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

How Do You Learn About Native Plants?

This weekend, I did some reflecting on the past 19 years I have spent at the arboretum.  I thought I knew so much when I was hired as the horticulturist. After all, I had just graduated from Kansas State University with a horticulture degree.  There wasn’t anything I didn’t know. But after the first week, I was in over my head.

It was July in Kansas. Need I say more?

One of the first things I quickly realized was that I knew virtually nothing about native plants.  I had learned about a few native trees and shrubs in my college classes, but I couldn’t identify more than five wildflowers.  My learning curve was steep those first few years.  I was going to sink or swim at this new job by how much I knew about native plants.  So I set out to learn all I could about the plants that grow on the prairie.

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Bison-Photo by Craig Freeman

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Finney County KS-Photo by Craig Freeman

The most formative experiences that I had were the many seed collecting field trips we made throughout the state.  It was so enlightening to see the plants growing in their natural environment.  Those memories guide how I design gardens today.  I became familiar with the plants, but more importantly I learned where they like to grow and who they like to grow with.  Just like us, plants need to be in communities that are vibrant, healthy and sustaining.   Native plants rely on each other.  High quality prairies and even gardens have communities of plants that live harmoniously together.

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Logan County, KS-Photo by Craig Freeman

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Chalk Formations-Photo by Craig Freeman

Collecting seeds forced me to learn the scientific names of the plants.  Each seed had a specific set of conditions that it must be subjected to in order for germination to occur.  This too was a fascinating process that required me to learn.  It was extremely rewarding to take some seed from the wild and get it to germinate in the greenhouse and ultimately place a new plant for the seed we collected into the arboretum for others to enjoy.

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Cimarron National Grassland-Photo by Craig Freeman

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Rocktown Natural Area-Russel County-Photo by Craig Freeman

I read catalogs and books about native plants.  I grew, planted and killed several native plants in an attempt to continue that learning process.  I moved plants that were not happy to other areas in the garden where they began to thrive.  These exploratory trips – we called it “55 mph botany” – helped me hone my identification skills as we traveled many of the back roads of Kansas in search of unique native plants.  Each of these experiences influence plant choices, mixtures and sequences in landscape plans.  As native plants have become more mainstream, more information is available.  Naturally, I am still learning.

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Flint Hills-Photo by Craig Freeman

I say all this to encourage gardeners, specifically native plant enthusiasts, to learn everything you can about at least 25 plants that will grow well in your landscape.  From those, there is nearly an infinite number of plant combinations.  By matching plants to your sight, the guess-work has been taken out of the equation.  This will increase your successes and diminish your failures.  If the plants are happy, they will take care of themselves. And that will increase your enjoyment while greatly reducing your upkeep and maintenance.

Challenge:  Start with learning about 10 native plants, eight wildflowers and two grasses.  As you learn about these plants and incorporate them into your garden where they like to grow, I believe you will be rewarded in time with a landscape that works for you, not against you.   You will have a community of plants that flourish together.

Let the learning begin!