A Northern Gardener’s Guide to Native Plants and Pollinators strikes at the heart of what we strive for in Bird Town PA – creating wildlife habitat in our yards. While we encourage everyone to start by adding a few native plants, this enjoyable book is a guide to taking the next step – to go “from plants… to plant communities”. And it explains why creating habitat is important while emphasizing that everyone’s small contributions will add up to make a difference.

Lorraine Johnson and Sheila Colla have arranged their book into short, digestible sections that are easy to pick up and read whenever you have a few moments. The illustrations by Ann Sanderson are gorgeous, and true to the plant and insect species she depicts. While the book’s primary benefit is to help you start planning your garden, it also works great as a reference when you’re looking to make additions, move plants around, or just get to better know the plants already in your garden. I’d like to take it along to native plant sales to make sure I bring home plants that will be good companions.

The plant profile section is the main part of the book. Aside from the usual plant characteristics you expect, what’s unique about Lorraine and Sheila’s approach is that plants are organized by bloom time with accompanying details of companion plants. Why are companions important? Native plants work best in communities with plants they evolved with. Companion plants increase their chance of success in your garden, reduce maintenance overall, and support wildlife that co-evolved with the plants too.

This brings me to another feature of A Northern Gardener’s Guide—its explanations of the relationships between plants and specialist insects. Johnson and Colla start by making the case for creating habitat to support pollinators. They give the example of the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee. This was a widespread species (last seen in Pennsylvania in 2006) that has become our first native bee to be designated an endangered species. The authors’ hope is that together, we can create habitat to prevent more species disappearances. Doug Tallamy provides a compelling forward to the book that makes the case.

While Pennsylvania isn’t normally considered “northern,” this book has relevance to Pennsylvania Bird Towns. I do lots of observational botanizing to see what grows in the wild in the ecosystems we’re emulating in our yards. The plants covered in this book are spot-on for most PA habitats. Even for my location in the Southeast corner of the state, the majority of plants are a good fit.

One concern I have about their selection of plants (and most lists of native plants) is that many are hard if not impossible to find commercially. However, availability is a challenging issue for a book to address, as supplies vary locally and will hopefully improve into the future with demand. The authors do mention that plants should never be collected in the wild. Another note is that some of these are challenging plants for beginners to establish, and urban gardens may lack the habitat conditions for vigorous growth (for example woodlands). To avoid these pitfalls, remain flexible as you plan your garden, and supplement your efforts with plant and gardening expertise from local service providers and a trustworthy set of resources they suggest.

A Northern Gardener’s Guide to Native Plants and Pollinators is a great addition to my library and to those of gardeners in most Bird Town areas throughout Pennsylvania. It provides the underlying reasons to go native and connects plants and insects together while providing a great planning resource. And that is exactly what we need to support birds that rely on both plants and insects for their sustenance!

Karen Campbell, a member of Lehigh Valley Audubon and FocusOnNatives.com, provided the content for this article

A Northern Gardener’s Guide to Native Plants and Pollinators is available at Amazon and other outlets.