Bay-Friendly Living Tip: Plant Native

Bay-Friendly Living Tip: Plant Native 

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

It is important to remember that preserving and conserving natural plant communities doesn’t have to happen solely in a nature preserve, outside of your home or business, but indeed in your own backyard! Your swath of land, however small, is part of our greater ecosystem, and the landscaping choices you make have impacts on our Narragansett Bay and beyond. Planting native and sustainably can help protect our Bay, and have great impacts on the environment.

Red Maple (Acer rebrum), native to Southern New England

The United States has many different climate zones, with areas differing in their ability to support certain plant species. Geographic and topographic features can vary between regions, even within a state as small as Rhode Island. Southern New England’s ecosystem is characterized by certain climate, light, and soil conditions to which native shrubs and trees are well adapted. Non-native species can require extra support to thrive, such as supplemental water and fertilizers. 

In Southern New England, when we say a species is ‘native,’ we believe it to have been present prior to European settlement. These plants have been here for hundreds of thousands of years, or longer, and evolved slowly over time with little interference from human beings. Today, when planted in the right spot, native plants require far less water and fertilizer, which saves time, money, effort, and perhaps most important of all, the environment. Less fertilizer and water means fewer chemicals are running off your yard and into the Bay and watershed.*

Planting native species provides a variety of food for wildlife and encourages beneficial insects

    • Native, flowering plants are an important part of your yard plantings because they feed beneficial insects, like ladybugs and spiders, that keep harmful insects in check. 

      Black & Red Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa & arbutifolia), native to Southern New England 
    • Flowers like New England aster, milkweed and bee balm will attract birds, bees and butterflies that not only pollinate your plants, but plants all over the neighborhood, including those in your vegetable garden. Tough and adaptable, native grasses like switchgrass and little bluestem also serve as food for birds, insects, and small mammals.
    • Birdwatchers, rejoice! Insects are a principal food source for many species of birds, so if you plant a wide variety of native species that encourage local insects to thrive, you will be rewarded with a wide and unique variety of birds stopping by your yard! Native plants support 29 times the biodiversity of non-native plants, according to Dr. Douglas Tallamy of the University of Delaware. He gives us this statistic as an example: Oaks support 557 species of caterpillar (bird food), whereas non-native Zelkova trees from Asia support no species of caterpillar at all.

Eliminate invasive species and try to catch infestations early

Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), native to Southern New England
    • Japanese knotweed is one of the world’s most invasive plants, and has a tenacious ability to avoid eradication measures. Oriental bittersweet, burning bush and multiflora rose are some other species to keep an eye out for in your yard. If you see these species at the nursery, choose natives over these less desirable plants. The earlier you catch the infestation, the easier it will be to handle!

These tips will get any amateur gardner started when determining what to plant.** The right native plants will grow in your yard with ease, leading to less water and no fertilizer needed to keep them thriving, and therefore fewer nutrients running off* into Narragansett Bay.

Have a specific question about replacing non-native species in your yard with native species?
Consult Save The Bay’s Riverkeeper or the URI Cooperative Extension.


*Runoff pollution is a major cause of both fish kills and beach closures!
**Before altering a natural vegetated area near a coastal feature or freshwater wetland, be aware that permits are required for certain activities in these areas. 

Other Resources:

What to Plant, EPA:
R.I. Native Plant Guide, URI:
Coastal Plant Guide, CRMC:
Mass. Prohibited Plant List, Mass. DEP:
Pest Identification, URI Plant Protection Clinic:

List of retailers that sell Rhody Native plants:
List of Mass. retailers that sell native plants: