By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
If you haven’t explored the idea of gardening with native plants, you may be surprised at the many benefits that gardening with natives can offer. Native garden plants are easy to grow because they’re naturally in tune with the environment. Native plants provide critical habitat for beneficial pollinators, like honeybees and butterflies, and birds and wildlife will happily find their way to your garden.
Because native plants are “at home,” they are hardy, drought-tolerant and generally require no pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer. These plants even improve water and air quality and prevent soil erosion too. Are you convinced to try your hand at gardening with native plants? Before you begin, it pays to learn about gardening with natives and native plant environments
Native Garden Plants
Native plants are defined as plants that occur in a particular area without human assistance. In the United States, any plants that were present before the arrival of European settlers are considered to be native plants. A native plant environment may be a region, state, or a particular habitat.
For example, plants native to the swamps of Florida wouldn’t survive in the Arizona desert, while those that grow in the tidal marshes of the Pacific Northwest wouldn’t survive a Minnesota winter.
It doesn’t matter where you live or where you garden; native plants can still be found thriving there. If designed appropriately, with native habitats in mind, native plantings will require little maintenance, as their natural environments sufficiently meet all of their needs.
Types of Native Plant Environments
Why is it so important to learn about native plants and native plant environments? Native plants have existed in the environment for thousands of years, so they have had plenty of time to develop a healthy resistance to pests, diseases, predators and weather conditions of the particular area. However, native plants are not equipped to stand up to the encroachment of non-native plants, pests and diseases.
It is estimated that 25 percent of all native plant species in the United States are at risk of extinction. By gardening with natives, you’ll be promoting a healthy ecosystem while helping preserving beautiful native plants.
Here are some examples of native plant environments:
- Forests – There are coniferous, deciduous and tropical rain forests. Both coniferous and deciduous types include a host of wildflowers and native shrubs/trees. Tropical rain forests are wet and humid with trees and other vegetation growing close together.
- Woodlands – Woodlands are more open than forests with drought-tolerant trees, shrubs and various wildflowers.
- Mountains – Mountainous regions have steep cliffs, canyons and hillsides. Plants in these environments are adapted to higher elevations, low humidity, strong winds, intense sun and shallow soil.
- Wetlands – Wetlands support a number of native plants that enjoy plenty of moisture.
- Coastal regions – usually bordering seasides, plants here are well adapted to drier conditions, sandy soil, wind and salt sprays.
- Grasslands and Prairies – Grasslands and prairies generally possess low water, higher temperatures and a variety of soil conditions, from clay-like to richly fertile.
- Desert – Desert environments can be challenging but worthwhile and beautiful. Extreme temperatures, little rainfall or water and intense sun and wind dominate these regions.
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Why Garden with Native Wildflowers?
Native plants are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions where they naturally occur. These important plant species provide nectar, pollen, and seeds that serve as food for native butterflies, insects, birds and other animals. Unlike natives, common horticultural plants do not provide energetic rewards for their visitors and often require insect pest control to survive.
Native plants are also advantageous, because:
- Native plants do not require fertilizers and require fewer pesticides than lawns.
- Native plants require less water than lawns and help prevent erosion.
The deep root systems of many native Midwestern plants increase the soil's capacity to store water. Native plants can significantly reduce water runoff and, consequently, flooding.
- Native plants help reduce air pollution.
Native plantscapes do not require mowing. Excessive carbon from the burning of fossil fuels contributes to global warming. Native plants sequester, or remove, carbon from the air.
- Native plants provide shelter and food for wildlife.
- Native plants promote biodiversity and stewardship of our natural heritage.
- Native plants are beautiful and increase scenic values!
These Colorado blue columbines flowers are white with pinkish tinged spurs. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.
To learn more about native plant gardening, explore the links below or contact your local Native Plant Society!
What are Hardiness Zones, Gardening Zones, Growing Zones and Plant Zones?
Hardiness Zones, Gardening Zones, Growing Zones and Plant Zones refer to defined geographic regions that can support specific plants, flowers and trees. The zones define a minimum range of temperatures that a plant or tree can survive safely in that zone. Plant Maps provides the only interactive version of the USDA hardiness zone map available on the internet.
For a detailed interactive zone maps for Arizona, click here.You can search for the distribution of specific plants, like saguaros.
Gardening With Natives - Learn About Native Plant Environments - garden
Native plants are becoming a larger part of our built environment each year as more and more gardeners begin to recognize their value. Natives support local ecosystems and wildlife habitat in ways that are increasingly important as our human footprint on the landscape grows. From professionals to backyard gardeners, there is a growing demand for native plants, especially as many realize their ornamental and functional value in the landscape as well. However, one very common issue for anyone interested in ‘going native’ is the fact that they are relatively hard to find at retail garden centers.
