Native Plant Selection Made Easy

I have found that a beautiful native landscape doesn’t magically appear.  It starts with a plan.  By choosing the right plants that grow well together in your setting, you will avoid many of the challenges homeowners face after the plants are established.  Plant selection is the most important step in the process of developing a native landscape, but it can also be the most challenging.  How do you select the best plants for a particular setting?  What do you need to do to insure their success?  Here are the steps I use to choose the best plants for a site and design a landscape that is both functional and beautiful.

Analyze the Location

You know your garden better than anyone.  You know the soil type.  Does it stay wet or is it extremely dry or something in between?  You know how much sun your area receives during the day and throughout the year.  You know where the water flows.  Are there areas that you can utilize as a background or backdrop?  Is there something you are trying to screen?  Is there an area you are trying to develop?  These are important questions that ultimately affect the types of plants you will choose.


Prepare the Site

Site preparation doesn’t have much to do with plant selection, but it is an important step to consider as you develop your native landscape.  You need to get perennial weeds such as bindweed and Bermuda grass eradicated before you plant your garden.  If these weeds are not eliminated, they will overrun and out compete anything you plant.  Trust me on this.  I am still fighting these weeds in certain areas in my yard because I didn’t complete this step.

It is also good to define the area with some kind of border.  I have used metal edging, brick, limestone or landscape stone.  Edging makes your native garden look intentional.  Develop an area you can manage and fits your lifestyle.   You can always expand, but a bed that is too large can quickly become overwhelming.

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Choose the Plants

Once you have gathered all this information about your site and all the initial work has been done, you are ready to decide which plants will grow well together.  The most important step in the selection process is matching plants to the site.  You need to become familiar with every aspect of the plants through investigation, research and experience.  I often start with one or two plants I know will grow in this location.  Once I have established them as the foundation, the other plant combinations come easier.

I design each landscape with the finished picture in mind.  I consider heights, bloom time, habit, forms and textures.  We often only think about these plants when they are in bloom, but don’t forget their other qualities, such as seed heads that provide visual interest in the winter months.  It provides you an opportunity to highlight these qualities with another perennials or native grasses (e.g. coneflower seed heads  against little bluestem).  I group plants together for visual affect and stagger blooms throughout the season.  You want something coming into bloom and going out of bloom from spring through fall.  I include grasses for texture and movement during the winter months.



Why plant a garden if you can’t enjoy it?  I predict that your native landscape will be a hub of pollinator and butterfly activity.  It will be an important link to other gardens in your neighborhood.  It may even inspire you to establish other prairie gardens in your landscape.  Your success may influence others to follow your example.  A native plant garden should be cherished, because you are helping the natural world in so many far-reaching ways.  Believe it or not, your garden will have a positive impact. So get started! Let your imagination and creativity inspire your design.

Paul Friesen.jen lefevre

Bearer of the Ammonite by Paul Friesen-Photo Courtesy of Jen LeFevre

Photo Credit


The Prairie Paradox

“Reversing deforestation is complicated; planting a tree is simple.”

– Martin O’ Malley, Former Governor of Maryland and Mayor of Baltimore.

When I first read this saying, I automatically changed it in my mind.  I changed it to “reversing prairie degradation and loss is complicated; planting a wildflower is simple“.  Granted, we appreciate trees in Kansas. But more than trees, we need to plant prairie to reverse the losses to our signature landscape.  Only one percent of the original prairie remains—99 percent of prairies are gone.  The rich prairie land is now used to produce crops and raise livestock.  Only a few pockets of prairie still survive in their original form, including the Flint Hills.

I grew up on a farm and learned so much from farm life.  I know the value of the land.  I understand how hard it is to eke out a living working the land.  There is a richness of the soil precisely because it was once prairie.  Conservation of the soil is vital to the success of any farm.  Stewardship of the land is understood.  We can’t take the land away from the farmers and landowners, but we also can’t let the prairie disappear forever either.  We need the food that this land produces and we need to save this almost extinct ecosystem.  It is complicated on so many levels.

Big Bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project

Big Bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project

I believe the solution to the prairie paradox is to allow for and encourage individuals to make small steps, such as choosing to plant native wildflowers and grasses in our own yards and landscapes.  Just like remnant prairies that dot the landscape, our small gardens can have an impact.  This impact can be multiplied with each new wildflower and each new garden that is established.  By choosing to establish just a few native plants, we can begin the slow process of reclamation, rejuvenation and renewal of this lost landscape.  Large expanses of prairie are never coming back, but a patchwork landscape of our own native plants seems doable.

Larger prairie restorations are a challenge.  They can take years to get established and even then the results will almost always fall short of the original prairie.  I can remember looking at a prairie restoration in Wisconsin that had been seeded over 20 years earlier.  The guide noted that the prairie had just started looking like the original prairie.  It took that long to develop into something that resembled a true prairie.  I am not saying that we shouldn’t plant new prairie.  If anything, we should start now so the transformation can begin.  A “new prairie” does not develop overnight. It takes time and is complicated by so many different factors.  We should have realistic expectations and be patient.


Burning the Prairie Window Project-Spring 2016

Even our Prairie Window Project is continuing to mature.  It is now nearly 10 years old.  We have worked hard to keep the trees and yellow sweet clover out of the prairie.  We planted the prairie with good diversity of wildflowers and grasses but even that is no guarantee of success.  The impact of farming on the land, weed competition with new native seedlings, management regiments and many other influences can have detrimental effects on a prairie reconstruction slowing the transformation.  These examples demonstrate how complicated it can be to change a farm field to a prairie.  It is costly, time consuming and unpredictable.


Earth Partnership for Schools Native Planting

We should keep planting native plants because it is the right thing to do. Plant a prairie if you can.  Reclaim a prairie if you can.  The prairie ecosystem, unique to North America, is an important part of our natural heritage.  Native pollinators need these plants for their survival.  Native wildflowers and grasses create habitat for wildlife.  We should be aware of the many benefits of native plants.  Obviously, native plants are worth the effort.  Remember, planting a wildflower is simple –why not start today?


This is a landscape worth saving!