Finding Common Ground with Native Landscaping

In the gardening off season now, you have a chance to think about the big picture of what you want for your landscape. Consider a plan that resonates with the general public by finding common ground with native landscaping. I will offer some suggestions that help keep your native landscaping from looking like a “weed patch”.

Let’s start with some perspective. Landscaping in the United States has many different influences and varies greatly from formal to wild/ecological. You have a whole spectrum of styles to consider.

Formal Gardening

Many of us were taught to appreciate the formal landscapes and garden designs made famous in Europe and France centuries ago featuring rectilinear lines with meticulously-trimmed lawns and hedges. Much of our society today still prefers this landscaping style as is evident in city codes and homeowner association regulations that encourage and even mandate manicured vegetation. With this style, we value leaves over flowers, vegetation simplicity, order, control and tidiness. Intensive use of mowers, trimmers, water, fertilizer, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, help efficiently maintain this style of landscaping that symbolizes human domination of nature.

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Gardens of Château de Villandry, France. Photo by Peter Dutton.

Ecological Restoration

On the other end of the landscaping spectrum is ecological restoration. Plant communities native to a place are used as the blueprint to reconstruct a functioning ecosystem. Seeds of that plant community (i.e., prairie grasses and wildflowers in South Central Kansas) are planted and disturbance vectors (i.e., fire and grazing) that originally maintained that plant community are restored. While intensive preparation and planning go into reconstructing a prairie, this style of landscaping is eventually low maintenance, requires only implementing/simulating occasional disturbance, and mostly embodies working in sync with nature.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

Native landscaping advocates, promote many benefits of this latter landscaping style:

  • Colorful flowers and seed heads with varied shapes and textures
  • Diverse habitats with food and shelter that attract various forms of wildlife
  • Dynamic landscapes that provide year-round visual enjoyment
  • Long-term low input needs with regard to water, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides
  • Adaptation to natural environmental conditions
  • A cultural connection to earlier inhabitants that used native vegetation for food, medicine, and ritual; building a “sense of place”

There are barriers, however, to landscaping this way in cities. Fires and grazing are not practical in urban areas. Annual mowing adequately simulates these activities, but dealing with that much biomass can still be cumbersome. Codes limiting vegetation height and social expectations driven by the formal garden mindset are hurdles for folks wanting to landscape with native plants. Native plantings are often seen as messy “weed patches”.

But you can still landscape with native plants in publicly palatable ways and enjoy many of the listed benefits. While my training and education are in ecological restoration and I used to be an advocate for restoring diverse prairies in urban areas, I realize that is not usually practical. I’ve moved towards the middle of the landscaping spectrum when it comes to recommendations on landscaping with native plants, to find common ground between formal and ecological styles.

With more than a decade of lessons learned from helping schools implement native plant gardens, I’d like to offer some of the following management practices to make native plant gardens more visually appealing to the general public.

Native Plant Garden Best Management Practices

  1. Define Garden Goals – Wildlife habitat in general? Single species habitat (e.g., monarch)? Rain garden? High profile or in backyard? Prairie or woodland?
  2. Start Small – I plan for about one plant per 2-3 square feet. Hand irrigation to establish plants in the first year is important as well as establishing a regular weeding routine takes time. Keep the workload manageable. You can always enlarge/add more gardens later.
  3. Prepare the Site – Eradicate existing perennials with a couple of Glyphosate treatments in summer, especially important for getting rid of weed enemy #1, Bermuda grass.
  4. Consider Height Proportions – Think about being able to see layers of plants. Island gardens are visually more appealing with shorter plants and there are many short to medium height native options to consider. Gardens against building walls do allow for taller vegetation in the back.

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    Be sure that plants are not too tall for the scale of small island plantings.

  5. Add Hardscaping – Include features such as bird baths, feeders, houses, artwork, and benches for human enjoyment.
  6. Get Edgy – Establish the boundary where weeding meets mowing. A flexible edge such as flat pieces of limestone is a favorite. A visible edge also conveys that this garden is purposeful.

    Limestone edging helps define this garden.

    Limestone edging helps define this garden.

  7. Clumping of Species – When a garden has high visibility for the public, choose fewer species and plant them in clumps or waves to convey that this garden is intentional. Too many species planted will appear random and thrown together over time.

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    Suggestions for planting in waves or clumps.

  8. Don’t Fertilize – Native plants will survive fine without fertilizer. Extra nutrients benefit weeds and only make native plants taller (and more wild looking).
  9. Mulch Is Your Friend – One or two applications (2”-4” deep) of free wood chip mulch from the municipal pile or delivered by a tree trimmer keeps the native garden looking good and helps control weeds. A layer or two of newspaper under the mulch also minimizes weeds.
  10. Signage Educates – Whether a wildlife certification sign or species identification labels, signage helps convey that this garden is intended to be there. Education leads to acceptance.
  11. Weeding Is Mandatory –Weeding regularly and often minimizes the need for a long backbreaking weeding session that will make you hate your garden. It is therapeutic and good exercise. Plus, a high frequency of visits to your garden will add to your appreciation and enjoyment.

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    Weeding can be fun!

