Manicured gardens with perfect lawns and large-flowered, non-native plants may appeal to the human eye. But to an animal's eye, they look like deserts.

Beneficial insects such as butterflies can't find the plants they need to lay eggs on, or the best nectar plants in such places. The chemicals used to eliminate pests can kill "good bugs," too. Birds can't find the best seeds or fruits, or enough water or cover from predators.

That's why several local nonprofit groups have made it their mission to get more native plants into South Jersey gardens, through annual plant sales and swaps that also raise a little money for the organizations. And along the way, they hope to encourage gardeners to accept a little more wildness in their yards, and to include water features and shrub borders for the critters.

The Nature Center of Cape May, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Jersey Shore, and Master Gardeners of Atlantic County, all hold annual native plant sales. They mainly sell the plants that have co-evolved with local wildlife, and that give animals what they need, although the UU group and Master Gardeners have added vegetables to their list of plants offered, and the Master Gardeners have branched out into annuals and herbs, too.

"Encouraging people to grow native plants and share their backyards with wildlife is a fit with our mission," said Gretchen Whitman, executive director of The Nature Center of Cape May, a New Jersey Audubon Center. Its sale is by preorder, with orders due by April 28, and pick up May 12 to 13. April 28 is also the day the center holds its plant swap.

Whitman said the sale there is in its 11th year, and the swap in its seventh. Before the recession, the sale brought in as much as $9,000 a year. That number is now down to about $3,000, she said. The group, like the UU group, is ordering perennials and shrubs this year from local wholesaler Clemenson Farms Native Nursery in Estell Manor .

"We've been successful to the point where many people's gardens are full. We're always looking for new customers," Whitman said.

The numbers are down in part because a federal program to reimburse homeowners up to $300 for planting native species ended, she said.

For the first time this year, the Nature Center will also hold a "Late Bloomer" sale during its Harbor Fest June 16, Whitman said. It will give the center a chance to sell milkweeds and some other plants that emerge from the ground too late for the first sale.

Most people know that milkweeds are the plants on which Monarch butterflies lay their eggs, and that Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed leaves, then form a chrysalis and emerge about nine days later as one of the most beautiful flying insects on the planet.

But fewer people know that the flower of the milkweed plant is also an important nectar source for all kinds of butterflies, moths and hummingbirds, said Jesse Connor, of Port Republic. She organizes an annual plant sale and swap for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Galloway Township. The UU sale is also by preorder, with pickup May 12 to 13, and the deadline has already passed. But the swap on May 12 is open to all interested, she said.

People must donate two plants to get into the swap, Connor said. Then they get one plant for each additional one they bring, up to 10. They can buy up to three plants for $2 each, she said.

All plants donated must be natives, or on a short list of acceptable non-natives, such as the catmints, lavender, Mexican sunflower, oregano and sedums, Connor said. A detailed list is available at (click on plant sale and plant swap q&a).

"It's a learning curve. When they look outside, people think they are seeing native plants. But almost all of what they see are nonnative plants, like ajuga , hosta, day lily and lily of the valley," Connor said.

She would particularly like to see people bring native groundcovers such as tiarella, native ferns, wild geranium and wild ginger, as well as milkweed, goldenrods, asters, and eupatoriums, she said.

Last year about 200 plants were swapped among 50 people, and the swap grows every year, she said. Extras go into the UU garden, which is restricted to native plants only.

Master Gardeners of Atlantic County will hold its plant sale May 19, outdoors rain or shine at the Atlantic County Library Galloway Township branch on Jimmie Leeds Road, said Mona Bawgus, consumer horticulturist with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County.

There are no preorders so everyone shops the day of the sale, and it's best to get there early for the biggest selection.

The sale includes native perennials and shrubs from Clemenson, and a large number of vegetables and herbs started from seed by Master Gardeners, who are trained volunteers who work on public gardening projects throughout the county.

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:


Backyard Habitat Workshops

Backyard gardening workshops at the Nature Center of Cape May, 1600 Delaware Ave., Cape May, include:

•10 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 14,naturalist Pat Sutton leads a Landscape Design Workshop on integrating the key elements of a wildlife garden, including food, nectar-producing plants, water and cover.

•10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. April 21, Sutton will talk about the migration of the monarch butterfly, and ways to attract them and aid their survival. From 1 to 3 p.m. April 21, Sutton will share strategies for attracting the ruby-throated hummingbird.

Pre-registration is required. Costs vary by workshop and membership status. Call 609-898-8848 or visit