Wisconsin Nature

Gardening with Native Plants

Creating a garden with native plants is a great way to invest in the health of your yard while assisting wildlife. It does take planning to landscape with any plants, as there are variables to consider before you even start planting. A garden of natives can be created by adding a few plants to your existing garden, or using an entire garden plot based on whatever scale you prefer to work. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing effort, as any number of native plants will be a helpful and attractive addition to your yard space.

Why Native Plants are Beneficial

Because these plants co-evolved with local wildlife, they co-exist well with it. Pollinators such as bees are attracted to purple colored lavender hyssop, and butterflies and bumble bees both love native flowers like red milkweed. Gardeners can choose plants to attract specific wildlife, and the animals will thrive in their new habitat.

Natives are adapted to the local climate, so they don’t require as much watering. Because of their affinity to local conditions, native plants don’t need chemical pesticides to assist them. Native plants attract beneficial insects, which help keep pests away naturally, and provide food for birds. If you choose plants that do well in the soils already present in your yard, you will not need to use fertilizers in native gardens because the plants work well in these soils.

People may also like the aesthetic appeal of a native plant based garden. Local wildflowers provide amazing opportunities for color, and the look of the branches and leaf patterns are unique. There is a lot of plant variety available for creating a brightly colored, visually stunning garden.

Planning a Native Yard 

Before you begin planting, think about what you are trying to accomplish. Are you wishing to help pollinators or attract birds? Look at your space and decide on what you’d like your garden to do. Will it provide ground cover, shade, or a splash of color for the yard? Gardens and landscaping are long-term projects, and if you create a good plan, it will pay off.

Your yard consists of small habitats. There are places in the garden that will work better with prairie plants, shrubs and vines, shade plants, trees, wild flowers, or ephemerals. You can begin to choose plants based on what habitats you have in your yard, or would like to encourage.

It is also important to consider the amount of sunlight, soil type, and moisture your space has. Well-planned gardens will maximize the existing physical conditions. In this part of Milwaukee, it is often shady because of buildings or trees, and the soil is often clay, retaining a lot of moisture. Plants that would do well here might prefer a habitat that is woodland and edge of woods, as well as those with alkaline soils due to lime. Gardeners can work with these conditions, or others based on the specific garden space, to create the most attractive, hardy, and useful planting.

Preparation, Soil, and Maintenance

It is important to make sure the space you will be using is ready for native plants. If creating a garden plot, the area must be free of the old lawn, which requires gardeners to cover it in fall or spring. Doing this, the grass will not grow in the area and it will be ready for new plants.

Considering soils, Tom Kroeger, former manager at Lakeshore State Park, said clay soils are great when there is topsoil resting on the surface. Gardeners should not try to turn over clay soils, but instead use mulch or compost to create a six-inch top layer. Plants will then have the cracks in the harder, moist clay below it as a stable place to lay roots, Tom said.

As with all gardens, there will be weeding to do, especially when the garden is new. Before planting, it is important to remove as many of the existing weeds as possible, especially thistles, clover, and dandelions, Tom said. Native plants repress weeds naturally, however, so it will get easier as your garden matures.

Plants to Consider

If you like birds, woody plants like witchhazel, northern bush honeysuckle, or highbush cranberry help them by providing habitat, nesting opportunities, protection, and food in the form of insects, berries, and for hummingbirds, flowers. Native flowers like purple coneflower and New England aster have simple petal structures, making them a good food source for pollinators.

Prairie plants like bee balm attract bumble bees and other native bees. There are many varieties of milkweed, and they will support butterflies. Plants like black cohosh or wild ginger are useful because deer do not favor them.

Once you’ve mapped out areas of the garden to plant and decided on what types of plants you like, think about the design. Taller plants will work better toward the back perimeter of a patch, especially if it’s near a wall, while shorter plants will work better toward the front. People may plant to increase shade, to provide barriers, or to enjoy showy fruit. If you like color, plants might also have colorful foliage, or bright-colored flowers. In addition to flowers, plants may possess attractive bark, branching patterns, and offer different flowering times, which is good for bees.

Resources

The Center has many areas with native plants on the property. Butterfly Bend, near the Center’s main sign, consists of native species, including grasses and sedges, colorful forbs, blooming shrubs and trees. The Welcome Booth has 55 native plant species, including New England Aster, Grey Coneflower, and a number of trees, shrubs, grasses, sedges, rushes, and others. We have also restored the rain garden near the main building with 32 species of native plants, including Michigan lily and cardinal flower. Look at these areas for ideas. Schlitz Audubon’s conservation plan includes incorporating native plants into additions of flora throughout the property.

There is a lot of information to help you figure out the best options for your garden. The UW-Extension has many books and eBooks available through their Learning Store that discuss aspects of plants and landscaping. They also train Master Gardeners who are knowledgeable resources that are happy to answer questions.

Come to our Native Plant Sale on Sunday, June 7. Prairie Future Seed Co. will offer a wide selection of live plants for purchase. Plants will be available for pre-order and curbside pickup. Visitors who want to shop in person can also pre-register to browse on site.

Updated with new information on May 26, 2020