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5 Tips to Help You Start Your Native Garden

By Kate Miller, Horticulturist

There are a plethora of reasons why native plants are important. They provide nectar, pollen and seeds for pollinators and other animals, they help reduce air pollution and they do not require insect pest control to survive. That’s why you should start a native garden of your own! You’ll not only enrich your garden space with native plants, but you’ll also help the environment around you and the creatures that live in it.

Here are five tips to help you start your own native garden:

DON’T BE INTIMIDATED

Using natives in your landscape doesn’t mean you need to convert your entire yard into a prairie (unless you want to!). You can transform an area of turf grass into a garden dedicated to natives, install a rain garden or simply incorporate a few native plants into an existing formal garden. Even if you’re only adding a tree or two to your landscape, just choosing a native species will help attract a higher number of diverse native insects to your backyard.

rain garden diagram

TAKE STOCK OF YOUR LANDSCAPE

Before choosing plants for your native garden space, there are several important things to consider. You need to know how much sun your plants need. Plants that require full sun need at least six hours of sunlight throughout the day. You will also need to know the type of soil you have, whether it be a sandy, loamy (mix of sand/clay) or clay soil, as well as the moisture level of that soil.

Don’t worry if you have a very shaded area to work with because you’ll certainly be able to find native plants that tolerate shade. Some common natives that crave shaded areas include fern, carex, wild geranium and Jack in the pulpit among others.

Japanese Jack in the pulpit
Japanese Jack in the pulpit

Once you evaluate these elements in your landscaping, you can choose plants that will thrive in the microclimate of your yard. By choosing plants that have the same requirements your site offers, you’ll also be cutting down on how much maintenance the plants need to flourish. No soil changes will be necessary, and watering needs will be minimal, once the plants are established.

GET NATIVE PLANTS LOCALLY

When finding sources for your plants, try to stay as close to home as possible. Not only will your plants have been started in an environment similar to your own, but you will be supporting local businesses. Some good local sources in northeast Wisconsin for native perennials are Stone Silo Prairie GardensPrairie NurseryDoor Landscape & Nursery and Chief River Trees and Shrubs.

Your local nurseries are also a great resource for any questions you may have about planting with natives!

MIX IT UP

Native plants offer many different flower colors and shapes, as well as foliage texture and color. Pick out plants that have a variety of colors and textures, and don’t be afraid to change things up a little! Also, be sure to use plants that add structure and movement to your garden. Grasses are an optimal choice.

When designing a garden using native plants, there are no rules. You can choose a more formal look with repeating patterns and colors, or you can go with a more spontaneous look by combining plants that just look good to you. A common practice in native design is planting groupings of the same plant in drifts, creating focal points that will invite a closer look. You don’t need to have an abundance of different plants to create a beautiful garden.

native plants yellow

It’s also important to keep in mind the change of seasons. Native plants and grasses offer elements of interest throughout the year from blooms to seed heads. Trees and shrubs also offer winter interest with their seeds, fruits and bark. Consider choosing plants that will complement each other by blooming at different times throughout the seasons. While this will create changing color, it will also support the most variety of wildlife throughout the year.

You may also want to wait until spring to cut back your native perennials as they could provide seed for birds as well as add interest to your garden throughout the winter months. When making your plant selections, keep in mind the type and amount of insects each plant will support to optimize the biodiversity of your landscape.

WATER YOUR NATIVES AT THE START

Once your plants are in the ground, you’ll need to water them until they are established. It’s a good idea to water your new plants through the first growing season, so they can root properly. Make sure to water when needed, so you give plants a thorough deep soaking less frequently, which promotes a deep root system, rather than lightly watering often. A two to three-inch layer of weed-free organic mulch will help with evaporation and weed control and will break down over time, which adds nutrients to the soil!

native plants purple

Each time you plant natives, you’re doing your local wildlife a favor. Creatures like insects, birds and other wildlife will thank you by visiting your garden! The natural beauty of native plants will also add to your landscape. Share the importance of native plants with friends and neighbors, so we can create more habitats for our native insects and animals that are crucial to our ecosystem.

Don’t forget to save the date for Garden Fair! You can shop for plants, gardening supplies and garden art on May 29 and 30. Admission into the plant sale is free and we’ll have a number of garden experts on hand to answer all of your questions, including ones about native plants and native gardening. Then afterward, you can enjoy a stroll through the Garden with half-price admission!

Native plants can also attract pollinators to your garden. You can find out more about pollinators and the plants they love with the North American Edition of our summer exhibit, Butterflies & Blooms! It kicks off on June 1 and is free with Garden admission.

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