Are you looking for a gardening approach that’s good for the environment, beneficial for wildlife, low maintenance for you, and attractive for everyone? If yes, consider native plant gardening.
Native plants have evolved over thousands of years and thus are adapted to the conditions in their home range. When you match the plants to your own garden’s habitat–woodland plants in a shady garden, meadow or prairie plants in a sunny garden, for example–, you’ll find that your garden requires much less work than a conventional landscape: less watering, less fertilizing, and no synthetic chemicals at all. Plus, native plants offer beautiful blooms, interesting textures, nectar for butterflies, food for birds, and they contribute to biodiversity.
The key to native plant gardening is to base your garden on a habitat model found in nature and to match the flowers to that habitat. This may sound complicated, but it is in fact what all successful gardeners do: evaluate the garden’s conditions and grow plants that thrive in those conditions.
While the specifics may vary from place to place, the broad categories of habitat models for the native plant garden are woodland, meadow, prairie, and wetland. If you have shady conditions, the native plants to choose from are the native woodland plants that grow in the forests in your area. If you have sunny conditions, look to native meadow or prairie species for your garden. And if you have very moist conditions, consider the native wetland plants that grow in local wild areas.
Learning about the plants native to your area takes a lot of work, but it’s part of the immense pleasure of native plant gardening. Even the simplest exploration of a local wild area will yield all kinds of information useful to the gardener: you’ll discover what plants grow together as part of a healthy plant community; you’ll see when plants bloom and when they produce seed; you’ll notice what wildlife the plants attract, and you’ll see which plants tend to create colonies and which plants are more restrained in their growth. All of this information will help you to design your landscape.
Along with exploring local natural areas, there are also many sources to help you determine what plants are native to your area: field guides (such as Peterson’s or Audubon’s), local naturalist groups, national organizations (such as the North American Native Plant Society–www.nanps.org), specialty native plant nurseries, university botany departments, botanical gardens, and arboreta.
At the same time as you are learning about what plants are native to your area, you’ll need to evaluate your garden’s conditions. Considerations include: how much sun or shade your garden receives, the soil type (sand, clay, loam), soil pH (acidic, neutral, alkaline), soil moisture (wet, dry or in-between), soil drainage, etc.
All plants have specific preferences and requirements, but there are many adaptable natives suited to a broad range of conditions within each habitat type (woodland, meadow, prairie, wetland). For the novice gardener, it’s best to start with easy, adaptable plants–the ordinary natives that you see growing throughout your region, for example. As you become more confident and experienced, you may want to consider expanding your gardening palette to include more unusual and exacting species.
Once you have determined your garden’s conditions and learned about plants native to your area, you’re ready to begin the design of your garden. Don’t be afraid to experiment! This is the joyous realm of creative expression, after all–design your garden in a way that is pleasing to you and, of course, in a way that is attuned to the plants’ needs.
Remember, too, that a garden is forever a work in progress. There’s always next year to refine your design, to fix any miscalculated combinations, to marvel at the ways that the plants themselves wander from one place to another finding the niche that suits them best–and most of all to revel in the resilience and beauty of your native plant garden.