Designing Native Gardens: Gardening With Native Plants

Designing Native Gardens: Gardening With Native Plants

By: Nikki Tilley, Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden

One of my favorite garden designs is the native garden. This type of garden not only incorporates native trees and shrubs, but wildflowers and native grasses as well. Best of all, a natural garden can easily transform into a garden for all seasons. It doesn’t take a genius to design a natural garden; however, some planning beforehand might be wise. Keep reading for tips on designing native gardens.

How to Design a Native Garden

Always become familiar with the types of native garden plants that may already be growing on your property. This not only gives you an idea of the types of plants that thrive in your particular location but also makes it easier as you begin gardening with native plants and adding them to your design.

Native plants flourish in their natural environment and complement the surrounding landscape of your home. Creating a native garden with seasonal interest, from spring through winter, requires careful planning and placement of long-lasting bloomers and a variety of foliage plants. For additional interest, include a focal point of some kind. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area surrounded by woods, then a woodland garden will look right at home.

When creating natural gardens, try not to overlook the plant’s leaves when choosing native garden plants. While flowers make the garden intense with color, the foliage can provide impressive contrast and texture too. This additional interest draws attention to the area, inviting others into the garden for a closer look, especially during non-blooming periods. However, if you select plants carefully, there will always be something in bloom.

Native Garden Plants

There are many plants to choose from when designing native gardens. Plant spring-flowering natives throughout the garden, but take care to keep them toward the middle or further towards the back. This will allow you to hide them with cover-up plants once their blooms have faded.

Popular spring bloomers include:

  • Iris
  • Phlox
  • Anemone
  • Violet
  • Virginia bluebells

Summer-flowering plants will take over once the spring blooms have faded away. Use these as camouflage to create nonstop flowering.

  • Shasta daisy
  • Flax
  • Goldenstar
  • Goat’s beard

Once autumn arrives, the garden will maintain its appeal with the addition of fall-flowering natives and bulbs such as:

  • Toad lily
  • Autumn crocus
  • Cyclamen
  • Winter daffodil

Once flowering bulbs and other plants begin to fade, the intense shades of foliage color create a stunning display. For instance, the bronze-colored stalks of blazing star can be quite striking. This color can be further enhanced among a background of evergreens. Native evergreen shrubs and ground covers will liven up the landscape with various shades of color too.

Besides amazing color, plants having various forms and textures will continue to maintain appeal well into winter. Don’t overlook the interesting characteristics of bark, especially those that have peeling or patterned features. While ornamental grasses tend to reach their peak during fall, they also provide interesting seed heads, berries and foliage. Winter wonder also comes from the colorful seed heads of native garden plants like purple coneflower and sedum.

Creating natural gardens is easy with well thought-out planning. By keeping plants within the natural scheme of your own landscape and incorporating a variety of seasonal bloomers, you can enjoy nonstop flowering in a naturalistic setting every day of the year.

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You will never have to worry about pesticides harming the birds, butterflies bees and native pollinators in your gardens.

(Contrary to popular belief, you CAN grow a big beefy gorgeous plant without the use of chemicals, as the pictures of the nursery below prove.)

Our plants are grown here, CHEMICAL FREE, by division or seed collected from our own plants.

This is VERY important. Regardless of where you end up buying your plants. PLEASE ask your

salesperson how the plants have been grown! Most big box stores and garden centers are now selling plants that have been systemically treated with pesticides (Neonics) which will make birds sick and harm any butterfly, bee or native pollinator foolish enough to take a sip or a nibble. If the salesperson does not know how the plant was grown, walk away and find a nursery that does!

​The nursery is open to visitors from 9am to 6pm, 7 days a week.

​If you want to speak with me personally to help you with a design,

it is best to make an appointment,

as I am often out playing in someone else's dirt.

Garden tours are also open for self-guided or guided by appointment.

Best viewing of Woodland Gardens in end of April through May.

How to Design a garden using Native Plants:

A properly designed native garden looks like a formal park or clean, weed free, native ecosystem. This has been very consistent whether the garden, restoration, or landscape is in Mojave, Los Angeles, San Diego, Bakersfield, San Luis Obispo, the Sierras or the Bay area.

