Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

First Wednesday Challenge: Keystone Plants

When you plant your garden make sure you include keystone plants. They're the most important plants we should have or be adding to our gardens.

When I began a garden here at Clay and Limestone, I knew nothing about native plants. I tried all manner of plants that failed. But I eventually figured out that my garden had wonderful gifts for me. They were just waiting for me to appreciate them and when I did, I fell totally in love with wildflowers and the bees I discovered buzzing around them. How fortunate for this gardener or it would have taken many more years to discover the wonder of native plants and gardening for wildlife.

Hypericum frondosum supports 22 Lepidoptera species

I was lucky to make friends with Paul Moore who was probably my first role model for planting natives. Paul owned a garden center and it was the only IGC that offered native plants. What I didn't know at the time was that Paul's garden conditions were vastly different from mine. Many of the plants that he could grow thrived on acid soil, but, they did not thrive in mine. With more failures comes more learning.

Elm trees supports 201 Lepidoptera species

Around that time I chanced upon Dr Thomas Hemmerley's book, Wildflowers of the Central South. As it turned out, his book introduced me to concepts that I needed to learn if I was going to have any success at gardening in my difficult gardening conditions. I learned about Middle Tennessee micro-climates and about the unique wildflowers that grew only in the cedar glades. I was able to figure out that my garden was a xeric oak-hickory forest plant community with areas of extremely shallow soil and limestone bedrock just under the soil. The shallow, nearly neutral clay soil is hard as concrete during our dry summers and often wet and sticky during our rainy winters. No wonder everything I planted had died! I was planting all the wrong plants.

Joe-pye weed supports 32 species of Lepidoptera larvae

 I mulled over what I learned and concluded this: "My garden isn't a failure, but, trying to make it something that it isn't is the true failure. Take a look at what's already growing here. Appreciate and celebrate what you have."

So I did. I observed my yard throughout the growing season. I say yard because it really wasn't much of a garden back then.

Andrena nothoscordi, is a specialist pollinator of False Garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve).

Early the next spring I noticed wildflowers everywhere. There were Columbines, Trillium, Toothwort, False Garlic, rue anemone, false rue anemone, golden ragwort and Phlox divaricata.

In May, I found dozens of Penstemon calycosus growing in the wayback backyard in both the dry shade and in the the wet weather spring. I fell instantly in love and transplanted it everywhere! In the lawn I found sedges, Poverty oatgrass and  Lyre-leaf sage.
Lyre leafed sage/Salvia lyrata~for early visiting pollinators

Also growing in the lawn were Blue-eyed grasses, Downy Woodmint, the cutest little Panicums and a tiny daisy with lavender hints that wasn't even in my wildflower guide.


Symphyotrichum a powerhouse plant

 When fall arrived so did the woodland asters and the bumbles. They were all over them from sunrise to sunset.

Astranthium integrifolium/Entireleaf western daisy

It took me a few more years before I realized that wildflowers, as wonderful as they are, weren't the most important plants in my garden. I started adding shrubs and small trees, but it was still years before I truly appreciated that my garden was already blessed with Oaks, Hickories, Eastern Red cedars, Elms, Ashes, Hackberries, Redbuds, Dogwood species, Viburnums, and American hophornbeam trees. I didn't realize at the time that many were keystone plants that supported insects, birds, pollinators, and small mammals.

Ostrya virginiana supports 35 Lepidoptera species

A keystone plant is a plant that supports the life cycle of many species. They're trees and perennials that are crucial to the food web and necessary for many wildlife species to complete their life cycle. Without keystone plants in the landscape, butterflies, native bees, and birds will not thrive.