Now, resume your planning and consider going native. Do so in a visually pleasing way and maybe your neighbors will follow suit.

Photo Credits

Plant Profile: The Gayfeathers

Gayfeathers are truly iconic symbols of the prairie.  Also known as blazing stars, these distinctive plants occur throughout Kansas grasslands.  Seven species are native to our state, all blooming during late summer and early fall.  Producing upright spikes crowded with rose-purple flower heads, gayfeathers add a distinctive dimension to late-season landscapes dominated by asters, sunflowers, and goldenrods.

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Kansas Gayfeather, Liatris pycnostachya

Four species of gayfeathers can be found in the Arboretum’s living collections.  Kansas gayfeather or thickspike gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya) is the tallest, reaching up to five feet in height.  It is a plant of the tallgrass prairie of eastern Kansas.  Button blazing star or rough gayfeather (L. aspera) occurs in drier habitats and is generally about three feet tall.  Two other species, L. mucronata and L. punctata grow from one to three feet in height.  Liatris punctata occurs throughout the state and is the most drought tolerant of the gayfeathers.

Liatris and Indian grass in the Prairie Window Project

Button Blazing Star or Liatris aspera and Indian grass in the Prairie Window Project

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Dotted Gayfeather, Liatris punctata

Gayfeathers are not only beautiful in their natural settings, they also make very fine garden plants.  Thickspike is the species most likely to be sold by nurseries and garden centers.  We will have most of these species at our FloraKansas Plant Sale.  They all appreciate a sunny flower bed or border.  Adding to their value as garden plants, gayfeathers are also attractive to many butterflies and other pollinators.  In addition, the spikes make excellent cut flowers, either fresh or dried.

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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.

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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.

Five Elegant Perennials for the Summer Landscape

Lately, I have been watching old Western films.  John Wayne always looks so calm and collected.  He never sweats, even though he is wearing five layers of clothing.  Have you ever wondered why they wear so much when it is so hot?

Right now, I wish I had a sprinkler to run through or a bucket of ice water to dump on myself.  Those movie characters who ride through the desert unscathed remind me of some tough plants blooming right now in the arboretum.  It is a true testament to the toughness of some perennials that thrive in adverse conditions.

Try these sun-loving perennials – you will be rewarded year after year by these resilient plants:


Letterman’s Ironplant-Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’

While walking through the gardens this morning, I noticed the vibrant purple blooms of this iron-clad wildflower.  We should be tooting the horn for more natives like these.  The plants were alive with activity-like a pollinator magnet!  Each stem has slender leaves radiating outward, similar to Amsonia hubrichtii.  This is a more refined ironweed, but just as tenacious as the pasture type.  I use them in groupings with switch grass and goldenrods but they would be a nice addition to any landscape.

Vernonia Iron Butterfly

Photo taken at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

 


Russian Sage-Perovskia atriplicifolia

On my recent trip to Denver, Russian Sage was ubiquitous.  That’s a fancy word for everywhere.  It was in the street medians, parks, store fronts, and in front of most homes, but for good reason.  The soft lavender blooms are eye-catching.  The cloud of colorful flowers above the finely textured aromatic foliage is a wonderful combination.  Did I mention that Russian Sage is tough?  It shines in any full to part sun location.  It can survive drought conditions, but appreciates weekly watering.  They are best displayed in mass plantings or with native grasses.

Russian Sage-Photo Courtesy of Walters Gardens, Inc.

Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens

 


Button Blazing Star-Liatris aspera

Blazing stars have put on quite a show this year and button blazing star is no exception.  It is in full bloom right now in 100 degree heat and loving it.  The entire plant matures to 3′ in height, but the real show is the purple button flowers that develop along the stem.  It is happiest in medium to dry soil conditions and will become unhappy with too much moisture.  Pollinators flock to it, including butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees.  Plant them in mass, 8-12 inches apart for the ultimate display.  I like to integrate several grasses like Little Bluestem or switch grass to give interest later in the season.

Liatris aspera

Photo taken at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

 


Hummingbird Mint- Agastache ‘Blue Boa’

This plant has been one of my biggest surprises over the last several years.  It is almost always in bloom.  It loves the heat and humidity.  The deep violet-blue blooms lure many different pollinators and ‘Blue boa’ requires very little care once established in a medium to dry location.  If you want to help the pollinators, try a few in your landscape. You will be surprised by them, too.

Agastache Blue Boa-Photo Courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries

Photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries

 


Aromatic Aster-Aster oblongifolius ‘October Skies’

We have been growing this great form of our native aromatic aster for several years.  It is not rambunctious in the landscape.  In fact, it develops into a nice bush that is covered with glowing lavender flowers.  When the whole plant is in bloom it looks like a mum on steroids.  Flowers begin to open in late September and last into October.  During the warm days of autumn, pollinators congregate on these beauties, seeking to collect the last pollen of the season.  We have used them in borders and native groupings with ornamental grasses.

Aster October Skies

Photo taken at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

 

Notice the theme?  They all have lavender blooms.  These are a few plants that are doing well in the arboretum.  What plants have you had success with this year?