The hummingbirds, butterflies, and other small wildlife will love your garden! A native garden is atwitter with the sound of hummingbirds, birds, butterflies and other native insects. This is astounding to people who have a conventional 'hummingbird' garden. A few drunk hummingbirds at a feeder do not make a hummingbird garden. Thirty or so buzzing all over your landscape, telling you off for picking flowers, now that's a hummingbird garden!


If you wish to attempt the landscape design yourself, you can get a list of plants that will grow in your yard from our plant picker. If you can sketch a drawing of your yard with the plants listed out for each section, we'll be happy to help sort out or correct the plant list. Those of you that have read the website (at least a page or two) and used www.mynativeplants with at least a clue of how to care for a native garden are really getting your garden close to 'right' on your own.

In the past 30 years we have provided horticultural and landscape consultation to landscape contractors, landscape architects, landscape designers, botanic gardens, homeowners, and others interested in landscaping. Las Pilitas was started in 1974 in San Luis Obispo specializing in native gardens and in plants utilized by native Californians. You can use us to help you design wildlife gardens (birds and butterflies), California herb gardens, deer (tolerant or for the deer) gardens, fire-resistant gardens, and problem gardens (for example, poor drainage toxic amounts of salt and/or heavy metals unhealthy oaks, manzanitas or other natives very high or low pH rocky slopes (no soil or minimal amounts) seasonal flooding low water availability etc.). Xeriscape and water wise gardens are so easy!!

The basic native garden.

1. Design the garden by plant community as much as possible. Put the desert plants together the redwood plants together the riparian (river) plants together etc. It is a common mistake to landscape by color, textures and flow. ('I want it to flow . . . ') Do that after you figure out what plant community you want to work with. The zip code lists can help determine which plant community was originally on your site.

For an easy carefree landscape, do not get too far off your climate and plant community. Plants from your specific plant community are the easiest to grow. Then the plants from within the nearest communities are next easiest to grow.

2. Stick to the plants that occur in the same or a similar climate for a maintenance free garden. When you get too far off, the plants start having problems and you have to do more work.

3. Figure out the aspect of the garden and the soil, shade, wind, rainfall and any other things that relate to the landscaping. (It will save you many, many hours of your life if you will sit out in the weeds, or whatever else is there) and think the site through before you commit yourself to a scheme that will not work or must be replaced every six months. Most people only have to make this mistake once in a lifetime, but others replace hundreds of dollars worth of 'perennials' each year trying to keep a color scheme while not clashing with the neighbors that are doing the same thing. A lot of money and no fun!

4. Think about your drainage. Where will the water go? How well does the soil drain? Our normal test is how long does it take for a shovelful-sized hole to drain? (When the ground is not wet, e.g., summer.) One minute or less is perfect drainage, 1-30 minutes is good drainage, a week is bad drainage. If your site takes more than a week to drain, you need a consultation! Or at least do some research on your own.

5. If you are installing your own landscaping have a frank talk with yourself. If you are installing one for someone else, talk to them and look at their lifestyle. Are these folks that can work in their garden 2-4 hours each week? Can they afford the gardening bill? Frequently projects have money to put the plants in, but no time or money for follow up. If there is to be no maintenance, put in community specific shrubs and trees, (ones native in that plant community), no perennials and mulch heavily, at least 3 inches. List your priorities. Are deer the biggest problem? Or is it fire? Drought? Budget? Attracting Wildlife(Birds or Bear)? A black thumb?

6. Find a source of proper mulch. Do not use any part of a walnut or eucalyptus tree. (Eucalyptus has some problems with it and can only be used with some plants, e.g., Chaparral. It is best avoided if possible or use as walkways.) If you are using desert plants a mulch of 2-3" rock is fine. (Boulders are better! Next to each plant place the largest rock you can carry and place it on the south side of the plant.)

6a. If you are in the desert or grassland(prairie) and want to plant plants from the Sierras or coastal areas use a leaf, twig, or shredded bark mulch combined with a large rock. The mulch is one of the keys to why things work or do not work in desert gardens. See Read's article for further. If you are in the Sierras(conifer forest) or coastal areas and you want to use a desert or grassland plant, use a rock mulch, and plant in the open, away from trees. Also clump the same types of plants together so they support each other and you can treat them alike, see companion planting.

