Six Rewards of Native Plants

Native plants reward people and wildlife in many different ways.  They improve the environment, create a sense of place, restore a balance between plants and pollinators and you get to enjoy their natural beauty. Below is a quick list of six good things native plants do and provide.

They are a good value for your money.

Having just finished the fall plant sale, we hear over and over the value of native plants. If matched to the site, they are resilient, quick-growing and long-lived.  They persist and thrive, which saves money since you seldom need to purchase replacements. These plants are adapted to our climate extremes.  Their deep roots, habits and forms quickly fill up your garden space, adding interest throughout the seasons.

Pollinators will love your plants and you.

With all the talk about pollinator declines including monarchs, don’t you want to help in any way possible? The most obvious way that you can help is by planting the native wildflowers they need for survival. Whether milkweeds for monarchs or plants that provide food and shelter for these imperiled native pollinators, your yard can become an oasis.  Why not create a habitat where up close encounters with many different butterflies, bees, insects, and even birds, can be admired?

They are a versatile and diverse group of plants.

One of the amazing attributes of the prairie is its diversity. There are literally thousands of plants thriving in every possible landscape situation. Wet, dry, sun, shade, clay, sand and so on – there are a host of plants that will grow in your yard just as they do in the prairie.  That diversity allows you to match native plants to your own part of the world and successfully develop a landscape plan.

Native plants reduce maintenance.

Notice I didn’t say native plants require no maintenance? Even though native plants are drought tolerant and tough, they still require some maintenance each year in a landscape scenario. Again, think about a prairie. Native plants’ only requirements are to be cleaned off each spring before the next season’s growth. They survive pests and disease, require little or no fertilizing and demand extra water only during the severest drought. By spending less time maintaining your garden, it releases you from the obligation of burdensome yard work. Less time working and more time enjoying your landscape is always a good thing.

Native plants help with soil and water conservation.

The root systems of native plants are vital to soil and water conservation. Grasses such as big bluestem and switchgrass have fibrous deep reaching roots that hold soil tightly, keeping it from eroding into waterways. A dense, thick prairie of grasses and wildflowers will slow the movement of water, allowing more to infiltrate the soil too. Those deep roots also tap into moisture during dry periods. Drought resistant plants require little if any supplemental water which saves you money in the long run.

Enjoy the garden you created.

A prairie planting done right will offer you years of enjoyment. A habitat with attractive forms, textures and flowers that bloom at different times during the growing season will attract a host of pollinators and birds for you to watch. Those up close encounters will deepen your appreciation of these endangered species. Surrounding your home with native plants guarantees you’ll be rewarded time after time and year after year.  It is a reward to you, but a gift to the natural world too.

Native Plants Are Becoming “The New Normal”

What is normal?  A definition I like is “the usual, average, or typical state or condition.”  So, what would most mid-Westerners think of as a “normal” landscape? How about a landscape dominated by lawn, a few foundation plantings with uninspiring, “tidy” perennials and shrubs that serve no real purpose other than to take up space? In my opinion, this describes many of the common landscapes we have seen over the past 20-30 years, including some areas around my own house.

The “new normal” reflects a current state of being after some dramatic change has transpired.  It replaces the expected, usual, and typical with exciting, productive, purposeful, beneficial and sustainable.  I believe that over the past few years we have seen a renewed interest in landscaping that fits this description, and that soon, landscaping with native plants will become the new normal.

Through increased interest in our native plant sales, native landscaping classes and educational programs, we are witnessing a collective realization that there are significant benefits to utilizing natives in the garden, benefits that make sense both for people and for the wildlife that depend on these plants for their survival.  We as a society have also come to understand, we don’t have to give anything up in the process of developing an eco-friendly landscape.  It is interesting and ironic that this “new normal” of landscaping with native plants is taking us full circle here in Kansas, back to our prairie roots.

Here are three reasons native plants should be the “new normal” in your garden:

#1 Low Maintenance

There is no such thing as a no-maintenance landscape.  However, if we emphasize selecting plants that grow naturally in our area and matching them to our site, maintenance will be drastically reduced.  Native plants have adapted to local conditions.  Once established, the deep roots of the prairie natives will take them through prolonged periods of drought.  Healthy plants require less maintenance, are stronger, are less prone to disease, require less water, provide beautiful blooms while growing in the toughest environments, therefore reducing our time in the garden and increasing our enjoyment.

The new normal is to select plants that go naturally with the place we live, rather than planting traditional landscapes that often try to change the place to accommodate the plant.

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Native wildflower planting at Denver Botanical Garden at Chatfield

#2 Beautiful Plants

If you have ever walked through a pristine prairie or observed the changing seasons in the Flint Hills, you know the exquisite beauty of wildflowers in bloom coupled with native grasses. It is understated and taken for granted. I am always amazed at the complexity and intricacies of these prairie plants.  They create a very unique sense of place.

The new normal is a renewed awareness of the natural beauty of the prairie and a recognition that we can have a part of it in our own gardens.

