Using Natives in the Garden

June 30, 2020

When choosing plants for their yards and designing gardens, most people rarely take into account the local flora, or the fauna that corresponds with it. Many people are willing to give up their sense of place for the ease of cramming a box-store special into the yard because it has the latest color or is on sale. Most of our urban landscapes are therefore dominated by plants that can be found in any part of the country, lending to a uniform look that matches Minnesota to Arizona and beyond. It is this uniformity that usually leads to problems with hardiness, landscape stability and spiraling costs in maintenance. The question is, why? Why do we choose to look to other places for plants and forsake our local flora?

Using native trees, shrubs and perennials in our landscapes has benefits far greater than most of us realize, from easing stress on our pocket books to bringing in butterflies and birds. Our yards are just small parts in a very large puzzle. Using natives is a way to connect all these pieces making our yards healthier for our environment and in turn making us healthier by reducing our use of chemicals (including gas) and the stress of maintenance. An acre of land planted in natives can reduce overall costs as much as 75% versus the cost for the same size plot planted in turf grass.

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Benefits of Using Native Plants

  • Can reduce overall costs on an acre of property by as much as 75%
  • Increases/restores the native range of species that are important to local ecology and wildlife habitat
  • Decreases the risks of monoculture plantings, i.e. pests, diseases, invasive, etc.
  • Using natives is ecologically responsible
  • Native species are adapted to local weather patterns and are more tolerant of changes in weather, when they are sited correctly
  • Can improve time spent outside by increasing the interest in the yard from butterflies

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A common complaint that many gardeners lay on native plants is that they are hard to use in an urban landscape. We cannot disagree more. Native trees, shrubs and perennials can be seamlessly blended into any type of gardening that a yard master can think of. Be it oak trees lining a walk or drive, or native grasses used in flower beds, creative gardeners have gotten their homes added to garden walks and featured in articles that showcase their imagination. There is always a native that can replace an ornamental in any style of gardening.

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Prairie/Savanna/Woodland Gardens

One of the more misunderstood ways to garden with native plants. Many times a small plot of land is squared off and covered with seed that may or may not be native to the area (sometimes not even the country!). After a couple of months, that plot looks weedy and forsaken, with the gardener giving up and turning it back into sod. These results are frequently caused by a lack of understanding and patience.

The keys to a successful native planting are these: understanding that a native planting can take up to 3 years to come in fully from seed, with different species appearing over different periods of time. Identifying weeds versus native plants is critical. Research is an important part of planning a native planting so that species native to a particular area are identified, and species that are not native are not accidentally introduced. Because people in the past overlooked this, we are stuck with plants like Lythrum salicaria (Purple Loosestrife), which originated in Eurasia.

Paying attention to site conditions, all of those conditions, is critical to correctly choosing the types of species to be planted and the type of ecosystem they belong to. When laying out a plot to be planted, no area is too small, but bigger is usually better. Tying the area into an overall landscape plan will also lend to a planting's success.

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Rain Gardens

Rain gardens may be viewed as a fad by some, but they really can lend functionality and beauty to any yard. The importance of these types of gardens is increasing due to the use of chemicals, the laying down of more concrete and the great reduction of open space and natural wetlands in our urban areas. Using native plants is key to a rain garden's success. They are well adapted to our local weather variance, and many have roots that penetrate deep into the ground, increasing our yards' capacity for holding water (drying it out faster) and are able to withstand periods of drought.

When identifying a site for a rain garden, keep an eye on the areas in your yards that remain wet for a day or more after a rain. Redirecting downspouts, sup pump outlets and rain-barrels that feed into a garden are a good idea as well. They help filter and store more water on site before it is passed on to our overworked storm sewers and river systems. The garden can be any size or shape, but should only be deep enough to hold water for a small rain events (1.5" or less), with an overflow to let larger rains flow through the area without being retained.

