Three Lessons I Have Learned About Native Plants

When I started at the arboretum 18 years ago, I thought I knew so much.  I had book knowledge about horticulture, but I had not learned much about native plants.  In fact, information about native plants was almost non-existent.  My learning curve was very steep those first few years. Even now I continue to learn how to garden with native plants – the lessons just keep coming.  Here are the three lessons I think are essential for a successful prairie garden.

Be Patient

I know this goes counter to our “instant everything” culture, but prairie plants don’t work that way. A prairie garden does not magically appear overnight.  It takes time for those transplants or seedlings to develop root systems that will sustain them during the dry periods of the year.  I remember visiting a prairie reconstruction in Wisconsin several years ago.  It had been established from seed 20 years earlier and they said it was just then really maturing into a true prairie.  I have found that if you are patient, you will be rewarded by beautiful, strong and adapted native plants.

Kansas gayfeather

 

Start Small

Planting too much too soon – I have made this mistake many times.  My eyes get bigger than I can manage.  I like too many of these native plants and rather than working at a project in stages, I plant the whole area.  I then spend the rest of the summer maintaining a planting that is too big for the time I can give it.  It has a tendency to get out of hand in a hurry if I don’t keep up with it on at least a weekly basis.  Plant an area that you can handle with your schedule.

EPS Planting

 

Plan your garden for all seasons of the year

This lesson took the longest to learn, because it meant becoming familiar with the native plants.  I needed to learn all about them – their bloom times, soil conditions they need to thrive, mature height and what they look like when not blooming, including seedheads and forms.  Most of these characteristics had to be experienced over several years.  That information is vital to planning and developing a prairie garden.

Monarch on Aster

 

There are no Wave Petunias in the prairie, so you need to plan your garden with a succession of bloom.  Combine wildflowers in such a way that there is always a new set coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year.  Grasses can be strategically incorporated as a backdrop or to highlight interesting seed heads and to add texture and movement during the winter.

With each new season comes new revelations about native plants.  They are so intriguing and diverse.  There really is a plant for just about any area if you match the plants with your site.  The key to understanding the prairie landscape is to keep learning.  I know that I still have much to learn and experience.  Each day is a new opportunity.

Seven Steps to Planning Your Native Landscape

Interest in native landscaping is growing in popularity.  This time of year leading up to our spring plant sale, homeowners and businesses contemplate what they would like their landscape to look like.  They desire a garden that captures the essence of the prairie, a landscape that creates a sense of place.

Nature gives us such a good model to follow.  The diversity and resiliency of native wildflowers and grasses is amazing.  We can mimic the prairie and bring it home to our gardens.  Follow these seven steps as you develop a plan using native plants.

ArbFlowers 056

1. Plants should match your site.

This is the most important element in developing a successful landscape. Take a critical look at the area you want to landscape with native plants.  Is it sunny?  It is shaded for part of the day?  What type of soil do you have?  Is there a microclimate?  Is it exposed to wind?  All these factors will guide you as you select plants for your site.  This step requires some research and time as you familiarize yourself with the qualities and environmental needs of native plants.

2. Succession of Bloom

There are no Wave Petunias in the prairie. If you visit a prairie landscape like the Konza Prairie every two to three weeks throughout the year, you will observe plants beginning to bloom, in full bloom or going out of bloom.  That is how you need to design your native landscape.  Include plants that bloom in every season of the year and then strategically add grasses for movement and texture in the winter months.  Again, take time to acquaint yourself with the life cycles of wildflowers and grasses.

Succession of Bloom

 

3. Forms and Textures

A diversity of plants woven together artistically can create a dramatic effect. Pay attention to the various shapes, textures and colors present in the prairie. Notice how the plants look year-round, not just when they are in bloom. Highlight interesting plant characteristics such as seed heads, forms, and fall color.

4. Interesting Lines

Rock Edging or a clean line along your display bed and lawn can add visual interest.  It can also lead you through your garden.  Interesting lines lead our eyes and makes you want to see what is around the corner.

5. Complementary Colors

Plant the colors you like, but make them complement each other.  Use a color wheel to mix plants.  Example: Purples (Spiderwort) and yellows (Coreopsis) are attractive together because they are opposite on the color wheel while whites (Penstemon) harmonize/blend the landscape together.

Spiderwort and Coreopsis

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6. Intentional Plant Height

Are there areas that need screening?  Is there an opportunity to layer plants from shortest to tallest as a foundation planting?  Is it an island bed that has taller plants in the center with shorter wildflowers and grasses radiating to the edges?  Keep plants in scale by not planting wildflowers that are taller than half the bed width.  Example:  If your bed is six feet wide, only plants that are three feet tall will keep the display in scale.  You would not want to plant a compass plant is such a small bed.

7. Perennial and annual weed control

I have made this mistake too often. In a rush to plant, I don’t get problem weeds like bindweed and Bermudagrass under control before planting.  I am still fighting this issue to this day in some of these landscape settings.  However, when I take the time to properly eradicate these weeds, the overall success of the garden and work to maintain it long-term greatly increase.  A little work at the beginning will save you many headaches down the road.

 

If you have questions about native plants or need help choosing what plants will grow best in your area, visit our spring plant sale or choose from landscape designs on the website.  With proper planning and careful consideration, you can create a sustainable garden utilizing native plants adapted to your landscape environment.  Transform your landscape using native plants that are sustainable, easy to maintain, and beautiful.