Gardening for Conservation?

This is a topic in which I have been heavily involved in the past 20 years. Gardening for wildlife is so important these days. Here in the U.S., checking with the NWF (National Wildlife Federation) is a good place to start. Your state wildlife conservation organization should also have some good information. Groups like the Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Native Plant Societies, etc. are good sources of info. The more you dig for info, the more you will discover. If you have a local nursery that specializes in growing and/or selling native plants, that’s a good place to make inquiries.


I live in St. Louis, MO and have seen an uptick in conservation gardening over the past 10 years. I work for a native plant nursery, Papillon Perennials, and often hear customers talk about gardening for specific species either because they care about their populations or they generally just like to have them around.

I don’t have any specific examples in regards to your endangered species thoughts other than… the dreaded… “it depends” answer. I would think species that have disappeared from urban areas are benefiting from the multitude of small gardens that start to build or link together on the landscape-scale. However, there are species that need more than just a host plant, but need 100’s of acres of wild space to practice their life’s needs, such as the greater prairie chicken.

I’d bet that many wild native bees and insects are very much benefiting from urban plantings. The rural landscape would look different and would likely be able to rebound faster, if I had to take a guess, because the source (versus sink) populations that conserved in pastures, private land, and parks would be in closer proximity to the areas that need conservation help for species.

If you’re still reading this, come see me at Papillon Perennials during the week if you want to chat conservation gardening!! Cheers, everyone :D


great topic! I have been promoting planting native plants here in Nova Scotia with a particular passion for Milkweed for Monarchs. I have been growing our native Asclepias incarnata from seeds I collect in the wild near my home, and selling and giving them away for 13 years. When I started in 2007, Monarchs were not commonly seen. The areas where they were present were around the invasive, introduced Asclepias syriaca.
I have added more A. incarnata to my garden each year (in pots or raised beds as my dry woods soil will not grow it). It took 8 years for the Monarchs to find me and this year i had 4 wild Monarchs lay a total of 46 eggs, 10 of which survived to adulthood.
Every year I get more and more requests for milkweed as more people start to see Monarchs around their yards. The increase has been quite dramatic the last 3 years.
I also plant the Tropical milkweed, A. curassavica as it blooms until frost but does not seem to make the Monarchs stay too long. They nectar for a couple of days and appear to be following the signs of fall to know when to leave (which perhaps they don’t get in California?)
I have also noticed an increase in other pollinators as I let more of my property go “wild with weeds”!

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I’ve been gardening for wildlife for a long time, in a number of different places that I’ve lived. At my current home, I’ve done the most extensive wildlife gardening I’ve ever done. I have a meadow area, a rain garden area, and a woodland area. I fight with lots of invasives that were present in the area already, which is a challenge. But I’ve seen definite rewards, especially with the rain garden.

I generally target diversity and a variety of food source timing in my efforts. My rain garden is a great example of this, with something being in bloom since I installed the plants in April up through now. And there’s more on tap to bloom in coming weeks, even.

There are very few milkweeds growing within a mile or so radius of my home, so I have been targeting a few species (native to my area) for my plantings. They’re easy to find, at least as seed, from native seed companies. And some places even sell containerized plants. So far, I’ve planted 4 species of native milkweeds, I think. Only 2 have yet become established so far (A. tuberosa and A. incarnata) and while I’ve seen monarchs (even got a picture of one laying eggs this summer), I’ve not seen caterpillars yet.

I’m not specifically targeting any endangered or threatened species, though. One reason is that many of those endangered or threatened species are pretty site specific, and I simply don’t have the kind of site to suit them so they thrive. That needs to be consideration number one if you’re going to try to target species in any wildlife gardening efforts. Seed collection for important host plants may or may not be legal, so that’s another important consideration if you happen to have the right site. You also need to be able to support the entire life cycle of the organism, too. What does the species need for food, for shelter, for reproduction? Does it need different things at different life stages?


These links look great. The ethically sourced native plants in particular catch my eye, though it looks like the only location near me is a loblaws I’ve been to, which I’ve never seen selling any native plants

That sounds great! Do you have pictures of your garden? And maybe advice for making it so successful?

How important can regional genetic differences be? Using the lupine example again, can lupines sourced from Ohio really be genetically different enough to be damaging to native populations? Is it better to let the local populations of a plant go extinct than introduce a foreign population of the same species?

