Native Plants Make for a Carefree Garden Landscape

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Native and naturalized wildflowers make a perfect, low-maintenance addition to your landscape.
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Lady’s slipper can be difficult to transplant but offer a great reward when they take.
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Maple seeds offer bright colors early.
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Wonderfully yellow coreopsis stands tall in the sunshine.
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Mountain laurel
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Blue flax
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Black-eyed Susans
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Bee balm

Rediscover the past and imagine your land as the pioneers saw it, with native plants growing vigorously. Natural landscapes provide an escape from the modern world. Their curved lines and randomly spaced, informal plantings create a relaxing retreat from formal gardens, and these natural oases welcome birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

A common definition for native is a plant present in a particular area prior to European settlement, approximately 1850 in Minnesota, earlier in the eastern United States. Selecting landscape materials native to your locale almost certainly guarantees their health and hardiness since they have existed in your geographic region for hundreds to hundreds of thousands of years without irrigation or maintenance.

Carol Andrews, an environmental engineer from Duluth, Minnesota, is national president of Wild Ones, a nonprofit organization that promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the establishment of native plant communities. She believes landscaping with natives embraces the local beauty and uniqueness of a given area.

 “Living with a natural landscape is just more fun,” Andrews says. “It feels good, it looks interesting all year-round, and it helps sustain wildlife. We have stripped the earth of so much natural habitat that many species are barely hanging on.”

Doug Tallamy, chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark and author of the book Bringing Home Nature, agrees that biodiversity within the United States is in serious trouble. Up to 33,000 species in this country are on the brink of extinction, and the figure grows worse every day.

“That’s because we humans manage 95 percent of the land either for agriculture or as cities or suburbs, so there is only 5 percent of the land that is relatively pristine,” Tallamy says. “We have 54 percent of the country in suburbia. That means our plants and animals are going to have to make it in those managed ecosystems. When we landscape primarily with plants that evolved someplace else – and it’s usually China or Europe – typically those plants do not become part of the local food web, and if they’re not part of the local food web, they are not capturing energy from the sun, turning it into food and passing it on to all other living things.”

How to help

Tallamy proposes we plant natives in our yards so we don’t lose all the living species that make up a healthy ecosystem.

“We absolutely need them to moderate our weather, to recycle our garbage, to provide our oxygen and sequester our carbon dioxide,” he says. He would begin by planting woody species because they support more wildlife than herbaceous perennials. As an example, Tallamy cites his favorite native tree, the oak, which supports 534 species, whereas most perennials only support 10 to 13. On the other hand, melaleuca, an invasive alien tree from Australia, supports 409 insects where it is native but only eight in the United States.

Before you begin to design your natural landscape, think of wildlife as guests and consider ways to make them feel welcome. Seek out local experts and attend meetings of your local nature organizations. Look at what your neighbors are doing and read local field guides. Decide which species you’d like to invite into your yard.

Wild isn’t weed

There is a common misconception that native plants are the same as weeds, but nothing is further from the truth. An accurate definition of weed is any plant that is out of place. Lynn Steiner, author of Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota, says there are many other misconceptions about native plants: they are colorless and dull, they cause allergies, they are hard to grow, they are messy-looking, and they are hard to find.

“Natives give a landscape a sense of place,” Steiner says. “They provide pollen sources for many necessary insects, and they are more interesting than a lot of non-native plants.”

Natives, once established, can survive without synthetic chemicals or fertilizer and regular maintenance. By planting natives, you are participating in sustainable landscaping, a practice growing in popularity because it is better for the soil.

Beware invasives

Beware of selecting invasive species for your landscape. Ken Druse, in his book The Natural Landscape, defines invasive plants as weeds that spread aggressively to the detriment of native species. These
exotic aliens consume all resources – light, nutrients, water and soil – effectively eliminating all other plants. Some 60 percent of the invasive species in this country were introduced by arboretums, botanical gardens and gardeners, and another 30 percent resulted from conservation activities of the Department of Agriculture in the form of windbreaks, erosion control, and as food and cover for wildlife. The remaining 10 percent were introduced accidentally.

In Minnesota, one of that 10 percent is purple loosestrife, a plant with an attractive purple flower that invaded wetlands, prompting a major eradication program by the Department of Natural Resources. In Hawaii, a state sometimes called the nation’s endangered species capital, with 273 endangered species, invasive aliens like banana poka and strawberry guava threaten miles of once native forest. New Hampshire plans to ban the sale of barberry, oriental bittersweet and water flag iris.

To find a list of invasive exotics in your state, contact your local extension agent, a chapter of the Nature Conservancy, your state’s Department of Natural Resources or check out these websites: or

Where to begin

To determine which natives are suitable, study the plants that occur in natural communities near your home. Ask of each plant: Where does it normally grow in nature? Sun or shade? What type of soil or terrain does it prefer? Then select plants with soil, moisture, light and altitude requirements that you can duplicate in your yard.

Steiner categorizes natives by their natural plant habitats that vary across the country: grassland, woodland or wetland plants. Her favorite grassland plant is little bluestem, an attractive clump-former with light green to blue foliage that turns golden to reddish brown in fall and displays attractive silvery-white seed heads. Its small size makes it easy to use in most landscapes. Two of her favorite woodland species are maidenhair fern, with lacy, arching branches and wiry black stems, and wild ginger, an excellent ground cover with large, textured, heart-shaped leaves. For moist areas, she likes river birch, a tree that tolerates wet soils and offers landscape interest year-round thanks to its unique peeling bark.

Shrink your lawn

Tallamy encourages homeowners to shrink the size of their lawns.

“We have 45.6 million acres of lawn in the United States,” he says. “We have to change the way we landscape because it is the amount of vegetation in a particular area that determines the ability of that area to support life. We’ve got to find a way to put more plants back into the landscape that will provide both food and habitat.”

He suggests smaller lawns and paths that take you into little landscaped rooms that are private and cozy instead of vast savannas that nobody uses.

Andrews would replace portions of lawn with a patch of prairie, a shrub grouping to attract birds or a woodland garden with a quiet bench. Her native area is a small, urban front yard where the scene changes daily. Some days there are hordes of dragonflies, other days sparrows or hummingbirds flit among the flowers. American Lady caterpillars munch on Pearly Everlasting plants, and birds feast on serviceberries.

“We have stripped the earth of so much natural habitat that many species are barely hanging on,” she says. “Even small natural areas or the addition of native plants to an existing garden can add another lifeboat to the cause of sustaining wildlife.”

Consider going wild in your backyard. Once established, a natural landscape is easy on the environment, lower in maintenance, and filled with opportunities for bird-watching, photography and activities with children. It provides an escape from the pressures of our modern world and a return to the rhythms of the seasons. Getting back to nature will enrich your life and remind you of your heritage. 

Margaret Haapoja plants natives wherever and whenever possible in her garden in Bovey, Minnesota.

Sources for Native Plants

The cardinal rule is never dig plants from the wild. Always purchase “nursery-propagated” plants, not “nursery-collected” plants.

Prairie Restorations
P.O. Box 327
Princeton, MN 55371
800-837-5986 or 763-389-4342

Kinnickinnic Natives
235 State Road 65
River Falls, WI 54022

Landscape Alternatives Inc.
25316 St. Croix Trail
Shafer, MN 55074

Plants of the Wild
P.O. Box 866
Tekoa, WA 99033

Plants of the Southwest
3095 Agua Fria Road
Santa Fe, NM 87507
800-788-7333 or 505-438-8888

Prairie Nursery
P.O. Box 306
Westfield, WI 53964