7 Tips for Growing a Native Plant Garden
By Kat Long
Maybe you’ve heard of No-Mow May or the anti-lawn movement: Both encourage homeowners to create more flora- and fauna-friendly habitats in their yards. Planting native flowers, shrubs, and trees instead of ornamentals or plain grass around your home has a number of long-term environmental benefits. Native plants provide food and shelter for wildlife; offer a habitat for pollinators like butterflies, bees, and birds; and increase biodiversity. These gardens often need less maintenance and use fewer resources than regular landscaping, and they may (indirectly) boost your mental health. Here a few tips to get you started.
1. Assess your property’s micro-environments.
Your first step, even before ripping out your grass, is to take a close look at your yard’s environment. Plants require specific amounts of light, water, and soil nutrients to thrive, so you’ll want to create a profile of your yard’s characteristics.
Note which areas get full sun (at least six hours per day), are partially shaded (receiving at least six hours of shade or dappled sun), or are in the shade for most of the day. Then figure out what type of soil you have. Most soil in the United States is either sandy, silty, clay, or a mix of these types. Forming a ball of soil in your hand and seeing if it sticks together is a quick way to assess your soil’s makeup [PDF]—the firmer the ball, the more clay-ey the soil. It will also help to do a pH test to discover whether your soil is particularly acidic or alkaline; you can find inexpensive test kits at hardware stores. Finally, check how water drains from your yard. Take note of low-lying spots that puddle or areas that seem to dry out quickly after a rain storm.
As you put together your yard profile, review the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zones map to find out which zone you live in. The zones indicate average temperatures and climates and give you a clue about which plants will do well in your area. You’ll find the hardiness zones for specific plants marked on their pots or seed packets.
2. Map out the areas for planting.
This is an optional but helpful step if you plan to totally remake your yard into a Garden of Eden. On a piece of graph paper (if you’re old school) or by using an online garden-planning template, sketch a map of your entire yard, including your house’s footprint, patio, or any other features, along with the areas you intend to plant. Label the different areas according to your yard profile—chances are, some areas are fully sunny, while others are shaded at certain times of the day.
Some templates and apps will allow you to input placeholder trees, shrubs, and perennials, so you can design your native garden according to plant size or type. You may want to cluster shrubs and flowers around a tree or outline your home with a bed of different bushes. Or you can skip this step by simply replanting existing flower beds with native species.
3. Make a “lasagna garden.”
You’ll want to have your planting beds fully prepped before heading out to the local nursery. Impatient and labor-averse gardeners can create a “lasagna garden.” No, this doesn’t mean dumping pasta in the woods; it’s a toil-free method for getting rid of weeds and nourishing the soil at the same time.
A lasagna garden will work best in full sunlight. Basically, you stack layers of organic materials—which might normally go in a compost bin—on top of the area you want to go native. The first layer should be made of damp newspaper or cardboard and completely cover the bed to smother existing grass and weeds. The next layer should be carbon-rich organic stuff (a.k.a. “browns”) like dead leaves, straw, mulch, or wood chips. On top of that, spread a layer of nitrogen-rich material (a.k.a. “greens”) such as grass clippings, coffee grounds, or vegetable scraps. The greens layer should be about one-fourth the thickness of the browns layer. Then, repeat the browns and greens layers as needed until your lasagna is about a foot and a half tall (it will “cook down” over time).
When the layers are laid, you can sit back and let sunlight and microbes do their thing. You may want to water the lasagna during dry spells, and top up the layers as they break down into compost, but there’s no turning or sifting needed. After a few months, you’ll have weed-free, nutrient-rich soil ready for your herbaceous babies.
4. Choose plants that are native to your region of the country.
Here’s where the fun starts! But the vast amounts of information online can be a little bewildering. A tried-and true source to help you choose and find native plants is your state’s university cooperative extension service. These government-supported, education-focused programs offer tons of useful, trustworthy tips for home gardeners, including information about plants native to your state and regionally specific hacks (like choosing deer-resistant species).
Another great resource is the National Audubon Society’s Native Plants database. You can punch in your ZIP code to see a big list of species native to your area, then filter the results by plant type, plant resources (like nuts, berries, or nectar), and even by the kind of birds you want to attract to your yard.
You can let your imagination run wild by browsing an analog wildflower or tree field guide, or by checking the website of the native plant society in your state. The societies often have active Facebook groups with members sharing tips and tricks. The USDA also suggests native alternatives to some common non-native landscape plants.
5. Find native plants online or at a specialty nursery.
Your local Home Depot or Walmart probably doesn’t stock a lot of native plants. Your best bet for finding natives is a specialty nursery in your area, or by ordering plants from online retailers that specify they carry natives.
Online retailers offer copious information about their plants’ growing requirements so you can quickly eliminate the ones that won’t be suited to your space. Plants will usually be shipped either in soil-filled containers or as a bare root with no soil. Each method has its advantages—containerized plants look more “established,” while bare roots weigh less and are thus cheaper to buy and ship. Online nurseries usually stock native flora in the spring so gardeners can plant them at the proper time of the year (and you might find the most popular types sell out quickly, so don’t wait to order once you know what you want).
Natives can also be grown from seeds, though you’ll likely have to wait six months to a year after planting for full gratification.
6. Attract more pollinators with your native garden.
Once you’ve planted your natives, you can add features to your gardenscape to attract pollinators and increase your area’s biodiversity. Providing a water source helps birds and insects stay hydrated. A simple birdbath is good start (though it’s important to freshen the water a few times a week—you don’t want mosquito larvae growing in there.) Bird feeders offering a variety of seeds, fruit, and nectar can complement the native plant offerings and lure colorful, active species; make sure you regularly clean the feeders to prevent the spread of avian diseases. In addition to the shelter provided by your native garden, you can mount bird houses, bat boxes, or bee hotels around your yard and encourage pollinators to return year after year.
7. Know your enemies—but be careful when killing them.
No matter how diligently you layered your lasagna, you will likely end up with weeds or other volunteers in your garden. Do not reach for the Roundup! Using chemical herbicides and pesticides on weeds and insects will also harm your native flora—and one of the main reasons behind native gardening is to attract beneficial bugs. These chemicals can also prove lethal for birds.
If you do have an infestation that is damaging plants, seek out non-chemical mitigation methods. The best way to permanently eliminate invasives like kudzu, English ivy, or Japanese honeysuckle—to name but a few—without harming other plants is to manually dig up their roots. A weeder is indispensable for this purpose. 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 a long time.