Gardening with Native Plants

Familiarize yourself with the native plants of your area. Most cities have botanical gardens where you can learn about the native plants of your area. They usually offer free guided walks, and for a fee, classes on plant identification. At the least, they will have volunteer positions available in which you can learn about the plants, propagation, conservation methods, and you can meet like-minded folks. If you live in the Raleigh/Durham area, The North Carolina Botanical Garden and the Blomquist Garden (Duke Gardens), are excellent places to learn about the native plants of the southeast. Armed with a good field guide, wander the woods of Duke Forest, Falls Lake, Jordon Lake, Shenck Forest or Umstead State Park and try identifying the flora. 

Landscape Uses for Native Plants

The landscape as nature designed it consists of a trio of layers: the canopy layer, the understory, and the herb layer. Trees such as pines, oaks and hickories make up the canopy. The understory consists of smaller trees and shrubs, such as dogwoods, redbuds, viburnums and azaleas. In the herb layer, all of the grasses, vines, and wildflowers grow. Many landscapers mimic this layering effect, but plant introduced trees, shrubs and perennials that are of little benefit to the native wildlife. 800 species of birds occur in the North American continent. 200 of these species are in serious risk of disappearing from this continent due to habitat loss. Native plants provide birds with food and shelter. By including native plants in your landscape, one more little patch of wild is restored.

Look at the layout of your property: are there slopes, dry areas, wet areas, full sun areas, shady areas and in what direction (north, south, east, west) are they oriented? Take notes and draw a simple layout of your property with north indicated. Nothing fancy, just a square or rectangle representing your home and mark where the full sun, shade, dry, wet, etc areas are. Also, mark where the exisiting plants on your property are. Then venture out to an undeveloped area near your home and look for similar conditions that are found on your property. Study the area, noting the plants, rocks, animals, slopes, and everything that you observe. You may have to visit the area more than once or find another site. Once you have a good feel for what plants a north facing slope or an open, south facing level site would contain, then you have the base knowlegde to guide your landscape plans. Simply mimic the natural landscape you observed that matches your property’s conditions.

Create a Southeastern Meadow or Prairie. Existing lawn areas are ideal sites for a meadow or prairie. Design a bed within the lawn area, remove the sod, amend the soil with organic material such as cow manure, and plant natives that are found in meadows and prairies. Or, Line the walkway of your house with meadow/prairie plants. In the late fall after the plants have gone dormant, mow the meadow. Just make sure to check for butterfly eggs and chrysalises on the plant leaves; if you find any, leave that plant alone or cut the plant back with hand pruners and place the clippings in an area of the yard where they can overwinter. Suitable plants: Coneflower, Beardtongue, Black-eyed Susan, Butterfly Weed, False Indigo, Goldenrod, Lyre-leafed Sage, Poppy Mallow, Native grasses: Panicum, Andropogon.

Create a Wildflower Woodland. Existing trees provide filtered shade for woodland flowers. Plant natives under the trees or along the edges of wooded areas with plants that are found in open or thin woods. If the tree roots are dense, add a layer of soil conditioner or leaf mulch before planting. Suitable plants: Cranesbill, Crested Iris, Beardtongue, False Indigo, Foamflower, Green and Gold, Obedient Plant, Phlox.

Create a Shady Streambank. If you have a moist, shady area with ditches and depressions, plant natives that thrive in moist areas. Place various sized rocks in the ditches or depressions to create a dry stream bed. Suitable plants: Cardinal Flower, Crested Iris, Lyre-leaved Sage, Obedient Plant, River Oats.

Create a Living Fence. Brush piles, tree stumps and dead trees can be unsightly to you but provide havens for birds and reptiles. Plant native vines nearby and they will quickly cover up the mess and produce beautiful flowers. Suitable plants: Coral Honeysuckle, Trumpet Vine, Carolina Jessimine.

Below are perennial native plants available at most garden centers and nurseries. Make sure that the plants are nursery propagated and not wild-collected. A good garden center will usually provide this information; if they look at you like you are from another planet, chances are they haven’t a clue about gardening and you should go elsewhere, (imho).