How to Create a Neighborhood Butterfly Zone — and a Homegrown National Park

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

Every December, my wife, Kathy, delivers small gifts to the neighbors on our block, usually a jar of home made jam or a little vase of dried flowers, or something like that. Now she’s come up with an idea for a different kind of gift. She announced it as we were working on our yard.

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“This year,” she said, “I could give seeds or little starts of butterfly-attracting plants, suggest they plant them, and then our neighborhood could become a butterfly zone!”

That’s a terrific idea, I thought. And, as I discovered later, it would be one way to build what Doug Tallamy suggests: a “Homegrown National Park.”

Our goal was to revive our struggling yard by planting part of it with species native to the San Diego bioregion, and support native birds, butterflies and bees (especially the California species; honeybees are, in fact, not native) and other insects essential to pollination and migration routes. These, in turn, nurture and grow wild populations of animals and plants.

Tallamy, chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware and author of “Bringing Nature Home,” makes the case that everyday gardeners are the key to reviving urban biodiversity – maybe global biodiversity.

As I quoted him in “The Nature Principle,” Tallamy argues convincingly that it “is now in the power of individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to ‘make a difference.’ In this case, the ‘difference’ will be to the future of biodiversity, to the native plants and animals of North America and the ecosystems that sustain them.”

He’s not only referring to our gardens, but to your yards — a massive replacement of traditional lawns with attractive and productive native species. But where to start? What plants to plant?

For guidance, I searched the free-range contents of my office for Tallamy’s book, and of course couldn’t find it. Researching native species on the Internet, I quickly became frustrated. So I wrote Doug this email plea: “If you were to pick three to five native Southern California plants that would nurture more critters and insects in a backyard in San Diego, what would they be?”

“You would think that would be an easy question,” he answered. But it’s not. He knows the answer for the mid-Atlantic states because he and an assistant spent two years creating a data base, but then his research money dried up.

Someone should remedy that. If we’re going to get serious about applying the Nature Principle to our yards, then someone needs create a national (no, make that international) database, so that anyone can plug in their ZIP code and find out about the best native species, and how to plant and nurture them. Maybe conservation groups and native plant nurseries – and there seem to be more of them these days – could collectively foot the bill.

In any case, I kept plugging, and eventually found Las Pilitas Nursery, a native plants nursery about 30 miles from our home. Its Web site offered a list of the San Diego region’s native species and fulsome information on the ins and outs of planting and maintaining native species. So the information is out there, at least in places with good native plants nurseries.

But if we want to build our continent’s biodiversity, that information should be readily available to everyone, and part of a larger campaign to create, say, a Homegrown National Park made up of tens of thousands of miles of back yards that would serve as a new kind of wildlife corridor. That’s what Tallamy would like to see happen.

“The single most effective thing we can do is build biological corridors that connect isolated habitat fragments,” Tallamy wrote in his email. “That will take the collective effort of all the landowners in between any two fragments. At the level of the individual, if each person manages his or her property as a living entity instead of an ornament, we would be there.”

The suburbs have more lawns, but the goal could be pursued in urban neighborhoods, too, through portions of community gardens and public parks, window boxes and rooftop gardens.

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We wouldn’t have to wait for a massive revival of biodiversity to see some benefits. “People could connect with nature at home, every time they looked out their window or got the mail,” Tallamy wrote. “Each little connection with nature is restorative and rejuvenating, but it’s best if it happens a hundred times each day.”

To illustrate the benefits his family receives, he attached a photo. “Here’s what my wife and I saw when we looked out at our garden fence yesterday.” In the photo of his lush property, wild turkeys perched on a backyard fence.

So Kathy and I headed off to the native plant nursery and came home with more plants than we could plant in a weekend. I should add here that I’ve never been all that attracted to gardening. But the act of creating a backyard wildlife habitat (as the National Wildlife Federation and Audubon have suggested for years) does capture my imagination, especially if our yard is part of a new nature movement that not only conserves but “creates” nature.

Maybe even the world’s first Homegrown National Park.


Richard Louv is the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network.


  1. Great article. In regards to the national database and ideas on what natives to plant in your area – some of those resources already exist.
    Your readers might benefit from checking out information from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center site, which allows you to explore plants by state and even find suppliers.


    Good luck with your new garden habitat! ~

  2. Coincidentally, I just made my first visit to our local native plants nursery on the same day you put up this post. Perhaps a international database of native plant nurseries and/or master gardeners would be just as effective? Actually “talking” to gardeners and native plant experts is much more fun and enriching than learning about it on the internet.