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Summer Wildflowers in the Arboretum

#3 Attract Pollinators and Wildlife

Even in most urban settings, wildlife surrounds us.  Pollinators live in our neighborhoods and utilize plants in our landscapes.  By strategically planting even a few native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs that bloom at different times throughout the year, you can make a positive impact on their survival.  When it comes to helping the natural world, diversity is crucial.  Increasing the natural diversity on your property will ultimately benefit wildlife.

The new normal is understanding that we can positively or negatively influence the natural world by the plants we choose.  Even a few native plants in your garden, combined with those of your neighbors, will be extremely beneficial.

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Painted Lady Butterfly on New England Aster

Over the years, I have learned that there is no right or wrong way to use native plants.  If you don’t like something, or if a plant isn’t happy, you can always try something else.  In most cases, you can just move it.  I have to remind myself that these plants are so much better than a turf lawn.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been rewarded for my efforts in observing a beautiful flower covered with lively pollinators.  To see them flying from plant to plant makes it all worthwhile.

How to Plan for Pollinators

It is hard to believe, but it is mid-January already.  Spring is right around the corner.  Yes, it will be here before I am fully prepared.  Are you ready for spring?  Do you know what your garden needs?  Do you know what pollinators need?  How can we sync our gardens better with nature?  These questions and many more have been rolling around in my head over the past few weeks.

I have been reading articles and reviewing plant catalogs.  My brain is in overload.   Here is one of the directions I will be taking my garden this year.  I am planning for pollinators and not just hoping they will magically appear.  So, what does that look like?  Here are a few points to consider as you plan for pollinators in your own garden this year:

Establish plants with nectar.

Pollinators depend on nectar throughout their adult life stage.  A variety of native wildflowers that grow in a sunny location and bloom at different times throughout the year provide pollinators with a constant nectar source.  Not every plant is beneficial to pollinators.  If possible, utilize native plants because they offer nectar that many native pollinators seek.  Here are some sample landscape designs to get you started.

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Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea - photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Think of color and form.

Butterflies can see yellow, orange, pink, blue and purple blossoms. Bees are unable to see the color red, but are very attracted to yellow and blue flowers.  Darker colors such as black are a warning sign for them to stay away.  Bees for the most part are attracted to bright colors.  So don’t wear a bright colored shirt in the garden.  Flat-topped or clustered flowers provide a place to settle for feeding.  We carry many options of native plants at our FloraKansas Plant Sale.

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Texan Crescent

Provide puddles.

Butterflies like wet sand and mud left behind by puddles or on the edge of a water feature.  They drink the water and extract minerals from damp soil.

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Pearl crescent butterflies – Photo by Dave Osborne

Establish host plants.

Host plants provide food for butterfly larvae (caterpillars).  Butterflies look for specific plants when they are ready to lay eggs.  The host plants for the Monarch butterfly are milkweeds.  If you want to help save the Monarch butterfly, include some milkweeds in your garden plan.  Here is some additional information on Monarchs.

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Great Spangled Fritillary on Sullivant’s Milkweed

Make your garden a pesticide-free zone.

Insecticides kill insects.  Herbicides kill plants, but they can be toxic to insects as well.  Pesticide-free lawns and gardens allow pollinators to survive and flourish.

Provide habitat.

Small wood piles, old logs and leaves in your garden at strategic areas provide important habitats for many different pollinators.  Bees will uses these areas to overwinter because they keep them safe from the elements and predators.  Don’t be too quick to get rid of that old rotting log.  It is just what pollinators need.

Bee Hotel Photo by John Regier

Bee Hotel – Photo by John Regier

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Bee Hotel Explanation – Photo by John Regier

Many butterflies, pollinators and native wildflowers have co-evolved over time so that each depends on the other for survival.  Wildflowers provide food for all life stages of pollinators.  In return, wildflowers and much of the food we eat are pollinated by bees, butterflies, and a host of other pollinators.  With a little planning now, pollinators will flock to your garden this year and in years to come.

Three Benefits of Native Plant Roots

The other day I was watching a show on television that was trumpeting the benefits of organic matter.  It really made me think.  I know organic matter doesn’t exactly get everyone fired up, but one comparison that was presented in this program really opened my eyes to the benefits of prairie plants to the soil.

They took soil samples from the edge of a field, which was untilled remnant prairie, and from the farm field itself.  The prairie edge had nearly six percent organic matter, while the field ranged from two to three percent organic matter.  That may not seem like a big deal, but the prairie provides tremendous improvements to the soil.  There is so much going on underground in a prairie.  Here is an explanation of what native plant roots do for the soil:

They add organic matter.

Organic matter is extremely important in a healthy soil.  It attracts microbes, earthworms, and fungi that bring the soil to life.  These organisms break down the thatch at the surface as well as the roots that die from year to year.

Organic matter reduces compaction, making the soil spongy and able to bounce back.

In addition, organic matter increases the water holding capacity.  It is said that for every one percent of additional organic matter, the soil can receive four percent more water holding capacity.  This is important through prolonged periods without rain.

