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Landscaping with native plants and wildflowers

Returning native plants to your landscape gives you a view of the natural world as it existed before agriculture and civilization.
Purple and yellow coneflower plants combine with native grasses to provide a replica of a natural Midwest prairie. Indigenous plants are hardy, easy to maintain, and colorful year around. Photographs: John Walter
A butterfly garden can be created from native plants on raised flowerbeds, using native stone and crushed rock walkways. This garden also includes a pair of small ponds and a waterfall surrounded by a brick patio and benches.
Joel Van Roekel, a naturalist at an Iowa conservation center, says native plants are tough competitors once they're established.

Wildflowers and native grasses on your place bring back a flavor of the land's original beauty.

Part of that beauty is visible to the eye. Native prairies, for example, can bring you blooming plants throughout the season -- in an array of colors, shapes, and sizes. They attract beneficial insects and wildlife.

What your eye can't see is also part of the beauty of these plants. In natural prairies there's typically more life underground than above through the deep root systems. Switchgrass roots extend to depths of 9 to 11 feet. Roots of a prairie rose push to as much as 20 feet deep. These extensive root systems stabilize soil and water and give the plants great resiliency against drought.

A walk through the Annett Nature Center in Iowa gives a good overview of some of the things you can do with native plants to add beauty and conservation benefits to any location.

The center sits on a hillside above a 6-acre pond and 10-acre wetland. The 160-acre ground includes prairie plantings, trails, a bird-watching area, and a butterfly garden.

The butterfly garden demonstrates how acreage owners can blend native plants and man-made features. About 60 species of native forbs are planted in raised flowerbeds.

Keep things blooming

"The raised butterfly garden beds were made to highlight the local native plants as well as provide a beautiful perennial garden that lasts all summer long," says Joel Van Roekel, naturalist at the center.

"We have different plants blooming from April through September starting with the small pasque flower and usually ending with a variety of goldenrods and asters," he says.

The beds in the butterfly garden were raised with local fieldstone, then filled with a mixture of topsoil, peat moss, and sand. Flowers were added in groups of species, bunched to provide a view of blooming and seeding plants throughout the year. After the plants were established, mulch was added to suppress weeds.

Retaining wall terraces and a larger prairie restoration area at the center also host native plants. The prairie plot features tall grasses, such as switchgrass, big bluestem, and Indian grass, as well as a mix of forbs, including prairie larkspur, compass plant, and pale coneflower. "The forbs can be mixed in the planting but will not be as full as in a small garden plot," Van Roekel says.

Farming with natives

Establishment of the prairie planting was more like an ag operation. Following a herbicide application, the grasses were drilled, mowed high to chop off weed heads, and then spot sprayed. The grasses took four years to get established well enough to keep the weeds down. Controlled burning or mowing is used for regular maintenance.

The initial extra care required by native plants has a big payoff, Van Roekel says. "You get a great feeling knowing that the plants in your garden really belong there. And, they are beautiful, too."

Get 'em growing

Native flowers and grasses take a little different approach to establishment than do conventional plantings, says Joel Van Roekel, a naturalist at the Annett Nature Center, near Indianola, Iowa. But once the plants are established, they are tough competitors, he says. "The first step to successful establishment is to find out what is truly local or native to where you live. That may not always be so obvious.

"Sometimes when you order wildflower seed mixes, they will come from some place that grows plants that your local area can't support," he says. "What happens then is that only a few of the plants in the mix will actually be able to survive and grow."

Sources of seed include nurseries, arboretums, and conservation groups and agencies.

Purchased seeds can be expensive. "Many of the seeds are very tiny and have to be hand picked," Van Roekel says. In planting a butterfly garden, Van Roekel hand collected seed from wild plants and raised them in a greenhouse for a couple years.

Starting with purchased plants is another option. "If you are buying plants, pay attention to the roots, not the blooms, on the first- and second-year plants," Van Roekel says. "These plants spend their energy on establishing a root structure first and may not even bloom for a couple of years. Sometimes they will go dormant after they have been planted. Don't dig up a plant immediately if it looks dead. Wait until next year and see if it comes back."

Be patient with the plants

Another tip: Plant three or more plants together in a bunch in small gardens or in large fields. Pay attention to what the size of the mature plant will be, Van Roekel says. "It may take a couple of years to get to that point."

When working with the native grasses be patient. "They have incredible root systems that take time to develop," he says.

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