This also makes it easier to design. Design in a 'forest', a 'desert', a 'prairie', a 'wetland' (wet spot) or whatever community you think will work. Remember this is easiest to do if you stay within the community block.

7. Think about your water source, do you even need water for the plants? Is there any problem with the water? Is there any water even available? We've heard of people spending thousands of dollars on sod lawns only to discover the water bill is hundreds of dollars per month and a maintenance bills hundreds more. Mulch is very cheap in the long run. If you have a lawn area, use plants that live next to the creeks of your target community next to the lawn water moves through them to your plants in the dry areas.

8. Think about critters. Are you going to live with them or are they going to move in with you? (One of our customers had a bear making himself a fruit salad in his kitchen another had a deer standing on, on not against, his handrail around his porch. Raccoons on the roof of your mobile home make for little sleep.) Most anything you do has a positive or negative effect on 'Wildlife'. Do you want sparrows or hummingbirds? Gophers or Thrashers? Terrified of ticks and Lyme disease? The bacteria that cause the disease dies when the tick lives on the western fence lizard.(Talleklint and Eisen, 1999 Lane and Anderson. 2001.) A high number of lizards and small mammals in the garden offer near perfect protection. Weeds favor mice (a major vector of disease), mulch and open paths favor lizards. Small mammals (Shrews, Moles, Foxes, Bobcats, Weasels, Squirrels, Gophers, and Rabbits) limit the populations of mice.(Ostfeld and Keesing, 2000)

9. Think of the ultimate plant size. Don't say 'I'll just prune it' and put a redwood tree under a 4' window it won't work. You cannot 'fluff it up', or 'tie it up', or stake it up either. A groundcover tied to a stake looks like a groundcover tied to a stake, not a tree.

10. It is part of our ornamental strategy to plant communities of plants. It is cheaper, looks better, and means less materials consumed. In communities plants are arranged in discrete patterns. This spatial planting occurs naturally, via pathogens and litter (mulch), allowing certain seedlings to grow, killing the weaker seedlings or seedlings that are out of the successional pattern, for the better of the whole. This is how natural succession occurs. When a site is planted incorrectly, the system is weakened, becomes increasingly unstable, and weeds, herbivores (including gophers) take an enormous toll. This won't occur if a design is implemented in a manner consistent with nature. Plant for maturity (leave enough space for the plant when it reaches its full size) with the stress-tolerant species and inter-plant with the Circumventor, C type species for fast fill in. C type species provide cover for the climax stress-tolerants and will decline and die of ‘old age' as the climax species fill-in. Some examples of some Circumventors: Salvias, Ceanothus, Lupinus, Diplacus, Baccharis, Eriogonum and even poppies do this very well.

By doing a natural planting, you can move to a native site faster, lowering inputs sooner. It is important to get your species composition as close as reasonably possible to nature's. Site specific plant material doesn't appear to be practical, nor possible for most sites. (Las Pilitas personnel can do site specific biological surveys, develop the appropriate species list, and contract grow the plants. It will take 1-5 years according to the site.) Planting for the right soil, right community, shade in shade, sun in sun, wet to wet, etc. appears to be more than adequate for the stability of the system and for the site's wildlife. Again, if you live in Los Angeles you can plant species from Chaparral, Southern Oak woodland, and Coastal Sage Scrub communities together and get away with it (as long as the soils, water, sun, etc. match) as the communities were there before the ecosystem was screwed up. The plants would prefer to be in separate groupings, but that's not even necessary. Plants from the yellow pine forest, Closed cone Pine Forest, etc., will grow there, but they are more unstable (weedy, short-lived). It's more important to plant Coastal Sage Scrub species together, even if from other areas of the state, (the further away in climate, the more unsuitable the plant) than mixing other communities that didn't historically exist in your locale. You will spend about 1/10th of the maintenance on the site over a 5-10 year period if you get it right. The maintenance is equal for the first year but then drops off dramatically as the plant community takes hold. You'll know you ‘built a plant community' when the true wildlife start living in your garden (or restoration) and native seedlings start showing up.

