How to Add Native Plants to Your Landscape

By Melinda Myers - horticulturist and gardening expert
September 7, 2019

More and more people are talking about the benefits of growing native plants in our landscapes. Maybe you are one of those helping to spread the word or perhaps you are trying to figure out how to add these native beauties to your city, suburban or rural lot. Visit the National Wildlife Federation native plant finder, and enter in your zip code for a list of native flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees.

Despite all the benefits native plants provide, many people have some reservations about planting these magnificent flowers and grasses in their yards. Some believe they are messy, will take over the yard or that neighbors will complain about growing these less traditional landscape plants.

Milorganite Adding Native Plants to Your Landscape Brings Pollinators

Benefits of Native Plants

If you are still on the fence, let’s start by discussing the many benefits native plants provide you and the environment.  They are the most effective plants for supporting pollinators and other beneficial insects since they all evolved together over time. Beneficial insects help manage garden pests and many pollinate much of our food, fiber, medicines and other products we depend upon.

Native plants also help keep rainwater where it falls reducing the risk of flooding, basement backups and water entering our storm sewers and potentially polluting our waterways.  These plants slow water running off the roof, hard surfaces and the lawn.  Their deep roots create pathways for water to infiltrate and travel through the soil to the groundwater. The plant roots and soil help remove dust and pollutants before reaching the groundwater.

Their deep roots also improve the soil. The roots help break apart heavy compacted soils and as old roots die they add organic matter. All this supports healthy plant growth.

You’ll spend less time maintaining these plants once established. Just select the best plant suited to your growing conditions and landscape design. Always check the plant tag or catalog description to see how fast the plant will grow and spread. Some like maidenhair fern and Culver’s Root form clumps that gradually spread outward over time. This makes them easy to add to any size garden.

Others, like Columbine and Rudbeckia, spread by seeds creating more plants each year. Use seedlings to fill voids in the garden or start new planting beds. More vigorous plants like Ostrich fern and cup plant spread by underground stems called rhizomes. These expand in multiple directions and can require a bit more effort to contain.  And then there are those that spread by several of these methods. Obedient plant and Monarda (bee balm) are just a few examples.  These beauties can quickly fill a space.  Look for the positive in managing these plants.  As I thin unwanted bee balm seedlings in spring I enjoy a bit of aromatherapy from their citrusy-mint fragrance.

Length of native plant roots

How to Plant and Care for Native Plants

As with any garden prepare the soil before planting.  Have your soil tested and follow the test recommendations.  Add several inches of organic matter to the top 12 inches of soil to improve drainage in heavy soils and increase the water-holding ability of fast-draining soil.  Incorporate Milorganite fertilizer prior to planting. This low nitrogen slow release fertilizer encourages balanced above and below-ground growth. Plus it contains 85% organic matter that feeds the soil and the plants. Proper soil preparation helps get your plants off to a good start.

Once established native plants need minimal on-going care.  Many are drought-tolerant requiring less watering once they establish their strong root system.  You won’t need to mow, only fertilize once in spring if needed with Milorganite and seldom if ever use pesticides.  All this means you will spend less time and money managing these plants.

Like all perennials, your native plants will grow and spread. Spring and late summer or early fall are good times to dig and divide overgrown plants into smaller pieces. Amend the soil as needed and replant one of the pieces into the original space.  Use the remaining divisions to fill voids in other gardens or start new native plant gardens.

Milorganite Examples of Native Plant Design

Native Plant Garden Design

Consider starting small by adding native plants to existing gardens. As a plant needs replacing or you start a new garden add a native plant or two.  Select a plant that not only thrives in the growing conditions but also is the right size and blooms at the right time for your garden design.

As you gain confidence in growing natives try creating a garden of native plants. Design it just like you would any flower garden.  Consider color, texture, mature plant size and bloom time. Use a variety of plants that provide blooms throughout the growing season for you, the hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies to enjoy. Include some with seeds that attract birds and grasses that add texture and motion to the winter landscape.

Use repetition of color and texture to provide unity and balance in the garden. Position taller plants that need support next to grasses to eliminate the need for staking.  Look to nature and copy some of its winning combinations.

Reduce maintenance with an informal more relaxed design. Create beds with gentle curves and masses of flowers and grasses. Then allow plants to intermingle, just like they do in nature, for a more casual appearance.

The final step may be converting a corner, your front or back yard into a natural planting that mimics those in nature. Many books, videos, the Wild Ones Native Plants, Natural Landscapes organization, plant nurseries and other organizations specializing in native plants offer planting guidelines and designs.

It will take several years for your garden to grow into its full glory. Since the design and many of the plants may be new to your neighbors consider adding elements they recognize. Leave a strip of mowed grass around the garden, add a bit of decorative edging or install a few birdhouses to let your neighbors know this is a garden with a purpose.

And as you create more natural plantings you’ll be investing in a healthier environment, reducing stormwater runoff and creating beautiful gardens for you, pollinators and birds to enjoy. Then watch as others follow your lead and start planting and enjoying their own natural gardens.