What It Takes to Win Gold (Native Plant Certifications, That Is)
By Kate Hogan, Community Outreach Coordinator
In 2014, when I began working at Denver Audubon, I had no previous experience certifying native plant gardens. As a first-time home buyer in Parker, I inherited the typical suburban yard with a postage stamp lawn, a lot of rocks with black weed guard, unruly mint plants, orange daylilies, and a single, non-native rose hedge. Little did I know that in just two short years, I would find myself converting my entire home garden into native wildflowers and working to renovate and certify the five gardens that surround the Denver Audubon Nature Center.
Protect Bugs to Protect Birds?
As part of my new job, I took training classes to learn how native plants benefit birds. Because I have a degree in biology, I thought I understood the basic ecological role that plants play within ecosystems, but I’d forgotten about the importance of insects in a bird’s diet. During the training, we learned of a 1999 scientific study that reported about 96% of all terrestrial bird species in North America rely on insects to feed their young. In other words, almost all of them.
It suddenly made sense that in order to protect birds, you also have to protect insects, spiders, and other arthropods. Protecting insects can be a challenge because, well, insects freak most people out.
According to the book Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy, most insects have evolved with particular plants they rely on for nutrition. Only 10% of insects are generalists, while 90% rely on a particular group or family of plants because those plants are the only plants that provide what they need to survive.
Every Patch of Soil Is an Opportunity
Because bugs specialize with plants, every patch of soil, whether covered with native grasses, non-native perennials, or concrete, directly impacts insect biodiversity (the variety of species found within an area). Insects aren’t the only specialists either. Birds often specialize in different types of insects, spiders, floral blooms, seeds, and berries. When you consider the relationship that bugs have to plants and the relationship that plants and bugs have to birds, you begin to see how biodiversity in one begets diversity in the other. In a sense, every patch of soil is an opportunity: more native plants fosters more native bugs, both of which promote healthy, diverse bird populations.
But what is a native plant? In a nutshell, a Colorado native plant is a plant that existed in our beautiful state prior to European settlement. This criterium is meant to encompass plants that evolved here for hundreds of thousands of years before humans started mucking around. Not all non-native plants are invasive, while some native plants could be considered weeds. As it happens, 3,000 native plants grow in Colorado, many of which can thrive in our Front Range home gardens.
Going for Golds
We wanted our gardens around the Denver Audubon Nature Center to reflect our mission—inspiring actions that protect birds, other wildlife, and their habitats, through education, conservation, and research. We wanted to show community members, hikers, dog-walkers, cyclists, and everyone that visits, that Colorado native plants are beautiful, water-efficient, and low maintenance. We wanted them to know that xeriscape does not mean “zero-scape” with only rocks and minimal floral blooms. Above all, we wanted to demonstrate that gardens can support wildlife while satisfying the human desire for beauty, complexity, and tranquility.
In June of 2016, we renovated the circle garden, which is located just beyond the two nature center buildings. With entirely native perennial wildflowers, this small garden celebrates our Colorado heritage. For thousands of years, these native beauties have adapted to the harsh Colorado climate swings that we all know (and love?): intense heat, spring snow storms, and rip-roaring Front Range winds. In addition, these colorful bursts of yellow, pink, and purple are known to support Colorado pollinators such as 250 species of butterflies, 946 species of bees, thousands of species of beetles, and—Denver Audubon supporters’ favorite Colorado pollinator—the four species of hummingbirds that nest and migrate here.
Because our garden supports so much wildlife, we received a Gold Certified Habitat Hero Garden status through Audubon Rockies and a Gold Certification through the Colorado Native Plant Society Garden. Our nature center grounds are also classified as a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat and as a National Audubon Important Bird Area.
Oh—and don’t forget our gardens are FREE to visit. Though we are located at the southern tip of Chatfield State Park, a daily park pass is not required to enter our parking area. Please visit and roam our trails, where you might see hummingbirds flitting about our colorful native blooms. If you love our gardens as much as we do, consider a small donation to help with future garden renovations and plantings.
Are You Ready to Take Action?
Look at the garden beds at your home, your place of work, school, or place of worship and visualize how you might be able to renovate a small or large area into a native garden. If you let the native plant “bug” bite, you might eventually even certify your own yard. Good luck!