10a. Put the perennials together and the shrubs and trees together as they have different needs than annuals. They should be clumped in a way as to be easily maintained. Annuals between are acceptable and encouraged in desert and grassland plant communities. (The weeds will drive you crazy if you do not move aggressively and continually against them.)

If you insist on planting ruderals, plant by age. The short-lived plants go together. Plant the long-lived plants together away from water, away from soil disturbance.

10b. Do not mix annuals with groundcovers, they will become weedy. Annuals are only acceptable where you can mow them down after they die. Otherwise they look like a relative you owe money, a lot of money.

11. Berms are a sign the designer is lazy or doesn't know what to do. They are very hard to maintain, irrigate (on berms you do have to irrigate), and keep the plants alive on. If the berm look is desired, put larger growing plants there, in the center, and work down to smaller ones. If the drainage of a berm is required, use retaining walls with good drain holes so each level is uniform and within 2' of the beginning soil level on either top or bottom (no more than 2' steps)(See "How to build a rock wall").

12. Please, please, pretty please do not put in a fake creek! Fake creeks are hard to build and very hard to maintain. The weeds usually overwhelm the creek in a year or so. A bunch of rocks and weeds does not increase the selling price of a house, nor does an old truck with flowers planted in it, they look similar. A decomposed granite path with boulders, logs and plants can usually create the same feeling with a whole lot less work.

1. Choose native plants to help native pollinators.

Above: New England Wild Flower Society has assembled three pollinator kits, designed for different sun and soil conditions, each with 50 plug-sized grasses and wildflowers, enough to start your pollinator garden $180.

Unfortunately, many plants that are advertised as supporting pollinators are either ineffective or may actually cause harm to native pollinators for several reasons:

  • They may only support the adult cycle, providing nectar for mature pollinators, but no food for the larvae of native species. Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) is such a plant. In the western hemisphere, butterfly adults may feed on the purple blooms of this Asian import, but their larvae cannot eat the leaves.
  • Non-regional plants may support insects that supplant local pollinator populations. Most native pollinators require very specific plants in order to grow and thrive. For example larvae of Karner blue, Persius duskywing, and frosted elfin butterflies feed only on wild lupine Lupinus perennis, not the more common L. polyphyllus which has supplanted most native lupine throughout the region. As a result both these butterflies and the plant they rely on are critically endangered.
  • Most insidiously, many garden center plants have been grown using systemic pesticides or neonicotinoids, water soluble chemicals that kill or harm pollinators. Not only do these chemicals kill pests in the area where they are used, they also kill pollinators. Furthermore the effects can be transferred to your garden, as these harmful chemicals have been shown to remain in the leaves and pollen of treated plants up to seven years after application.

Fortunately, your local native plant or botanical society often sells organically grown, native plants or can provide you with a list of plants that support native pollinators, and where to find them. For example, you can find which plants are native to your ecoregion on the New England Wild Flower Society website. Many of these plants are available at Garden in the Woods or Nasami Farms. A quick Internet search can reveal both local and online suppliers of chemical-free, native plants.

Above: A sampling of the plugs from one of New England Wild Flower Societies’ pollinator kits.

2. Know the components of a native pollinator garden.

Above: Bees, one of nature’s most effective pollinators, take advantage of the chemical free, native plants at Nasami Farms. See Nasami Farms: A New England Mecca for Native Plant Lovers.

The New England Wild Flower Society has published a list of “Pollinator Garden Best Practices,” which recommends including the following in your garden:

  • Adult Food: A diverse selection of native plants with “abundant pollen and nectar across the growing season, planted in groups for easy foraging.”
  • Baby Food: Host plants for butterfly and moth larvae.
  • Water: Muddy spots where insects can access water and soil minerals, as well as well-drained places for ground nesting.
  • Habitat: Nesting materials and other protective habitats such as hollow-stemmed plants, decaying wood, leaves, grasses, and bare soil, to help support the entire life cycle of threatened pollinators.
  • Protection: Use only plants grown in chemical-free environments. And be sure to spread the word. Tell friends and neighbors not to use pesticides or to purchase plants grown with harmful chemicals.
Above: A thorough pollinator garden also includes food for larvae, such as butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, as well as protective habitats.

