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:

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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.

 

Native Columbine

Native Columbine

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.

 

Summer Prairie Garden

Summer Prairie Garden

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.

 

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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.

 

Three Iconic Prairie Grasses to Add to Your Landscape

Native grasses are at their best right now.  They are in full plumage.  They are changing color from green to bold reds, yellows, and oranges.  They have reached their full height.  They are spectacular.

I can’t imagine the view atop a rise looking over the expanse of the Great Plains in its unbroken state – a “sea of grass” as far as you could see.  It must have been awe inspiring. Within these waves of gold and green, three grasses stood out from the rest.

Within these waves of gold and green, three grasses stood out from the rest.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

This is the king of the prairie grasses, reaching to the skies and sending its roots deep.  It perseveres in tallgrass prairies.  The vertical stems stand firmly and sway with only a slight breeze and change vibrantly in the fall to shades of red and orange.  The three-pronged seed heads resemble a turkey’s foot, hence its other name “Turkey Foot Grass”.  Plant it in full sun in a medium to moist soil.

 

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Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

The airy seed heads and upright habit make this a great landscape grass.  These forms make quite a statement in the fall and winter landscape.  They add structure, texture and movement.  For best results, plant them in a sunny spot in a medium to moist soil.  It is very drought tolerant.  Discover these varieties: ‘Northwind’-consistent upright form to four feet tall and golden yellow fall color, ‘Cheyenne Sky’-red leaves develop early in the summer and grows to three feet, and ‘Dallas Blues’-tall (to 8 feet), with blue foliage and purple seed heads.

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Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)

The yellow/tan plumes and vase-shaped habit make this grass easy to recognize in prairies.  I use them in naturalistic plantings or formal plantings.  Give them space, because mature plants can be five feet across the top.   It grows best in a medium to dry soil and all-day sun.  Heavy clay soils make it robust, but it thrives in many different soil types.

Indian Grass

 

These native grasses are the backbone of the tallgrass prairie.  They are resilient because their roots go deep making them drought tolerant and tough.  They are garden-worthy and deserve a place in the landscape.  Give them a try.  You will be rewarded for many years to come.

Check out this article in Fine Gardening that I wrote several years ago for more information on other native grasses.

Five Grasses You Should Be Using In Your Landscape

I am always in search of the tough, resilient plants that stand out in any challenging landscape.  Certainly, ornamental grasses fit into this category.

They are increasing in popularity because of their texture, form/structure and interesting seed heads.  Another reason their popularity continues to grow is that they require minimal care and provide year-round interest.

Ornamental grasses are a diverse group of perennials that expand the plant palette of any design, but many of them get too tall for a typical landscape application.

This week, I wanted to make note of some of the dwarf grasses in our gardens.  As you know, fall is the best time of the year for most grasses.  They are showing off their attractive plumage and the beautiful fall colors are beginning to develop.  These five grasses have worked for me, and can be found next week at our Fall FloraKansas Plant Sale:

 


Blue Grama-Bouteloua gracillis ‘Blonde Ambition’         

This Blue Grama Grass is apparently on steroids.  I cannot believe how vigorously it grew this year, ultimately reaching two feet tall. This taller form has bright blue-green leaves that are topped by a host of eyelash-like golden yellow flowers.  They wave in the wind and ambitiously last from summer into the fall and winter months.  I used it along a walkway but it is so attractive that it could stand on its own providing many months of ornamental interest.   This beautiful grass was discovered by David Salmon of High Country Gardens.

Blue Grama Blonde Ambition

 


Little Bluestem-Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Carousel’

At home in a formal planting or prairie garden, you don’t have to sacrifice anything by planting this Little Bluestem.  Carousel remains stiffly upright even through the winter.  The gentlest breeze puts the plant in motion.  The blue-green leaves are highlighted by pink that gradually turn to rich copper, pink, and mahogany tones in the fall.  It truly has a carousel of color.  It provides a beautiful backdrop to perennials like coneflowers or black-eyed susans. This graceful, low maintenance Little Bluestem will provide a form that can be used in any sunny landscape.   Other garden-worthy varieties of Little Bluestem are ‘Standing Ovation’, ‘Blaze’ and ‘Blue Heaven’

Carousel

 


Prairie Dropseed-Sporobolus heterolepis

At one time, this was the top selling native grass in the country.  To see a mass planting in full bloom, you can understand why it is so popular.  The narrow leaves form a perfect fountain of green.  In late summer, the fragrant airy seed heads develop.  Some liken the fragrance of the blooms to buttered popcorn.   With this plant, you can get your theater popcorn fix without all the calories.  It requires almost no maintenance once established.  Fall color is burnt orange and rivals Little Bluestem in mass plantings.  A shorter form of Prairie Dropseed worth trying is the variety ‘Tara’.

Prairie Dropseed

 


Switchgrass-Panicum virgatum ‘Cheyenne Sky’

WOW! This grass is spectacular this year.  They are totally saturated in reds and purples.  Most switchgrass varieties get four to five feet tall, but not ‘Cheyenne Sky’.  It forms an upright three foot clump.  The vibrant red color hues begin to develop in early summer followed by reddish flower clusters in August and September.  The leaves rustle with the slightest breeze and sway in the wind adding movement to the garden.  I use it in containers, groupings or as a specimen plant by itself.  It is a very versatile and beautiful grass.

Cheyenne Sky

 


Fountain Grass-Pennisetum ‘Little Bunny’

We have been thrilled with this miniature fountain grass.  It puts on a show during the summer when the tiny cream seed heads pop up over the cascading green leaves.  The seed heads resemble little bunny tails, hence the name.  We have found it to be a reliable performer in the perennial borders and  when planted in mass.  If you have limited with space, then this grass would be a great choice.

Little Bunny

Questions: Which of these grasses have you tried in your landscape?  What steps do you need to take to integrate more grasses into your garden?