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Why plant native?

“Your Next Front Yard”

    by Lisa Novick

     Director of Outreach, Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants


In our neighborhoods, we are becoming accustomed to seeing few, if any, of the butterflies and birds that once inhabited our region. We are becoming accustomed to green, virtually sterile landscapes. This is wrong. For all the water, energy to move that water, labor and fossil fuels expended to install and maintain our gardens, we should be supporting the pollinators and other insects and animals for whom this once was home. The ecosystem services they deliver -- natural pest control and reforestation, among others – are essential for our own survival. Our gardens must do more than simply be green and provide color. They must also support the food web and ecosystem. The environmental stresses of the 21st century demand nothing less. We need to marry individual aesthetics and neighborhood character with ecosystem support for collective well-being. Landscaping with native plants is vital to this task.

When the majority of our wild lands remained, supporting the ecosystem in one’s own yard wasn’t necessary. Now, in the United States, only 4% of our wild lands are left. Agriculture comprises 41% of our land use; urban and suburban areas, 55%.(1) How we landscape this 55% matters. Once established, native landscaping uses 80% less water than ornamental non-native landscaping.(2) In addition, native gardens require no fertilizers, soil amendments or pesticides, which can harm watershed health. And native gardens support the ecosystem. So much to love!

Just as we treasure Los Angeles’ rich architectural heritage, we must treasure our rich natural heritage. California is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. Our native plant palette consists of more than 6,000 species, subspecies and varieties, of which only 1-2% are cacti. Here in Los Angeles, we have a wealth of native plant species with which to landscape:  oak, lilac, buckwheat, manzanita and sage, to name a few.(4) Why the emphasis on native? Specialized relationships in nature are the rule, not the exception, due to long periods of co-evolutionary time. Up to 90% of leaf-eating insect species – caterpillars of butterflies, for example – can eat only native plants:  buckwheat for blue butterflies, penstemon for checkerspots and milkweed for monarchs.(3) Why do butterflies and their caterpillars matter? Caterpillars are the main food of baby birds. Native plant-insect-animal relationships are what make the nature of each place on Earth. Talk of sustainability and resilience will be meaningful only if we maintain functioning ecosystems where we live. Functioning ecosystems depend upon native plants.

In Los Angeles and across the United States, we need a landscaping ethic that maintains the character of our neighborhoods while supporting the nature of each place. “Your Next Front Yard” portrays the landscape aesthetic of the Hancock Park area and how this aesthetic can be updated to respond positively to the exigencies of the present. As you consider ways to modify your garden, I hope you will embrace the nature of California and do your part toward making the Los Angeles landscape 50% native by 2050. Much is at stake for our well-being and that of future generations. The extinction rate is 1,000 times the normal background rate. In our neighborhoods, would we like more crows and pigeons, or more butterflies and songbirds? The choice is ours, and the outcome depends significantly upon how we landscape.


(1) “Bringing Nature Home:  How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens,” by Douglas W. Tallamy.  Timber Press, 2007.



(2)  Garden/Garden, City of Santa Monica.  Website:


(3) “An Introduction to Southern California Butterflies,” by Fred Heath. Mountain Press Publishing, 2004.


(4) “California Native Plants for the Garden,” by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien. Cachuma Press, 2005.

Afterward, “Your Next Front Yard”

by Lisa Novick, Director of Outreach, Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants (


Watch many more short clips on California plants at LIFE Landscape Integrity Films & Education 

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