Oaks support 521 Lepidoptera species

Insects, especially caterpillars, are the prime source of food for most birds feeding their young. Keystone plants like Oaks, cherry, Beeches, Elms, Poplar, Pine and Hickory trees support 90% of caterpillar species. Keystone plants like Asters, perennial sunflowers, and goldenrods support 60% of native bees. Caterpillars and native bees are both integral parts of nature’s food web.(source)  

Solidago is a powerhouse plant that supports 138 Lepidoptera species

In my neighborhood developers have been bulldozing entire yards ofmature trees. Recently these beautiful Eastern Cedars were bulldozed along with a shagbark hickory and several oaks to make room for a larger house footprint and a green lawn.


Juniperus virginiana 40 Lepidoptera supported

They aren't the only trees being cut down. Almost all of the trees bulldozed for new builds in Hillwood were mature native trees that had been producing lots of insect food for birds for decades. In place of the "bee lawns" composed of Claytonia, Salvia lyrata, Ruellia humilis, fleabane, Western Daisy, Violets, self-heal, clovers, native grasses (in my neighborhood it's poverty oat grass) and sedges, they're sodded with non-native grasses. Rarely are trees replaced and when they are replaced they are not keystone tree species. The monoculture turf lawns contribute nothing environmentally and neither do the non native trees.  Landscapes without powerhouse plants that support caterpillars and other insects doom the food web.

Carya/Hickory trees are powerhouse plants supporting 248 Lepidoptera species

That's why it's so important for us to keep planting more natives and make sure more of them are keystone plants. Doug Tallamy says plant the best of the best and then plant more of them. We must also share whenever and where ever we can about the effects that this clear cutting is having on the environment. If we don't make some educational noise the canopy will continue to be devastated and with it the food web.

Rudbeckia fulgida supports 17 Lepidoptera species

We may feel alone in our struggle but we aren't. There are gardeners all over my neighborhood and across the US. who are planting smart. Know that our gardens might be a neighborhood haven for all kinds of critters in the midst of a sea of lawns helps. Our gardens might be one of the few gardens that offers pollinating critters nectar and pollen from late winter until late fall. It might be a place for all kinds of critters, including insects, birds, turtles, frogs, toads, and mammals to raise their offspring. It might be a stopping off place for water and food (seeds and berries) to migrating birds. We need to plant smart knowing that the more we plant for critters...crawling, flying and even digging ones, the healthier and more diverse our gardens will be.

Symphyotrichum are powerhouse plants supporting Lepidoptera


If you're not sure what to plant, check out this resource that discusses Keystone Plants by Ecological regions of North America.

You can't go wrong adding an oak tree or one of the top keystone trees from the lists.  Also, know that on almost every ecological region list you'll probably find these 4 perennials that support pollinators: Solidago, Symphyotrichum, Rudbeckia and Helianthus. (source)


Switchgrass/Panicum virgatum – 25 Lepidoptera supported

 Assess your garden:

  • Take some time to figure out what makes sense for your garden conditions. Get to know your light and soil conditions. I know that Clay and Limestone is just that, a lot of shallow clay soil sitting on top of limestone bedrock. It's dry in the summer and often wet in the winter. My go to plants are almost always from the central basin, in Middle Tennessee. There are resources to help you figure out what to plant.
  • Do a tree and shrub survey of your property. They're far more important to insects than many other plants. Plant a keystone tree or two if needed.
  • Once plants are blooming, notice which plants attract the most pollinators and which ones are just a pretty face.
  • Once plants flower and go to seed watch to see which seed heads the birds eat first and which ones they never touch.  
  • Look closely at all the plants to see if any of the flowering plants are hosting caterpillars. Look for eggs, larva or instars. A host plant provides shelter, habitat, breeding sites or serve as a food source as part of the life cycle of another organism. 
  • Do critters have access to fresh water?
  • It's okay to have a few pretty faces in the garden, just make sure they aren't the majority of plants.
  • Invest in a good wildflower book, a field guide to birds and if you're really ready to get to know the critters your garden could host, purchase a good field guide to butterfly and caterpillars. Tennesseans, get a copy of Rita Venable's book Butterflies of Tennessee.