I watched one of Tallamy’s talks, where he mentioned a similar case to that of the karner blue, where a butterfly in Florida’s host plant was decimated for the starch industry, wiping out the butterfly. Once people stopped harvesting the plant for starch, they decided that it was a nice horticultural plant and started planting it again. After some time, the butterfly started coming back from some unknown remnant population, entirely thanks to the gardeners. Stuff like that is what I want to try to do to with my garden.


Native Plants in Claremont had great selection of plants for multiple habitats. Something to watch for in 2021 is a return of the North American Native Plant Society plant sale.

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There is this butterfly garden near me that uses natural plants that are already there such as Butterfly Milkweed and Bushclover to get rare butterflies to come. Another place uses Echinacea to get the endangered Baltimore Checkerspot to land on it and conserve it. Bethpage State Park has a huge garden that is home to not just butterflies, but hummingbirds, wrens, gnatcatchers, nuthatches, and creepers.

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It is better to sustain local population. I don’t know what Ohio lupins’ genetics are and where you’re going to plant them.

That was just an example and a rhetorical question. What I was really asking is “To what extent is it important to preserve local populations, as opposed to introducing specimens from foreign populations” and “do I really have to worry about sourcing seeds from somewhat distant areas?”

I’ll definitely keep watch for that, thank you

You should worry about it if it’s possible to get ones from local population, getting something too distant definitely can be equal to adding another species, can be potentially good for ecosystem, but not the same as it was before.

My father has Karner Blues on his land an hour north of me. Over the past 20 years they planted more lupine on his open prairie acreage and the population has spread from a few acres to about 30. A lot of work. Meanwhile down in my yard no matter how much lupine we plant…we won’t be seeing a Karner. Instead we have a LOT of wildflowers, trees, don’t use toxic chemicals. Right now the migrating monarchs are on the towering purple ironweed & ruby-throated hummingbirds at the jewelweed around the koi pond. The koi pond & trees seem to provide a huge number of little insects for dragonflies, swifts, phoebes and last week we had a flock of migrating nighthawks swooping overhead. We like to think we are a fueling station for migration.


This is from earlier in the year. It has filled in more since this picture.

Sourcing plants from as close as possible, I think, is important. What it comes down to, IMO, is adaptation to the specific soil and climate conditions in your area. One native seed retailer I’ve purchased from in the past sells seeds (and sometimes live roots) from individuals of the same species sourced from different ecoregions. Soil and climate conditions can vary substantially across a species’ range and while more mobile species might not be as specific, plants (and other less mobile species) can be VERY specific about what they need to thrive.

I highly doubt you’re going to cause any harm by using an individual native plant from a geographic location far from your own. If that species is native to your area already, at least. The risk is that said individual might not thrive in your conditions if it’s adapted to something slightly different. There has even been some suggestion (can’t remember for the life of me where I read it in order to cite it, though) that we might be able to help plant populations adapt to climate change by intentionally sourcing plants (of the same species) from warmer climates to help move genes from those populations and potentially introduce them to local populations through some cross-pollination that is bound to occur.

The plants I sourced for this project came from a greenhouse that specializes in natives for my region. I’ve been able to pretty much ignore the plants since I put them in the ground. They’re all adapted to some level of moisture, and the way I placed them in/around the rain garden reflects the amount of moisture that they grow best in. I definitely had to do my research. It definitely helped that this year has been a pretty wet one. I think I did some supplementary watering for a couple weeks after planting, but the rain picked up at that point and everything has just gone nuts since. I also planted some additional seeds that came from a source a little more distant, but not an altogether different climate. Germination appears to be pretty good with those, too.


I addressed this some in my last post, but if they’re the same species, it’s highly unlikely to cause actual harm by bringing in seeds or plants from a distant population with different genetics. Plants from that different population are likely to have genes that adapt them to different soil and/or climate conditions. The more likely scenario is that the plant fails to thrive in your local environment because your conditions are too different from what it’s adapted to handle.

That said, it’s also possible that it does thrive because conditions are not too different. If it thrives, then some cross pollination may occur and that would have a good chance of introducing some genetic variation into the local population. As I said already, I’ve read some arguments that intentionally introducing this kind of genetic variation may help plant populations adapt to climate change.

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