Smart plants for wildlife

Incorporate specific plants to attract butterflies and songbirds to your garden and play a role in keeping invasive plants out of your landscape.

As a home gardener, you play a large role in helping to establish and develop habitats that support populations of Michigan’s native insects and songbirds. Michigan State University Extension’s Smart Gardening initiative has teamed up with Northwest Michigan’s Invasive Species Network (ISN) and their Go Beyond Beauty programs to help educate home gardeners of their role in this effort. Habitat loss and spread of invasive species continue to be concerns and home gardeners can help with both.

As native habitats are turned into residential or industrial developments, fewer native plants are left that insects and other wildlife rely on; therefore, the populations of native species decline. Native insects and wildlife rely on native plants for their food and shelter. For example, some forms of insect larva (the caterpillar) prefer to eat specific plants. If these plants are not available for the adult to lay their eggs on, this insect population will decline; they are not able to complete their lifecycle.

An example of this specificity is the monarch butterfly which relies upon the milkweed plant. Some plants attract certain insects that, in turn, attract specific songbirds that feed on these insects. So, through careful selection, home gardeners can help create the habitats necessary for healthy populations of native insects and songbirds.

Monarch butterfly larva
Monarch butterfly larva (caterpillar) feasting on a milkweed plant leaf. Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

Home gardeners can also be aware of invasive species and make a conscious effort to stop the spread of invasives by not planting or having them in their gardens. ISN’s Top 20 Invasive Species in Michigan are identified for home gardeners. Check out this site to see if you have any of these in your garden. If you plan to purchase any new plants, this is a good reference to have on hand. The Go Beyond Beauty Program provides a list of nurseries in the Northwest Michigan area that commit to not selling any high priority invasive ornamental plants.

“We think this is a great way to promote excellent businesses in our region while controlling the spread of invasive plants from our gardens to nationally-celebrated natural areas,” said Katie Grzesiak, ISN coordinator. Consider finding similar opportunities in your area.

Use these resources to learn more about how the choices you make in your own backyard can help improve habitats for native wildlife. Improving Michigan’s habitats helps people and the entire state of Michigan by making it a more attractive and appealing place to live and visit!

Michigan State University Extension’s horticulture educators will be presenting Smart Gardening in a variety of ways at three public shows in Michigan during 2014. The Novi Cottage and Lakefront Living Show on Feb. 27-March 2; the West Michigan Home and Garden Show on March 6-9; and the Lansing Home and Garden Show on March 13-16 will host a variety of free seminars, informational booths and be the site to “ask the experts” from MSU Extension about your gardening questions.

For more information on a wide variety of Smart Gardening topics, visit the Gardening in Michigan website at or contact MSU’s toll-free garden hotline at 1-888-678-3464.

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