Verbesina species support 7 Lepidoptera species

There's just one other thing I need to say before I go. Your garden will support all the critters that live and visit if you never, ever, ever, ever, ever use pesticides. I mean never! xoxogail

Here's a recap of what the First Wednesday Monthly Challenge is all about.

Want to Take the Taking Care of Wildlife In Our Gardens Challenge?

The first part of this challenge is to do something, even lots of things each month that support the critters living in our gardens. Gardening with native wildflowers, shrubs and trees that make sense for our ecoregion is a good place to start or continue (as the case may be). Plants and their pollinators are a classic example of mutualism: they have coevolved through evolutionary time in a reciprocal beneficial relationship. This is also true for other critters that visit and live in our gardens. 

Activities that increase our knowledge of the natural world are equally as valuable. Helping others learn about nature is included. Golly gee whiz, there are so many things you can do. 

The second part of the challenge is to post about it somewhere: Your blog, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or even your neighborhood listserve. Wouldn't an article in the local paper be a coup for nature! Why post it? Because positive publicity is needed to educate our friends, neighbors and communities about how important even the smallest changes we make as gardeners can be for pollinators, birds, insects and mammals, including humans, that live all around us. 

Why now? My neighborhood is changing. Yours might be, too. Every day an older home along with many (if not all) of the mature oak, hickory, maple, Eastern cedar and hackberry trees are cut down. Insects, birds, even mammals lose their home site and food supplies when we lose trees. During construction soil is compacted by bulldozers, trucks and piles of debris cause runoff; surface runoff that can carry pollution to streams and rivers. It's important that our neighbors and our community have information about how important trees are to our ecosystem. Trees contribute to their environment by providing oxygen, improving air quality, climate amelioration, conserving water, preserving soil, and supporting wildlife.

In place of the "bee lawns" composed of Claytonia, Salvia lyrata, Ruellia humilis, fleabane, Western Daisy, Violets, self-heal, clovers, native grasses (in my neighborhood it's poverty oat grass) and sedges, they're being sodded with non-native grasses. These monoculture turf lawns contribute nothing environmentally. Here's what we lose when our diverse lawns are replaced with pristine turf grass:

  • Gone are the lightening bugs.
  • Gone are the ground dwelling/nesting native bees.
  • Gone is the habitat for insects, spiders and other critters. 
  • Gone is plant diversity. 
  • Gone are trees that provided for hundreds of moths, butterflies and other insects.
  • Gone are the nesting sites for woodpeckers, hummingbirds, Chickadees and other birds. 
  • Gone is a healthy foodweb.

 It breaks my heart. 

We can't stop the progmess, but, maybe we can make a lot of educational noise and help our new neighbors see the value in providing for critters and ultimately helping the environment.

A gardener can hope! 


Here's an incomplete list of things you might consider doing or changing in your garden, and things you can do for and/or in your community. But don't limit yourself to my list, make your own list or check out the internet for ideas.


Looking for ways to get involved go here for a list of environmental advocacy groups.

Buy the best wildflower, butterfly and bird id books for your state.

Read nature books to your children and grandchildren. Buy them nature books.

Get in the garden with your children and grandchildren.

Give nature books as baby shower gifts (Nature books for infants and toddlers)

Shrink your lawn and make your planting beds larger.

Plant your favorite native perennials and shrubs. Leave them standing after they've gone to seed to continue to provide for wildlife. What you plant in your yard makes a difference to wildlife. I garden for wildlife so every tree, shrub and plant is chosen with wildlife in mind.


Plant more natives and then consider planting even more. "A typical suburban landscape contains only 20-30% native plant species. Try reversing that trend in your own landscape by using 70-80% native species." (source

Plant for bloom from late spring to early winter. Bees are most active from February to November (longer in mild climates) late winter blooming Hamamelis vernalis and the earliest spring ephemerals (like the toothworts, hepaticas, spring beauties, and False rue-anemeone) are perfect plants for a variety of pollinators.

