By Nina Foster-MacLaren

I’ve never been much of a gardener, but I always loved nature. Now and then I would make an impulsive plant purchase and my selection was usually based on the vibrant colour of the plant or on memories from my youth, growing up in England. For sentimental reasons I was drawn to plants like hydrangeas and roses, but they rarely lived past two seasons in my garden, in spite of my efforts to keep them protected. I concluded that our Canadian winters were just too cold and my gardening activities then consisted in keeping things respectably tidy, but with the least amount of work required. 

At the onset of the Covid lock-down in 2020, I watched a video by Entomologist Doug Tallamy on the importance of native plants and their relationship with butterflies/moths (lepidoptera) and birds. He explained how lepidoptera lay their eggs mostly on native host plants which then develop into larvae (caterpillars). Adult birds then rely on these caterpillars to feed their baby birds, but, since most North American gardens consist of non-native (ornamental) plants, there are insufficient caterpillars to feed all the baby chicks and fewer birds visit our yards.

Realizing the connection between pollinators and native plants was my ‘ah-ha!’ moment and made me wonder why this very important relationship was not common knowledge. I had just been told the world’s best kept secret on how to help pollinators and birds and I felt inspired to begin gardening with real purpose and to make a difference. My feelings of hopelessness about the fate of our planet were replaced with a sense of empowerment. I was on a mission! The Covid lock-down enabled us all to make use of webinars and boy, did I make use of webinars! … and still do. They allowed me to build my knowledge of native plants and the more I learned, the more I was excited to get planting with native plants. 

Benefits of Native Plants

I was excited to learn the many benefits of native plants, beside providing food and shelter for pollinators and wildlife: improving biodiversity, no fertilizing required, no winter protection needed, no watering necessary once established, reducing air pollution by storing carbon, deep roots holding soil in place to resist erosion, reduction of the urban heat island effect, growth enhancement of fruits and vegetables, decreasing runoff to reduce flooding … and, surrounding ourselves with vibrant habitats filled with life, promotes a feeling of well-being which can lower stress levels and improve overall mood. Native plants have been here for thousands of years, prior to the settlement of Europeans. They are well adapted to thrive in any Canadian climate condition. Some are even adapted to handle the “Hellstrips” [such as boulevards or areas close to a curb or driveway], with hot and drought ridden conditions or with compacted soil and road salt. Whatever the condition, there’s a plant for that … a few really. 

Dispelling Myths

Some native plants are mistakenly described as ‘invasive’. However, the term ‘invasive’ is specific to non-native plants that spread uncontrollably in natural areas and out-compete native species causing damage to the ecosystem. Whereas, native plants are indigenous to the natural ecosystem and should never be considered invasive. There are indeed some natives that are prolific spreaders and would not be recommended for a smaller garden setting, unless contained.  Another myth is that Goldenrods cause allergies: they do not. It is Ragweed, blooming in the same period, that causes allergies. Some are convinced that wildflower gardens look messy, overgrown or unkempt. However, the plants’ choice, layout and aesthetic of a native plant garden will depend on the personal taste and design of the gardener: formal design or informal cottage style? It’s entirely up to you. 

There are some native plants that are “Keystone species” which are essential to the food web of ecosystems. The removal of “Keystone” plants would diminish the abundance of many essential insects. There are a number of Keystone native species in the Ottawa ecoregion, including Oaks, Willows, Goldenrods, Asters and Sunflowers and I incorporated some of them into my yard, also because they have the most impact to benefit lepidoptera and bees. 

Before and After

We live in a detached home in Kanata with a 60 X 105 feet lot size. Initially, the front and back yards were mostly laid to lawn with a center garden bed and border plantings of non-native/ornamental plants. It looked nice, but it was a pollinator desert. Whereas now, by shrinking the lawn and filling the space with native trees, shrubs, vines and plants, the garden is a habitat for native pollinators and teeming with life. I also had a mindset shift in my relationship to insects. I used to cringe at the sight of a bug, but I now usually have a camera ready to identify and record my observations. Sometime I submit my findings to citizen science projects such as or 

Plant it and they will come

n May of 2020 I planted my first native plant in my garden. I wanted to attract Monarch butterflies so I planted Swamp Milkweed and two months later I spotted the first Monarch on the plant. I also saw a variety of bees on Anise Hyssop and Black-eyed Susans. The following year, in 2021, I spotted a stunning Hummingbird Clearwing moth on Wild Bergamot, a Painted Lady butterfly on Pearly everlasting then a Black Swallowtail butterfly and Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies on other native plants. In August 2021 I was thrilled to watch Ruby throated hummingbirds taking nectar from a Giant blue Hyssop. The abundance of pollinators in my yard was growing in leaps and bounds and soon I witnessed Monarch caterpillars on Common Milkweed and then a chrysalis nearby. Not only was I attracting all these wonderful pollinators but by 2022 I had two Robin nests and a House Wren family in my nesting box. I simply step outside my door to see all of this wonderful nature unfold before my eyes

The environmental impact of Native plants has transformed me from an unenthused gardener into an aspiring steward of the land. There is a quote by John Janick that best describes how I feel about my newfound love and respect for native plants: “There are many things I’d like to change in the world but feel powerless to do so. By planting native plants in my garden, I can make an immediate impact. 

Suggested Further Reading and Resources 

The Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library  

A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee by Lorraine Johnson and Sheila Colla 

Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope by Douglas W. Tallamy 


Birds Canada 

Bumble Bee Watch 

How Native Plants got me Hooked on Gardening