Gardening and Landscaping with Native Plants

During the past few decades, North American native plants have disappeared at an alarming rate. Preserving natural stands of native plants in forests, prairies, and wetlands is important, but everyone can help reestablish native plant communities in our cities. Landscaping with native plants, regardless of the scale of the project, can conserve water and other natural resources and restore regional character.

Benefits of Native Plants

Native plants are adapted to the average rainfall and temperature extremes of their region. Once they’re established, they don’t need supplemental watering. Xeriscape is a program that promotes water conservation through creative landscaping. One of Xeriscapes tenets is the use of drought-tolerant plants, but it doesn’t emphasize using native plants exclusively.

A native landscape provides much more than Xeriscape’s water-conserving features. Native landscapes in urban and rural areas provide habitats for wildlife and link larger natural areas. By planting native species, you encourage the presence of native insects and microorganisms that benefit plants and keep them healthy without using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Your landscape will be an interacting, changing entity – rather than a fixed object – offering a glimpse of the complexities of the natural world in your own backyard.

Experimenting with Native Plants

You can incorporate native plants into a landscape as elaborately or as simply as you want. Add them to an already existing landscape or start completely from scratch.

You’ll probably want to start slowly, incorporating native plants into existing, traditionally designed flower beds. Many native perennials make ideal border plants, and their appearance can improve dramatically when they don’t have to compete for light, moisture, and nutrients.

If you feel more ambitious, you can assess your property’s environmental conditions (shady or sunny, adequate or poor drainage), and embellish those areas with groupings of appropriate native plants. The results are well worth the time you spend analyzing and matching species to site conditions.

Design a naturalistic landscape by imitating associations found in specific plant communities in your region (a prairie area, wetland, or woodland edge). To varying degrees, all three landscape options will reflect your region’s natural landscape.

Site Assessment, Planning, and Design

Before you create a native plant landscape, you’ll need to analyze your site and develop a plan. The plan doesn’t have to be elaborate; it can be installed in phases as money and time permit. What do you want or need from your landscape? How do you use your yard? Do you want a formal, informal, or naturalistic look? What native plants are already on the site? Try to coordinate your landscape needs with your site conditions.

Observe native plants in their natural environments to learn more about their cultural requirements and growth habits. Note the plant’s maximum size and bloom sequence and where it occurs, such as at the edge of a forest or in an open meadow. Look at wildflowers during all their growth stages before choosing what you’ll plant – you don’t want to plant something you’ll hate to look at during some period. Visit local natural areas so you can determine which species might grow well on your property. You don’t need to know all your area’s plant species, but you should at least learn about the dominant ones. If you duplicate at home what you see in nature, you’ll properly place native plants in your yard.

Soil Preparation

If you select plants appropriate to your site, they should grow well, without soil improvements once they’re established. Disturbing the soil, in fact, can create more problems than it solves. If your site has been disturbed or the original topsoil removed, some soil amendments can help.

Properly prepared soil helps conserve water because it absorbs and holds water more efficiently and drains better. Healthy soils support healthy plants that can better resist pests and diseases. If the soil is clay or sand, you may need to improve its content by adding organic matter such as compost. Prepare your beds two to three months before planting so the soil can settle. Apply a four- to six-inch deep mulch to control weeds.

Some plants will benefit from additional soil preparation. Many wildflowers require well-drained soil, so you may need to supplement the prepared soil with sand, gravel, or other material that loosens it and permits good drainage. Some wildflower species require moist soil; add large amounts of rotted leaves and peat moss to accommodate those needs. Other wildflowers develop weak, spindly stems if they’re planted in rich soil, so they’ll fare better in a poor soil with high mineral content.

Identify the plants already on your site and decide whether you want them. If you have a lot of weeds, you may need a year or more to kill them all, although killing them may not be feasible if the site is extremely disturbed. Eliminating weeds as much as possible before planting is easier and less expensive than trying to control them in a newly seeded site.

If the site isn’t too weedy and you’re going to interseed wildflowers into the existing vegetation, the process is relatively easy. Mow the vegetation as short as possible and rake up the thatch. Try to open up some bare areas to allow the seeds to make soil contact.

If you want to plant wildflowers on a clean site, you can repeat an initial light tilling and watering cycle (till no deeper than one inch), or apply a non-residual herbicide treatment as many times as needed to clear the site. How many times you need to repeat the process depends on the plot size, existing weed competition problems, and the degree of weed control you desire. The seeds, roots, and rhizomes of weeds frequently lie dormant beneath the soil surface and germinate quickly after they are exposed to moisture and light. The less disturbance there is, the easier it will be to control weeds.

If you prefer not to till or hand-weed, two applications of a non-residual, post-emergent herbicide may remove existing vegetation. Before you apply the herbicide, water the site for a week or two to promote weed germination. Let the seedlings grow one or two weeks, and apply the herbicide. Repeat this process once more to ensure a fairly clean seed bed. You can plant your wildflower and native grass seeds as soon as you are sure competing vegetation is under control.

Plant Selection

If your design calls for a traditional landscape, choose species based on the size, shape, texture, and color you desire. For a more natural landscape, you’ll need species that grow together naturally, worrying less about aesthetic characteristics.

The commercial availability of native plant species in your area ultimately will determine which plants you use in your landscape. As demand for native plants increases, the nursery industry will respond and begin offering native species in larger quantities. Keep asking your local nurseries to stock native plants!

Maintaining Your Landscape

All landscapes need several years to be come well-established. The critical period is two to three weeks after planting, when the containerized, well-cared-for plants are making the transition to living in an outdoor landscape. Your landscape will need minimal maintenance once it’s established, depending on how much control you want to assert. Many maintenance practices used for traditional cultivated plants also work for native plants.

Depending on the look you’re trying to achieve, you may need to prune fast-growing species or weed out undesirable plants. Clipping seedheads encourages fullness and longer bloom periods for many perennials. Some perennial wildflowers and native shrubs respond well to severe pruning in the fall or late winter.

Native plants usually do not require fertilizer. Many thrive in poor soil, and applying fertilizer could chemically burn them or stimulate lush foliage growth with few flowers.

Some Final Thoughts

Establishing native plants in your garden or landscape usually requires every bit as much work as non-native species. However, once your native plants are established, you will see not only savings in time, energy, and money, but an aesthetic sense of place only regional native plants can provide. Above all, have fun!