Plant selection across the US horticulture industry is highly skewed toward non-native plants, which do not support native wildlife like our native flora do. In fact, some non-native species have the ability to become invasive, creeping out of the human built landscape into natural areas and threatening large-scale ecological change throughout the US. These invasive species displace native plants altering the very building blocks of natural ecosystems in ways that are detrimental to both native fauna and flora.
One 2013 study assessed over 1,000 known invasive species in the lower 48 states. Of this collection of non-natives, 60% were internationally introduced to our continent by humans and around 64% of those plants were introduced for ornamental reasons. Interestingly, across western states, the majority of historic invasive species introductions were accidental, arriving as a result of ever globalizing trade and travel. However, in the eastern US, the majority of invasive species arrived as ornamental introductions.
Regardless of invasive status, the presence of non-native plants in human built environments offers little to support native fauna. With non-natives comprising a large majority of plant material across US landscaping, there is huge opportunity to turn the tide toward native plants that better represent and support local ecology.
While I have been ecstatic to see an increasing prevalence of native species at all local garden centers in recent years, it is still difficult to acquire the selection of plants needed to create home landscapes dominated by natives.
A study published earlier this year looked at native plant abundance among nursery stock available at 14 wholesale nurseries in the Mid-Atlantic region. Of the almost 7,000 taxa included in the study, a mere 25% of these plants could be identified as native to the region. In my experience, this is fairly consistent with plant selection at Midwest nurseries as well.
Surprisingly, 4% of the taxa included in the study were known invasive species to the region. While this is a small percentage of total taxa, the actual number of plants sold has not been accounted for in this study. So, there is still a significant amount of invasive plants circulating in the ornamental plant trade.
Researches took a deeper dive into the category of “native” plants to separate out native cultivars and hybrids. Cultivar is an abbreviation for “cultivated variety”, meaning in this case, a native species that has been bred for certain characteristics. In contrast, a hybrid plant is a combination of two species, sometimes both native, but often including a non-native.
Results from this study showed that cultivars and hybrids comprised 19% of the plant material at nurseries, while the native, “straight-species” (meaning the native species has not be bred for changes in character or cross bred with another species to create a hybrid) comprised a meager 6% of the plants included in this study.
Currently, there is a growing body of research exploring the wildlife value of native species vs. their native cultivars, often referred to as “nativars”. While there are specific examples of each type of plant providing wildlife benefit, the general recommendation for gardeners interested in planting natives for ecological value is to stick with the native, “straight-species” and not a “nativar”. However, it is often quite difficult to source native plants that are not cultivars or hybrids.
So, what can you do to find native plants to add to your landscape next year? I always recommend our local nurseries and garden centers first. While natives often remain in the minority, they are growing in number each year. If you aren’t finding what the native you want, be sure to ask as this type of feedback helps growers and nurseries know what gardeners want to plant. Finally, the Illinois Native Plant Society has a great list of nurseries that focus on native plants and local native plant sales across Illinois each year. More information can be accessed at illinoisplants.org.
Coombs G, Gilchrist D and Watson P. 2020. An assessment of the native and invasive horticultural plants sold in the mid-Atlantic region. Native Plants Journal 21(1): 74-82.
Lehan N, Murphy JR, Thornburn LP and Bradley BA. 2013. Accidental introduction are an important source of invasive plants in the continental United States. American Journal of Botany 100(7): 1287-1293.
How to Design a Native Plant Garden
One of the biggest criticisms of native plants is that they often look too wild, unkempt and messy. Grasses dominate while wildflowers struggle to provide the visual impact desired in a landscape. Wild is as wild does.
So how do we tame the wildness of the prairie? How do we design a native plant garden that doesn’t look so wild? Is it even possible? I believe it can be done. You can have the beauty of the prairie and all the benefits of a native ecosystem with a properly designed native garden.
Consider these fundamentals as you design your native plant garden:
Butterfly weed and ornamental native grass display
Match plants to your site. Look at your landscape. Is it sunny or in the shade? Is the soil clay or sand? Evaluate these elements and choose plants that will thrive in the microclimate of your yard. Sun-loving native plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight to grow happily. Otherwise look at more shade-loving natives. A carefree landscape begins with matching plants with climate. Choose plants that occur in the same or similar climate for a maintenance free garden. It has been my experience that this is the most important element in developing a successful native garden. Anytime you stray too far off, the plants don’t flourish and they require more effort. Planting a swamp milkweed on a dry hill or a primrose in a bog will never work.
Design for succession of bloom. There are no Wave Petunias in the prairie or plants that bloom all season, so choose plants that will bloom in spring, summer and fall. If you go to the prairie throughout the year, you will observe wildflowers coming into or out of bloom. The prairie is constantly changing. Design with those changes in mind. Discover how native plants appear at different times of the year and highlight interesting elements such as seedheads for winter interest. Grasses can be included for structure, winter texture and movement. Little bluestem in fall accentuates the seedheads of the Missouri Black-eyed Susan beautifully.