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Western Kansas Prairie-Photo by Larry Vickerman

Organic matter helps prevent soil and wind erosion by binding sandy soil particles together.  This binding property of organic matter prevents caking, cracking, and water run-off that occurs when clay soils dry.

They add nutrients.  

The breakdown of organic matter consequently infuses minerals throughout the soil profile.  For every one percent of organic matter in the soil, it releases on average:

  • 20 to 30 lbs. of Nitrogen
  • 4 to 7 lbs. of Phosphorus
  • 2 to 3 lbs. of Sulfur

Organisms in the soil are vital in the decomposition process.  They help recycle the nutrients into forms that are readily available for plants to absorb through their roots.  It is a symbiotic relationship.  Other plants, like legumes (prairie clovers, lead plant and indigos), actively fix nitrogen from the air and add it to the soil.  These native plants live harmoniously together, forming a matrix of roots that keep giving back to the land.

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Purple Prairie Clover at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

They improve soil porosity.

What we see above ground is only 1/3 of the entire prairie plant.  The roots are 2/3 of the plant and 1/3 of those roots die each year, adding organic matter to the soil and opening pores, so water can percolate deeply into the ground.  If you have a heavy clay soil, native grass roots can break through compacted soils.  It is rare to see standing water in a prairie because of the holes punctured deep into the earth by plant roots, allowing rainfall to be readily absorbed.

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The rich soils of the prairie that were broken for farming were a result of huge quantities of organic matter.  In some places in the Tallgrass Prairie, the top soil was over ten feet deep from centuries of organic matter decomposition.  Think of the prairie soil as a living organism that gives and takes and gives and takes.  It is true, prairies develop healthy soils.  Why not start bettering your own soil by growing a prairie?

Five Benefits of Native Plants

The prairies of the Great Plains are diverse and complex.  They are often overlooked and taken for granted.  They are subtle in beauty, but resilient.  Because of the many benefits the prairie provides to us and the environment, it is an ecosystem worth saving.  Here are five benefits of native plants – though there are certainly more that we will experience as we begin to utilize these plants in our landscape:

  1. Low Maintenance

    There is no such thing as a no-maintenance landscape. Native plants still need some care, but compared to a traditional landscape with a lawn, tidy shrubs and a few trees surrounded by perennial beds, native plants are extremely low in maintenance. Native plants are adapted to our climate and can grow in the toughest environments. Once established, their deep roots take them through prolonged periods of drought.  It was great to see native plants blooming in the fall of 2012 after so many days of scorching heat.  The blue sage, heath aster, goldenrod, little bluestem, and switchgrass brightened up our prairie reconstruction.  It was a testament to their toughness. The slide below illustrates exactly why native plants are so much more resilient than the typical lawn – notice the difference in the root system of turf grass (far left) to many of the most common wildflowers and grasses of the prairie.

  1. Saves money

    There are obvious savings associated with a native landscape compared to maintaining a traditional landscape. A native landscape uses less water, little or no fertilizer and no chemicals or pesticides, which in turn saves you time. I am frugal and a native landscape is a low cost alternative to a traditional lawn-dominated landscape.  Conservation and stewardship are trends that help you and the environment.

  2. Water

    We have seen an increased interest in native plants because of the water they save once established. Many homeowners are decreasing their lawns as a way of saving water and money.  Most roots on a fescue or bluegrass lawn are only three to four inches deep compared to prairie wildflowers and grasses that develop extensive root systems several feet deep.  Big Bluestem grass for example establishes roots up to ten feet deep.  With a shallow root system, a typical lawn requires ten gallons of water per square foot through the summer to keep it looking green.  If you minimize your lawn, you will begin to diminish your dependence on water.  Click here for an example of a Waterwise Landscape Design.

  3. Beautiful plants

    If you have ever walked through a pristine prairie or observed the changing seasons in the Flint Hills, you know the exquisite beauty of wildflowers in bloom coupled with native grasses. It is understated and taken for granted. I am always amazed at the complexity and intricacies of these prairie plants.  They create a very unique sense of place.

Missouri Black-eyed Susan

  1. Attract pollinators and wildlife

    Pollinators and wildflowers have a symbiotic relationship. If you have wildflowers you will have butterflies. There have been over 20 documented butterflies in the arboretum during the butterfly counts.  They seek out our wildflowers and utilize them throughout the year.  Monarch populations are declining.  They need milkweeds, and since we have milkweeds in the arboretum, they show up.  Read this article on how to encourage and sustain the monarch butterfly population by planting milkweed varieties.  Also, just like the Monarchs, songbird populations are declining.  They need prairie habitat for survival along with wildflower seeds to feed overwintering birds.

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Monarch caterpillar on swamp milkweed

 

There are more reasons to grow native plants, but you get the idea.  Prairie is good, not only for you, but also for the environment.  The many benefits far outweigh negative perception.  When you plant native wildflowers and grasses, you will be rewarded time and again for your prairie habitat.  I don’t know how we got away from our regional identity of a prairie landscape, but it is essential to who we are and what grows best here.

Join us in re-establishing some prairie roots in your own yard, and then spread the word by sharing this information with your friends.