Ecological Gardening

Turn your yard into an oasis for all forms of life

The principles of ecological gardening are simple: work with, not against, nature to achieve a beautiful, sustainable garden. If you choose the right native plant, put it in the right place, and use no chemicals, you can the transform your home landscapes and public spaces into islands of habitat for insects, birds, and other wildlife.

And native plants are just as ravishing to behold as the hot new exotics your local garden center is touting this year. For all who are new to gardening with natives, we hope you take joy in the plants themselves, and in watching the native bees, butterflies, birds, and other creatures drawn to your home habitat.

Replace Your Lawn

Here's how to plan an ecological, functional, and attractive yard.

To let go of the ever-popular but increasingly toxic lawn (see below), we need to replace it with a landscape that looks beautiful and is relatively easy to maintain. It will automatically support pollinators and other wildlife if you plant natives in your re-designed yard. But we worry about what to plant. And we worry about getting dirty looks from our neighbors.

Choosing what to plant can be simple. Sort the areas of your yard into three categories: 1) where you could lose the lawn and not miss it 2) where you desire a green groundcover, but not necessarily turf grass, for aesthetic reasons and 3) where a lawn is useful, say, for kicking around a soccer ball.

In category 1 places: Choose a color palette, find some plant combinations that complement each other and thrive in similar conditions. One pleasing combo for spring color in a shady spot is creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) and foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia). They flower at the same time and work as living mulches that stabilize soil and keep weeds at bay. Add taller accent plants, such as a native flowering shrub or two that fit your color scheme and conditions, and you've got the start of a beautiful, low-maintenance garden that will provide a spot of native habitat for you and your family—and turn your former lawn into an oasis for wildlife.

In category 2 places: Consider site conditions—sun exposure, moisture, and drainage. Look for mat-forming perennial groundcovers, or true lawn alternatives, that thrive in those conditions. For sunny spots, consider wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), which tolerates a wide range of conditions and supports dozens of moth and butterfly species. And it bears tasty, fragrant little strawberries in mid-June. In shadier spots, Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) looks much like standard turf grass that grows in short, fountain-like clumps. These groundcovers require no fertilizer and scant supplemental watering.

In category 3 places: Keep the lawn, but get off the weed-and-feed cycle. Mow high (between three and four inches) with a mulching mower and aerate your soil in the fall. The longer your grass, the deeper its root system and the less irrigation it will need. Replace thirsty grasses with drought-tolerant species like tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea).

As for your neighbors' glares, perhaps they will open an opportunity to have some conversations about why you chose to roll back your lawn.

Why Should You Replace Your Lawn?

The trouble starts with the grass itself. Most turf grasses, including Kentucky bluegrass, are native to Europe and poorly adapted to our climates and soils—especially the acid soils of New England. Which means they must be kept on life support with supplemental irrigation, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. When the grass grows too high, which happens quickly because of the added water and fertilizer, we cut it with a gas-burning mower, trailing fumes that catalyze into ozone pollution in the summer heat. Too busy to do this yourself? Dozens of businesses would be delighted to do it for you, and they love to lay on the chemicals:

  • Americans apply 30,000 tons of pesticides each year to keep grass green, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • The University of Massachusetts reports that the typical lawn-service company in that state applies five to seven pounds of pesticides per acre of lawn a year. Per EPA records, this is at least twice the amount applied to the most pest-plagued of agricultural crops, sweet corn. This should terrify you, because lawns serve as the primary play area for our kids and pets. Despite labels that tell us that pesticides are safe for use around children and pets, ongoing scientific studies find many of them anything but.
  • Fourteen of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides are neurotoxins. Sixteen are known or suspected carcinogens, and two-thirds of them may cause reproductive harm in humans.

As for lawn fertilizers, most contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The run-off of the first two compounds into our water supply presents "one of America's most widespread, costly, and challenging environmental problems," the EPA reports. And then there are the herbicides to kill "weeds"—many of them plants that offer potential benefits. Clover, for example, fixes nitrogen that can support turf-grass growth. Violets can host rare butterflies like the regal fritillary.

