7 tips for growing a native plant garden

You may have heard of the no-mowing or anti-lawn movements: both encourage homeowners to create more flora- and animal-friendly habitats in their gardens. Planting native flowers, shrubs and trees around your home instead of ornamental plants or simple grass has a number of long-term environmental benefits. Native plants provide food and shelter for wildlife; Provide a habitat for pollinators such as butterflies, bees and birds. and increase biodiversity. These gardens often require less maintenance and use fewer resources than regular landscaping, and can (indirectly) improve your sanity. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Your first step, even before you uproot your lawn, is to take a good look at the area surrounding your yard. Plants require certain amounts of light, water, and soil nutrients to thrive. Therefore, you should create a profile of the characteristics of your garden.

Note which areas have full sun (at least six hours a day), are partially shaded (receive at least six hours of shade or dappled sun), or are in shade most of the day. Then find out what type of soil you have. Most soils in the United States are either sandy, muddy, loamy, or a mixture of these types. If you form a ball of soil in your hand and see if it sticks together, you can quickly assess the condition of your soil [PDF]– The firmer the ball, the more loamy the soil. It can also be helpful to run a pH test to find out if your soil is particularly acidic or alkaline. You can find inexpensive test kits at hardware stores. Finally, check how the water drains from your garden. Be aware of low-lying areas where puddles form, or areas that seem to dry up quickly after a rainstorm.

As you compile your garden profile, consult the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map to find out which zone you live in. The zones show average temperatures and climate zones, giving you an indication of which plants will thrive in your area. The hardiness zones for specific plants can be found on their pots or seed packets.

This is an optional but helpful step if you are planning to completely transform your garden into a Garden of Eden. On a piece of graph paper (if you’re old-fashioned) or using an online garden planning template, sketch a map of your entire yard, including the footprint of your home, patio, or other feature, and the areas you plan to plant. Label the different areas according to your garden profile – chances are some areas will be fully sunny while others will be in the shade at certain times of the day.

Some templates and apps allow you to enter placeholder trees, shrubs, and perennials so you can design your home garden according to plant size or species. You might want to group shrubs and flowers around a tree, or frame your home with a border of different shrubs. Alternatively, you can skip this step and simply replant existing flower beds with native species.

A garden path lined with purple coneflowers (left) and black-eyed cuties.

A garden path lined with purple coneflowers (left) and black-eyed cuties. /Jacky Parker Photography/Moment/Getty Images

You should have your planting beds fully prepared before heading to the local nursery. Impatient and work-shy gardeners can create a “lasagne garden”. No, that doesn’t mean throwing noodles in the woods; It’s an effortless way to get rid of weeds while also nourishing the soil.

A lasagna garden thrives best in full sunlight. Basically, you’re piling layers of organic materials — which would normally go into a compost bin — on top of the area you want to farm natively. The first layer should be damp newspaper or cardboard, completely covering the bed to smother existing grass and weeds. The next layer should be carbon-rich organic material (aka “brownwood”) such as dead leaves, straw, mulch, or wood shavings. Spread a layer of nitrogen-rich material (also called “greens”) such as grass clippings, coffee grounds or leftover vegetables on top. The green layer should be about a quarter the thickness of the brown layer. Then, repeat layers of browns and greens as needed until your lasagna is about a foot and a half tall (it will “cook out” over time).

When the layers are in place, you can sit back and let sunlight and microbes do their work. You may want to water the lasagna during dry spells and fill in the layers as they break down into compost. However, turning or screening is not necessary. After a few months you will have weed-free, nutrient-rich soil for your herbaceous babies.

Here the fun begins! But the vast amounts of information on the internet can be a bit confusing. A trusted resource to help you select and locate native plants is your state university’s cooperative advisory service. These state-sponsored, educational programs offer a wealth of useful, trusted tips for home gardeners, including information about plants native to your state and region-specific tricks (such as choosing deer-resistant species).

Another great resource is the National Audubon Society’s Native Plants database. You can enter your zip code to see a large list of species native to your area, and then filter the results by plant type, plant resources (like nuts, berries, or nectar), and even the type of bird you’re trying to attract to your garden .

You can let your imagination run wild by browsing an analog wildflower or tree field guide, or visit your state’s native plant society website. Clubs often have active Facebook groups where members share tips and tricks. The USDA also suggests native alternatives to some common non-native landscape plants.

Your local hardware store or Walmart probably doesn’t stock many native plants. The best way to find native plants is to visit a specialty nursery near you, or order plants from online retailers that say they offer native plants.

Online retailers provide extensive information about their plants’ growing needs, allowing you to quickly weed out those that aren’t right for your space. Plants are usually shipped either in containers filled with soil or as bare root without soil. Each method has its advantages: Plants in containers look more “established”, while bare roots weigh less and are therefore cheaper to buy and ship. Online nurseries usually stock native plants in spring so gardeners can plant them at the right time of year (and the most popular species can sell out fast, so don’t wait to order if you know what you want).

Natives can also be grown from seed, though you’ll likely have to wait six months to a year after planting to see the full effects.

A white-lined sphinx moth sucks nectar from a Rocky Mountain bee plant.
An impressive white-lined sphinx moth sucks nectar from a Rocky Mountain bee plant. / Tom Koerner/USFWS, Flickr // CC-BY-2.0

Once you’ve planted your native plants, you can add elements to your garden landscape to attract pollinators and increase biodiversity in your area. Providing a source of water helps birds and insects stay hydrated. A simple birdbath is a good place to start (although it’s important to refresh the water a few times a week – you don’t want mosquito larvae growing in there). Bird feeders with a variety of seeds, fruits and nectar can complement the range of native plants and attract colourful, active species; Make sure you clean the feeders regularly to prevent the spread of bird diseases. In addition to the protection your home garden provides, you can place birdhouses, bat boxes or bee hotels around your yard, encouraging pollinators to return year after year.

Regardless of how carefully you piled up your lasagna, you will most likely have weeds or other unwanted plants in your yard. Don’t reach for the roundup! Using chemical herbicides and pesticides to control weeds and insects also harms your native flora – and one of the main reasons for native gardening is to attract beneficial insects. These chemicals can also be fatal to birds.

If you have an infestation that is damaging plants, look for non-chemical control methods. The best way to permanently get rid of invasive plants like kudzu, English ivy, or Japanese honeysuckle—to name a few—without harming other plants is to manually dig up their roots. A weed killer is essential for this. You can also apply a non-toxic weed killer like vinegar to individual weeds. It may take a season or two for your native garden to thrive, but its beauty and environmental benefits will last for a long time.

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