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Tips for native-plant gardening while sheltering in place

native-plant gardening
A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds at a bee balm plant. Photo by Dennis W Donohue/Shutterstock

It’s vitally important that as many of us as possible shelter in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, but we birdwatchers can’t just turn off the desire to watch birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. I’m doing my birding from home for the time being and hope you are, too. And while the cardinals, goldfinches, and other birds at my feeders are enjoyable, I’d love to do more for the birds in my neighborhood and attract more species to my urban yard.

So, I turned to naturalist and native-plant expert David Mizejewski of the National Wildlife Federation. He is a media personality, blogger, and the author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife. (Read an excerpt of the book.) Here is our conversation:

Can I order native plants online during the pandemic? Can you suggest certain nurseries that sell native plants? If I do order online, should I worry about whether the virus could live on the containers that plants come in? Or on the plants themselves? Any tips for disinfecting deliveries, without harming the plants?

Yes, some online seed and plant retailers are shipping, and your local nurseries or garden centers might be making deliveries or arranging for curbside pickup (call to find out). While the risk is likely small, wiping down plant containers can minimize the chance of picking up the virus that way. Practicing social/physical distancing and regularly washing your hands thoroughly with soapy water for at least 20 seconds are the best way to avoid contracting or spreading the COVID-19 virus. We have a lot more information on all of this on our blog.

 Should I take any other precautions while working outdoors during this time?

Working outdoors in your own yard or garden is a great way to de-stress to while practicing social distancing — as long as you’re not inviting others over to garden with you.

For people just getting started with native gardening, what are the first steps?

The first step in getting started gardening with native plants to support wildlife is really the first step for creating any kind of garden: Assess your site so you can pick plants that will thrive there. How much sun vs. shade does your yard get?  What’s growing there already?  What’s the soil like?  What kinds of wildlife would you like to attract?  I walk readers through the process of assessing, planning, and creating a wildlife habitat garden in my book Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife which is a great place to start (all sales support the work of the National Wildlife Federation). We also have a lot of information on our Garden for Wildlife website, including our Native Plant Finder, which will generate a list of the best plants to support butterflies and birds native to your zip code.

What do you suggest for people who live in an apartment or otherwise don’t have much of a yard?

Container gardening is a great option if you don’t have your own yard. You can grow native perennials and even shrubs or small trees in pots on a deck, balcony, or rooftop. Joining a local community garden is great option if you don’t have any outdoor space of your own.

About how much will a quality native garden cost – one that makes an impact for local birds and butterflies?

The beauty of creating a wildlife habitat garden is that anyone can do it, no matter how big your yard or your budget is. The more area you can devote to natural gardening, the more wildlife will benefit, but every effort to restore habitat by planting natives, even in small gardens, helps.

My advice is to determine your budget and then get as many native plants as you can afford. You don’t have to create the wildlife habitat garden all at once. It can be a process, adding plants and other habitat features as you go and as your budget allows. Growing plants from seed is an economical way to get a lot of plant material. Joining a native plant society or garden club can offer discounts and members often give away or swap plants.


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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and You can reach him at

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