Native Plant Gardening FAQ

Written by: Summer Graham 


If you find yourself constantly heading to Google to search for answers about native plants, then today is your lucky day! We are tackling some of the most searched questions about native plant species -  what they are, what they do, why they are good, and where to find them!


What does the term “native plant” mean?

First off, what does it even mean to be native? The question of whether a plant is native or introduced may differ depending on the source you are using and which geographical area you are referring to. For example, a plant can be native to Canada, but not native to certain provinces (e.g. Manitoba Maple). You may have noticed that some sources even differ in their display of native species ranges.

 The term native is defined as “of indigenous origin or growth”. Native species are therefore defined as those which originate from a given area prior to human intervention. These species have evolved over thousands of generations as part of a cohesive ecosystem alongside other native wildlife and have adapted to the environmental conditions present in a region.


Most species deemed “non-native” or “invasive” to an area are often brought through human intervention, many of which can be timed to European settlement of North America. Think Common Buckthorn brought to North America to be a hedge tree, and Garlic Mustard introduced as a food source for European settlers. Not all non-native species were brought over intentionally however, Zebra Mussels hitched a ride in ballast water, and Emerald Ash Borer is thought to have come to North America on wooden shipping pallets.


Overall, it can be difficult to trace a species origin and in a changing climate, species ranges are constantly moving. This leads to much debate over what is truly a “native” species.


What do native plants provide?

Native plants provide a wide variety of benefits, including:

  • Biodiversity: native species support a diverse array of insects, birds, and other wildlife as food and habitat. They can also help to diversify the plant species on the landscape by replacing lawns and other areas with only one or two species present.
  • Soil conservation: deep roots of native species help to prevent soil erosion and improve soil health. Roots can also filter pollution from runoff, especially in urban areas.  
  • Water conservation: some native species are better adapted for drought conditions than traditional horticultural species, requiring less water to maintain.
  • Carbon sequestration: native species can mitigate the impacts of climate change through the storage of carbon in their biomass and the soil around them.
  • Aesthetic and cultural value: native species often have cultural significance to local communities and provide a sense of place and connection to the local environment.  
  • Economic value: native plants can support the local economy in a variety of ways, including food, medicine, and other products.  



What do native plants need to grow?

 Like all plants, native plants require specific conditions to grow and thrive. Some species will do better in specific conditions (specialists) while others will be able to survive a variety conditions (generalists).


Levels of sun, and water, temperature requirements, soil preferences, and nutrients needed can vary greatly between species, and even within species growing in different regions. It is important to assess your site or garden prior to selecting species, so you can closely match the species you choose to the conditions you have! This will make it easier for your plants to establish without as much work from you.



Planting  native  trees at  the Toronto Zoo Mini Forest -  Madigan Cotterill/CanGeo

How do native plants help the environment?

Native plants help the environment in a variety of ways, with one key impact being the restoration of degraded areas into natural ones. This helps to support local wildlife by providing food and habitat. Growing native plants in the proper conditions can also reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizers, which can cause harm to waterways if not used properly and allowed to run into streams or rivers.


Why are native plants better for pollinators?


Native plants are often promoted as being “better” for pollinators, but what exactly does this mean? Unlike introduced, non-native species, native plants have evolved alongside native wildlife for many years. This means that the wildlife have adapted to maximizing the benefit they gain from native plants, and native plants have evolved strategies to be pollinated or dispersed by native wildlife. In some cases, it has gone as far as a wildlife species needing a single type of plant for an essential part of its lifecycle (like how Monarch butterflies cannot reproduce without Milkweed).  Native plants also provide the right nutrients for native species, with some studies finding that native pollinators get more energy from native pollen and nectar, reducing the amount of energy needed to collect food.


Native plants will follow the proper flowering cycle for their local climate. Some nonnative species will not bloom for as long, or at the right time, to support peak pollinator populations. Ideally, your pollinator garden will include native plants that bloom in early spring, species that bloom in summer, and late blooming species for fall.





What are native plants for my area? 

Plants that are native “for your area” will obviously depend on where you are! There are many resources online and field guides that might be able to help, or you can visit our plant database  and filter for your location to find species with the same native distribution! It is currently only possible to filter for species by province or territory, but keep in mind that a species suitable for the Carolinian range in Ontario won’t be suitable for the far north of the province, and vice versa! Look to local forests and natural plant communities in your area for an idea of the types of species that grow well wherever you are.


When selecting species to plant in your yard, remember that conditions matter! Just like any species, native plants have specific soil, sun, and moisture considerations. Carefully considering your site and choosing appropriate species will give you the best success.


Where to buy native plants?

There are many options for buying or sourcing native species for your garden! If you know someone who grows native plants in their yard, see if you can collect seed or cuttings from their plants to start your own garden. Some species may tolerate being divided and transplanted as well. You can also join local native plant gardening groups on social media for some great tips on growing native species and where to get them locally.


Many options also exist for purchasing native plants or seeds for your yard. Sourcing from local areas is the best option, as these species will have genetics suitable for the conditions in your area. For example, even though you can buy seeds for species native to your area online from California, they likely don’t have the same genetics as a species found closer to where you are in Ontario. Check local plant groups, arboretums and conservation authorities for native plant sales, and inquire at your local garden centre for native species. Many independent, native plant nurseries are also open to the public - to find where to buy native species near you, visit our “Find a native plant nursery” map here 






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