    For Orange County in California, try the Tree of Life Nursery off Ortega Highway outside San Juan Capistrano: (

    My kids loved the native seed mixes where we could pick and buy them from bins!

    (Your wife is a genius! I want to try this in my neighborhood this year. Thanks for the inspiration.)

  3. Hey,
    I’m gonna try and get a Scripps Ranch movement going on this, linking the various canyons. I love our canyons here. We are so lucky. Any other scripps ranchers who want to join in should email me.
    Suzanne 🙂
    Redfern Circle

  4. p.s. do you all know about the quail habitat residents of Crowne Point are working on? I keep meaning to get up there.

  5. Wow! I just stumbled across your blog via the Children and Nature Network website and had no idea you were a San Diego local! I live in North Pacific Beach and would love to plant more native plant species in our yard. Are there any specific plants you could recommend? I just love your wife’s idea about passing out seeds around the neighborhood.

    I also noticed your last speaking engagement here in San Diego was last January, please let me know there are any more events like that in the future, I’d love to attend!


  6. I am fortunate to have a California native plant garden in my back yard (1/4 acre lot in Oceanside, almost 300 plants). Observing the change in the bird and insect populations from generic suburban to a glimpse of what would naturally occur here is a constant source of joy. I spend more time being in my habitat rather than working in my yard, since the natives take care of themselves. I love the idea of a “creating” nature one yard at a time. Thank you for the vision of a Homegrown National Park here in San Diego County.

  7. My husband and I have already talked quite a bit about pollinators and local pollinator corridors made by both city plantings and residential gardens here in Davis, CA – giving out seed packets and/or starters is a great idea, I think we’re going to run with it!

  8. Here is a link to the North American Native Plant Society directory of all states & provinces – some of them do not have links to sites though and we agree it would be good to have an easy online directory for connecting with local Native Plant chapters. We bought a great ‘Hummingbird & Butterfly” seed mixture from our local nursery and wow – the flowers were amazing and we had more butterflies and hummingbirds this year than ever!

  9. Maybe in Australia our climate has forced us to plant more natives ? Ours are available at any nursery and I have two specialist native nurseries within 10 mins of my house (and I’m in urban Sydney). For us, natives are much cheaper and more likely to survive our droughts.

    The practice of forgoing the front yard is catching on too and now we are seeing dense displays of native flowers instead. My backyard comes alive each night with fruit bats nesting high in the trees and we have the joy if seeing native birds return each year to roost on their eggs and raise new babies before flying away a few months later- until next year.

  10. There is something akin to this already happening across the country, and it is called Community Wildlife Habitats. Austin became a certified wildlife community several years ago, which has guided the creation of many backyard habitats, and encouraged the installation of local native pollinator plants at city firestations, recreation centers, parks, libraries and schools, as well as neighborhoods and churches. This is a program of National Wildlife Federation, who is also involved in providing an extensive Habitat Steward training class with the city, to create volunteers knowledgeable in the local species, garden design, and who than become available to assist with projects.

    • Richard Louv

      Thanks, Margaret, for adding this important program to the discussion.

  11. All of you Californians have a great resource in your California Native Plant Society –

    Their website will direct you to information on planting and also to contacts for your local chapters, where you will find programs and people to help you. So great to hear about all this support for the benefits native plants and community connectivity.

  12. Wait… Are we attracting butterflies or turkeys?

    Those wild turkeys will destroy a yard quicker than a flock of chickens!

    I think that giving everyone a collection of butterfly host plants would be a great idea!

    Don’t just stop with milkweed… Those monarchs are something that the whole country can get behind, but the other butterflies need host plants too.

    I included links to several lengthy lists of butterfly host plants in a butterfly gardening post that I posted last week (7/25).

    Not pulling the plants we don’t recognize is possibly the most valuable thing anyone can do that is serious about native plant gardening.

    We all recognize the weeds, those pervasive plants that come up every time we work the soil, but a lot of people get in the habit of pulling everything except the stuff they bought, and that is a guarantee of never getting to see those valuable natives.

  13. Butterfly gardens are a focus of ours (Master Naturalists and County Master Gardeners) with the recovery of Joplin, Missouri after the tornado event two years ago. They bring relaxation, stress relief, backyard entertainment and the big bonus, a healthy yard for people and pets. – Jeff



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