Group similar plants together. Fifteen blazing stars blooming in the summer create a focal point in the landscape. Place them next to a spring blooming wildflower and a fall blooming wildflower and you have organized the display for year round interest. Use grasses sparingly to frame the garden or as a backdrop for some of your wildflowers. This makes it easier to maintain, because you know what is planted in each area. When weeding, you know everything else has to be removed because wildflowers will reseed.
Kansas gayfeather and gray-headed coneflower
Keep your plants in scale. Choose plants that don’t grow taller than half the bed width. So if your display bed is six feet wide choose plants that are no more than three feet tall. A compass plant would be way too tall.
Define the space. A well-designed native garden can be enhanced with a border. It can be edged with limestone, brick or some other natural material. This element alone makes your native garden look clean, attractive, and intentional. Even a clean-cut edge can really help define the garden’s borders.
Control Perennial Weeds. You will save yourself many headaches by eradicating problem weeds like bindweed and Bermuda grass before you plant. It is better to wait until these weeds are eliminated before you establish your new garden, trust me.
It sounds so easy, but we all know that landscapes, no matter how well-designed, will take some input on our part. Beautiful gardens don’t just happen. They are the result of planning, development, time and a little bit of effort.
I am still learning too. My epiphany came several years ago after trying to grow dry, sun loving plants in a wet, sunny garden. It took me three tries to realize the futility of my efforts. Hopefully, you can learn from these basic principles and find success in your landscape. If you need information about native plants, visit our plant library, landscape designs or give us a call.
The Environmental Gardener: Using native plants means eco-gardens for everyone
Like many gardeners, I have been addicted to gardening since I was a kid. At the early age of 6, while in the baseball outfield, I was more engaged with the ants in the dirt than in the game my father expected me to play. I remember discovering how easy some plants (from peanuts to English Ivy) were to grow. I loved it all. In the ’70s, native plants were not mainstream and gardening focused more on food and the aesthetics of certain plants.
Gardening may be the biggest hobby in America, but it isn’t a static one. Always evolving, it is moving from a focus on aesthetics to one of function, including community and environmental benefits.
Over the last century American gardens have celebrated plants from other countries, often ignoring the beautiful flowers, shrubs and trees that grow locally in the surrounding woods and meadows. Native plants celebrate a sense of place and support the local creatures who share our land. I have never planted ivy again and continue to learn that what we plant in our yards and landscapes affects the entire web of life around us, impacting future generations.
April is a great time to start talking about gardens. The explosion of spring leaves and flowers is at a pinnacle of color and growth. Early spring is an excellent time to find unusual perennials at local nurseries and plant sales. Perennials’ size affords almost instant gratification within the first season of planting.
Choosing native plants for your garden has become a much more viable option over the past 20 years. If possible, always check for the Latin name of a plant to assure you’re getting the proper species. Varieties and cultivars of our favorite natives have helped to grow the appeal for those needing a bit bigger plant, uniquely colored flowers, or some other attribute. Echinacea, commonly known as purple cone flower, is an example of a plant with dozens of beautiful cultivars created to satisfy anyone’s color palette.
The latest studies show that landscapes with 70% native species will help support pollinators’ healthy populations, so it may be a goal that we should all set for our gardens. One can still keep their favorite camellias and peonies but have a landscape that serves very important ecological functions like feeding our local pollinators, birds and other wildlife.
A few of my favorite April bloomers include:
Coreopsis species — There are many varieties that range from gold, orange to a burnt red. An older yellow variety called ‘Moonbeam’ is a full, compact plant with abundant flowers, a long blooming time and a great ability to re-seed. It needs full sun and will perform in average soil and with minimal effort. There are so many cultivars of Coreopsis that you should be able to find them almost anywhere.
Stylophorum diphyllum, or woodland poppy — It is another yellow flowering perennial that thrives in deep shade and moist soils with plenty of organic matter. This poppy is more challenging to find and grow, but the payback in early April is great, especially if you are looking for color in a woodland garden.
Cornus species, dogwoods – Everyone wants to plant this tree when they see one blooming in early April. While it’s not an ideal time to plant trees, you can certainly do it successfully with proper watering and care. Dogwoods have become more susceptible to diseases over the last 30 years, so many people prefer cultivars resistant to disease like anthracnose and powdery mildew. Cherokee Princess is a lovely large white flowering dogwood, while Cherokee Brave is a dark pink selection, both cultivated for disease resistance. Alternate leaf dogwood is an under- planted favorite of mine. The flowers are less showy, but still beautiful and loved by pollinators.
Native plants are often difficult to find, but worth the chase. Mail order is one solution for finding rare selections, but the size and accessibility can be a downside. Opening a box of plants can be exciting, even exhilarating. Non-profit plant sales are another way to get natives that are hard to find, while supporting a cause that you believe in.
The following organizations have plant sales online, in person, or both. Dates published online for upcoming sales are listed below.
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