off to raise his kids and play music. A few years ago, he said, he started building gardens again, and he started Adapt because he’s “ideologically driven to restore ecosystems.” 

“The crisis of biodiversity and extinction is terrifying to me,” he said, “and I feel like it should be to everybody else. … I think that the important work needs to get done, but unfortunately this kind of work, landscaping with native plants, requires a great deal of education and experience. 

“With that feeling in mind and doing it kind of professionally where I charge people a lot of money to do this, it was getting really frustrating because all I could do was do this service for wealthy people. And it felt like it needed to be out there for more people. So my wife and I were talking about it a lot over the last fall and winter, and we were like, ‘We just gotta do it for free.’” 

Photo courtesy of William Kirst

The Family That Gardens Together

So Adapt launched their Patreon page in January and applied for and received a grant from the Wildflower Association of Michigan, but their plans to recruit volunteers fell through due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

But that hasn’t stopped Adapt from building native plant gardens for ’Ganders looking to infuse their local ecosystems with good stuff. 

“Last week we did seven gardens, three in Ypsilanti and four in Ann Arbor,” Kirst said. “They’re small, they’re about 30 square feet, with the idea being that we can just get to as many different places and kind of have these little nodes of native plantings all around.” 

And with the lack of volunteers, the couples’ young kiddos have been helping out. 

“My children are not in school, so they come with me to do all of this work,” Kirst said. “They’re amazing, and they have incredible imagination muscles that flex all day long when we go out. And they’re starting to learn some plants, which is cute too.” 

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No reason a fairy garden can’t also be a native plant garden.
(Photo courtesy of William Kirst)

How to Connect With Adapt

If you need help taking an ecological approach to gardening at home, Kirst said anyone is welcome to reach out to Adapt on Facebook or find more information on their Patreon page. It’s a worthwhile endeavor, he said, because each of us has the most control over the landscape closest to us. 

“We can home and manage a diverse landscape, and we can do it to a higher degree if it’s right outside of our front door,” Kirst said. “ … What is outside of your front door is actually a shared resource, part of the broader community — and in the most liberal definition of community you could possibly imagine.”

Browse more photos from Adapt:

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