It’s a peculiar rite of modern homeownership: Plant a tulip bulb in autumn, cage or spray it to deter nibblers, admire its fleeting blooms a few months later, let it rot in soil ill-suited to its needs and repeat the whole cycle again the following year.

brown rabbit on a white background
chengyuzheng
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iStock.com

Though they’re often celebrated as harbingers of spring and rebirth, commoditized tulips stir a sense of loss in me, recalling our alienation from the natural world. In their rugged central Asian habitats, flowers in the genus Tulipa sprout like dandelions from windy mountainsides, enticing wild boars to feast on their high-starch bulbs. But in the U.S., where they land every September in garden center bargain bins, tulips sustain little other life. Grown purely for temporary human pleasure, they’re too overbred to welcome pollinators and too prized as decorative possessions to be shared with larger wildlife.

Planting bulbs in cages to exclude animals is more humane, but it’s still the equivalent of a “Keep Out” sign.

Squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and voles get caught in the crossfire as homeowners penalize attempted tulip foraging with traps and poisons. Planting bulbs in cages to exclude animals is more humane, but it’s still the equivalent of a “Keep Out” sign at a time of year when hungry wild friends need all the food they can find in still-dormant landscapes.

The alternative is simple: We can repatriate the plants that used to grow more abundantly in our own backyards. For every tulip, hyacinth or daffodil sold cookie-cutter style and planted in scant rows, there are dozens of beautiful species that sustain wildlife and even prosper alongside them year after year in our gardens. Here’s how to diversify your offerings.

Create a haven for wildlife.

A humane backyard is a natural habitat with plenty of food, water and cover that gives wildlife a safe place to live free from pesticides, chemicals, free-roaming pets, inhumane practices and other threats. And it's so easy to build!

humane backyard with a bench and birdbath
Meredith Lee / The HSUS
bees on groundsel flowers
Groundsel
Dawna Moore
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Alamy Stock Photo

Plan a banquet for a diverse crowd

Rather than tulips, try red columbines—Aquilegia canadensis if you’re east of the Rockies and Aquilegia formosa in many western states—for an early spring feast for hummingbirds. Instead of hyacinths, which are originally from the Mediterranean, plant camas bulbs, including Camassia scilloides, native to much of the eastern half of the U.S., or Camassia quamash, a western species. The leaves feed elk, deer and moose, and stunning tall purple stalks rise above that nibbled foliage just in time for early-emerging pollinators. Ditch daffodils in favor of groundsel (Packera aurea or Packera obovata), an early bloomer that feeds native specialist bees who rely on its pollen exclusively to provision their nests, or wood poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum), yellow blooms with seeds that chipmunks relish.

wild strawberry plant
Wild strawberry
haigala
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iStock.com

Revegetate from the ground up

Animals need plants at every layer of the garden. “To have lots of different species of birds, you have to have lots of different strata, a complexity of vegetation,” says ecologist Desiree Narango, whose research links native plants in residential yards with higher bird nesting success rates. Add groundcovers like wild strawberry—such as Fragaria virginica in the East or Fragaria chiloensis on the West Coast—to suppress weeds, feed bees and produce fruit for both you and local wildlife.

dogwood flowers
Dogwood
savushkin
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iStock.com

If space allows, plant native oak trees, deemed the ultimate bird feeder because they attract more caterpillars—the mainstay of most baby bird diets—than any other plant species. On smaller lots, try native viburnums, dogwoods, hollies and other shrubs that fruit and flower prolifically. Forgo the ubiquitous forsythia, which has negligible value to wildlife; instead plant yellow-flowered spicebush (Lindera benzoin) in the Eastern half of the U.S. or elbow bush (Forestiera pubescens) in Oklahoma, Texas and the Southwest. Named for the yellow flowers blooming in the “elbows” of its branches, the latter grows well as a hedge or a single tree, says Adam Sarmiento of Eco Landscaping in central Oklahoma. “It blooms really early, so it’s good for early pollinators.”

chipmunk eating a flower
Pete muller
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Alamy Stock Photo

Think spring now  

“In general, transplanting is an activity best done in the fall,” says Claudio Vazquez, co-owner of online native plant retailer Izel Plants. To fill your garden affordably, purchase bare-root plants. Most won’t look impressive at this stage, but they’re saving the real show for later. “When plants are either dormant or entering dormancy, they pull their energy down into the roots,” explains Vazquez, “and then they have the remaining fall to have the roots heal and establish themselves to their native soil.”

Depending on the species, first-season blooms may be less showy than those of exotic spring bulbs forced to flower on schedule and in unison. Just give it time, and remember the goal: not a collection of lonely plants as static as a museum piece, but a vibrant, ever-changing space that draws wild creatures of all kinds in all seasons—the epitome of a real, living garden.

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