Stacking Benefits by Using Native Plants in Green Infrastructure

Red admiral butterfly rests on a bunch of purple aster flowers

In a previous article, Electrical Contractor explored the environmental benefits of green roofs, including reducing energy used for heating and cooling, managing stormwater, improving air and water quality, mitigating the urban heat island effect and reducing urban noise pollution.

Green roofs and other types of green infrastructure—which can include green walls, strategic landscaping, urban tree canopy enhancements and green parking lots—can be made even more beneficial by using native vegetation to create (or update) them.

Green infrastructure projects such as these have the advantage of “stacking benefits,” meaning they provide multiple benefits on top of their main purpose. Using native species enables stacking of even more benefits onto the pile: providing habitat for wildlife, reducing maintenance costs and improving the effectiveness of stormwater management and carbon sequestration.

Why native species are important

“Native” means that the species evolved to live in that part of the world, or naturally spread there without human intervention. “Non-native,” on the other hand, means the species evolved elsewhere and spread to other areas by humans, sometimes unintentionally.

Native plants are important because wildlife rely on them for food, shelter and breeding habitat. Native plants and wildlife in an area evolve together, so native plants to best able to meet the animals’ needs. Non-native plants cannot provide what wildlife need—wildlife either do not recognize them as sources of food or cover, or if they do, they cannot derive as much value as they can from native species.

Native plants are also better adapted to local climate conditions, such as rainfall and heat, which means building owners won’t need to put in as much work to keep them alive.

It’s also worth noting that the deep, fibrous roots of many native species are often better at the things green infrastructure already does, including absorbing and filtering stormwater runoff and sequestering carbon.

Getting started

Electrical contractors working on building projects involving green infrastructure can use the opportunity to suggest the use of native plant species to the client and landscape architect/contractor.

Knowing that native species are being used can help ECs better tailor related electrical work, such as adjusting automatic irrigation systems to provide the right amount of water to plants, integrating solar panels in areas that won’t get shaded out by taller vegetation and setting up lighting with taller vegetation in mind.

Selecting the right species

When selecting native species, low-growing succulents such as stonecrop are commonly used for green roofs, due to their excellent drought-resistance and low maintenance needs. It should even be easy to find native succulents in your area that will provide the greatest benefits to wildlife.

Instead of considering merely succulents, though, imagine a verdant, colorful roof or wall full of wildflowers, grasses, vines and other plants of different colors and textures. It would be a feast for the eyes, not to mention a feast for wildlife—a greater diversity of native plants means more variety in the resources they provide, such as wildflower blooms at different times of the growing season. This in turn provides greater value to local wildlife populations.

Native species can be used for other types of green infrastructure, such as trees for urban tree canopy enhancements. The local native plant society and the USDA PLANTS Database are great places to learn about which species are native to your region.

You can increase the benefit further by planting species preferred by local wildlife. Think of it like offering food at a party. Offering only one type of food means some of your guests with dietary restrictions may be left hungry. On the other hand, a buffet with lots of variety means that there should be something for everyone. Tailoring the buffet items to the specific dietary needs and preferences of those on your guest list will ensure that everyone leaves the party full and happy.

About the Author

Colleen Beaty

Colleen Beaty is Senior Editor at ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR magazine.

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