Commit to never, ever, ever, ever using pesticides in the garden.

Stay away from native plant hybrids and cultivars that are double flowered. They are sterile and have no pollen or nectar for insects and no seeds for the birds. If possible plant “true open-pollinated native wildflowers”

If you want to garden for wildlife and pollinators, don't let lack of space stop you! Plant your favorite wildflowers in large containers. You just might have the prairie or woodland garden you've always wanted...in a pot!
Create a water feature. Provide water year round that is accessible to birds, bees and other critters.

Make a rain garden in low spots to collect and mitigate runoff.

Show some soil! Our native ground nesting bees nest in bare soil, so don't mulch every square inch of your garden. 

Get rid of the plastic weed barriers in your garden, it's not good for anything.

Invite bugs into your garden. Plant annuals that attract beneficial bugs.


Learn to tolerate damaged plants. Imperfection is the new perfect.

Don't be in a rush to clean up the fall garden. Leave plant stalks and seed heads standing all winter. Leave those fallen leaves or as many as you can tolerate! Insects over winter in the fallen and decaying leaves. Leave a layer of leaves as a soft landing material under trees for moths and butterflies to over winter. Many caterpillars drop to the ground from the trees in the fall and need a soft landing site and a place to live over the winter.

Allow a fallen tree to remain in the garden. Limbs on the ground are a perfect shelter for small animals such as rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels and a habitat for beetles, termites and other insects.

Make a brush pile. Stack fallen brush, cut tree limbs, broken pots for ground beetles. Ground beetles are excellent at eating "bad bugs". Bugs are also good bird, toad and small critter food. 

Rethink what you consider a pest. Lots of good bugs eat aphids. Spiders are important predators and they're great bird food!

Add nesting boxes for birds. 

Turn off your yard up-lighting, eave lights and porch lights after 11pm. This is important for nocturnal critters including mammals, snakes, insects, bats, birds (especially during migration). (Birdcast suggestions)

Plant shrubs and small trees that provide berries and nuts.

Keep a nature journal: You can observe visitors to your water feature, make note of when they visit. Notice which flowers attract the most pollinators and which ones are just pretty faces. 

Join your state native plant society (Tennessee Native Plant Society)

Join WildOnes even if there's no local group you can join the national organization.  (Middle Tennessee WildOnes)

Support your local native plant sellers. (GroWild in middle Tennessee, Overhill Gardens in east Tennessee,  Resource Guide TN Native Plant Society)

Encourage your local garden clubs to offer native plant talks.

If your garden club has a plant sale encourage them to sell more native plants.

Get trained as a naturalist (Tennessee Naturalist Program. Almost every state has their own Master Naturalist training program

Take an online course on tree, fungi and wildflower id. 

Take an online course on designing with native plants.

Take a walk in your neighborhood and observe nature. To quote Joanna Brichetto in Sidewalk Nature "Look Around. Nature is here, is us, our driveways, our baseboards, parks, and parking lots."

Read! There are hundreds of books on gardening for wildlife, the environment, and rewilding our world. There are delightful blogs with wonderful and informative articles.

If you are already gardening with wildlife in mind then add a few signs that help educate your neighbors. (Xerces Society, Pollinator Partnership)

Join the Xerces Society.

Set up an information station where neighbors can pick up brochures about your garden and other info. 

Get certified (National Wildlife Federation, check to see what your state offers)

Support trees by joining the effort to make sure developers don't remove more trees than are necessary for their project. Work to make sure there are tree removal permits and that they are actually enforced in your community.





Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. What a wonderful post, Gail! Wise words and inspiration, indeed.

  2. I imagine your little wildlife center is a sight to behold!

  3. Our 'stately older' tree is a carob. Not indigenous, but one of the few places for neighbourhood birds to roost overnight. Male plant, the funky flowers humming with bees.


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson