Native plants get a lot of hype because they’re generally low-maintenance, wildlife-friendly, diverse plants that have adapted well to their particular area. While it would be ideal to devote the entire landscape to natives, most folks have some existing trees and shrubs that are foundational aspects of their yards. Native plants are hardy growers that make wonderful additions to the landscape. But the best part for homeowners: Planting natives is an easy, rewarding way to enhance the garden. Just follow these four basic steps to get started:
This native plant garden in Raleigh, NC, offers areas of sun and shade.
Photo Credit: Stephanie Avett
Review Your Site
Just because a plant is native, it doesn’t mean it’s right for every garden site in the region. Consider the amount of sunlight (or shade) and water available in your garden, and keep in mind the specific geographic area a plant is adapted for. For example, a native plant that grows on shady stream banks wouldn’t be happy – and shouldn’t be planted – at the top of a hill in full sun.
Choose Good Plants
As with any garden planning, you should choose plants that have a variety of bloom times, appropriate heights and varying structures (trees, shrubs, vines, herbaceous plants, groundcovers, etc.) to offer interest.
Be sure to find out if a particular plant is, in fact, native to your specific geographic area, because a plant that’s “native to the Southeast” may or may not be found in your precise Southeast location. In North Carolina, for example, there are four major geographic regions, characterized by different soils and climate – mountain, piedmont, sandhills and coastal plain. Some plants thrive in all four regions, while others may need the sandy soil of the sandhills or coastal plain to survive.
For lists of suggested native plants in your area, check with your local botanical garden, arboretum or Cooperative Extension Service.
Find a Reliable Source
Whatever you do, do not dig up plants from local parks or forests! (For starters, it’s a fineable offense.) Turn to the professionals instead. Native plants might be available at your local garden center, but natives are somewhat of a niche market and the selection may be limited. Some native plant suppliers are mail-order only, while others are local or regionally based. Another reliable source can be found at local plant sales sponsored by botanical gardens and garden clubs.
Reputable native plant nurseries propagate their own plants, rather than gathering wild specimens. In addition to being environmentally responsible, purchasing plants from propagation nurseries offers a wider selection of interesting varieties, such as dwarf plants or different-colored varieties.
An instantly beautiful and mature garden is ideal, but as the saying goes, “Good things come to those who wait.” Patience is key. Some native plants can be expensive, but don’t be put off at the cost. If price is an issue, buy smaller selections and leave space when planting for them to grow and fill out the garden. (Also consider growing some plants from seed.)
Keep a wish list and add a few new plants to your garden each year. With the perfect location, the right plant, a reliable source and a great deal of patience, a thriving native garden can be yours to enjoy in two to three years.