Suggested Rain Garden Plants — Trees & Shrubs

Amorpha fruiticosa
Indigo Bush
Aronia arbutifolia
Red Chokeberry
Aronia melanocarpa
Black Chokeberry
Cephalanthus occidentalis
Cornus stolonifera
Red Osier Dogwood
Hydrangea arborescens
Smooth Hydrangea
Hydrangea quercifolia
Oak Leaf Hydragea
Ilex verticillata
Prunus virginiana
Rosa palustris
Swamp Rose
Sambucus canadensis
Sambucus pubens
Red Elderberry
Spiraea alba
Spiraea tomentosa
Hardtack (Steeple Bush)
Viburnum cassinoidesa
Withe Rod Viburnum

Suggested Rain Garden Plants — Forbs & Grasses

Acorus calamus
Sweet Flag
Agastache foeniculum
Anise Hyssop
Asclepias incarnata
Swamp Milkweed
Aster novae-angliae
New England Aster
Carex stricta
Common Tussock Sedge
Carex vulpinoidea
Brown Fox Sedge
Chelone glabra
Eupatorium maculatum
Joe Pye Weed
Eupatorium perfoliatum
Helenium autumnale
Iris virginica shrevel
Bllue Flag Iris
Juncus effusus
Common Rush
Lobelia cardinalis
Cardinal Flower
Lobelia siphilitica
Great Blue Lobelia
Panicum virgatum
Switch Grass
Pycnanthemum virginianum
Mountain Mint
Rudbeckia subtomentosa
Sweet Black-eyed Susan
Scirpus fluviatilis
River Bulrush
Scirpus validus
Soft-stem Bulrush
Solidago riddellii
Riddell's Goldenrod
Tradescantia ohiensis
Ohio Spiderwort
Veronicastrum virginicum
Culver's Root

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Green Roofs

The reduction in open space in our communities has forced some to look to large expanses of roof top to help relieve the increase in rain run-off, urban heat retention (heat island effect) and other effects of more parking lots and buildings. Green roofs have become a popular way to help reduce the effects of these problems and clean up water and air that pass through the system.

Green roofs are divided into two categories: Extensive, on which soil depth is from 1" to 6" and has a weight of 15 to 50 pounds per square foot; and Intensive, on which soil depth is anywhere from 6" to 24" and weight per square foot can exceed 150 pounds. These two types of roofs can support a range of plants, but a good rule of thumb is, the deeper the soil, the larger the plants that can be used. Keep in mind that the mature weight of the trees must be considered in the weight per square foot calculations. Furthermore, species type can also be determined by the presence or absence of irrigation, height of building and exposure, and other local considerations. If you are interested in installing a green roof, consult an architect or an information source familiar with them before you give it a try on your own.

Suggested Green Roof Plants

Antennaria plantaginifolia
Aster ptarmicoides
Stiff Aster
Aster sericeus
Silky Aster
Carex muehlenbergii
Sand Bracted Sedge
Coreopsis lanceolata
Sand Coreopsis
Eragrostis spectabilis
Purple Love Grass
Koeleria cristata
June Grass
Lupinus perennis
Wild Lupine
Oenothera macrocarpa
Missouri Evening Primrose
Opuntia humifusa
Eastern Prickly Pear
Penstemon grandiflorus
Large-flowered Beardtongue
Verbena stricta
Hoary Vervain
Viola pedata
Bird's Foot Violet

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Maintenance and the Neighbors

While the startup cost and elbow-grease needed to get a native planting going can be substantial, they are no more than starting up a standard garden. Unlike ornamental gardens, native plots can be starts from seed, and that reduces costs. Caring for the natives once they germinate or are planted can also be easier due to reduced need for water and mowing. Mulching is a necessity and a nice way to dress up planting beds. Weeding will be needed until the plants fill in, but once that occurs, very little weeding will be needed until the plants fill in, but once that occurs very little weeding will be necessary.

Neighbors can sometimes become interested in the way that another yard is cared for and not always in a good way. Don't be afraid to give them a first-hand education. Remember to mention native plants are more likely to bring in a wide variety of butterflies and birds, and natives tend to be a bit more interesting than drab old turf. Also, you're doing your part to reduce stress to our environment.

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Here are a few websites that can be of help, aside from ours:

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