To the alarm of the landscape-services industry, advocates for health and the environment are starting to act. In the last five years, many states, including four in New England, have passed laws that limit the use of lawn fertilizers. Massachusetts is attempting to pass a bill that would restrict neonicotinoid

Condensed from an article in Native Plant News (Spring/Summer 2017) by Mark Richardson.

Creating an Ecological Garden

The ultimate goal for the ecological gardener is a beautiful garden that provides year-round interest, supports local wildlife, absorbs and filters rainwater, and improves air quality.

1. Choose plants native to your ecoregion

They are adapted to the local soil, climate, and pollinators and feed the web of life. Download a copy of this ecoregions map.

2. Limit irrigation to new plantings

As much as 30 percent of the potable water in New England is used for irrigating lawns and gardens. With droughts becoming more commonplace, it’s critical that we decrease that percentage, and siting plants properly is the simplest step in that direction. (See Right Plant, Right Place, below.)

3. Don't use fertilizers

Focus on building healthy, organic soils that provide all the nutrition native plants require. Fertilizers, even when used responsibly, are pollutants they are highly mobile forms of basic elements like nitrogen and phosphorous that cause direct environmental harm to waterways, including algal blooms and ocean dead zones. By recycling organic waste through composting and using organic mulches in our gardens, you have no need for fertilizers.

4. Don't use any form of pesticide

Pesticides can have disastrous effects on human health, as well as catastrophic environmental impacts. Fourteen of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides are known neurotoxins or carcinogens, and two-thirds of them cause reproductive harm in humans. Those at particular risk are children and pets that come into direct contact with gardens and lawns treated with pesticides. Systemic pesticides, like those commonly referred to as “neonics,” are absorbed by a plant’s vascular system, making the entire plant toxic to harmful and beneficial insects alike. The use of systemic pesticides has been linked to the decline of important pollinators, and their widespread use in growing plants for gardens means that many important pollinator plants are toxic to the very insects gardeners intend to support. When buying plants, always ask whether or not they have been treated with systemic pesticides, and avoid using these products in your garden.

Ecological gardening with native plants is a fantastic way to keep our gardens beautiful and make sure they support healthy, local ecosystems. We hope you will keep these principles in mind as you consider adding fabulous native plants to your garden.

Condensed from the introduction to our book Native Plants for New England Gardens, by Mark Richardson and Dan Jaffe.

Right Plant, Right Place

Which plants will thrive in my garden?

Plan your garden now with our interactive Garden Plantfinder. To learn about the principles and concepts behind it, read on:

A plant native to our ecoregions is likely to be hardy enough to survive our winters and resist many native pests in summer. But even native-plant gardeners must think about the timeless principle of right plant, right place. All plants have specific growing requirements, and if planted in the wrong place will struggle to survive. Learn your site's growing conditions and choose plants based not only on their looks, but also on their needs. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is stunning, but plant one in a dry, shady site, and it will never flower. Plant bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) in a wet spot, and it will rot. In general, place plants where they will require no extra watering once established. (Woody plants usually take two to three years, herbacious species a full season, if planted at the outset.)

To understand what your garden has to offer, consider three essential factors: light, soil type/moisture, and space availability.

Light: Full sun means more than six hours of direct sunlight per day. Anything less is some variation of part-shade to shade. Conduct a simple light analysis by observing light and shadow in each part of your planting area at least three times throughout the day for example, at 8 a.m., noon, and 4 p.m.

Soil: Because of its chemistry and texture, soil is more difficult to evaluate. But one thing you can do at home is determine how well your site drains by conducting a percolation test. Dig a hole about eight inches deep, fill it with water, let the water drain to saturate the soil, and then fill it again. If the water takes longer than 24 hours to drain the second time, your site is poorly drained less than 12 hours, and it is very well drained. To find out your soil's percentage of organic matter, texture, and pH (acidity and alkalinity), contact your local cooperative extension service to conduct a soil analysis.

Space: Choose plants that at maturity will be the appropriate size for your garden. Avoid planting tall-growing trees under power lines, for example, or aggressively spreading plants next to delicate, slow-growing specimens. And shrubs and trees with spreading canopies eventually will cast sun-loving species in shade.

These three fundamentals of gardening will guide you toward choosing the right plants for your garden. And remember: No matter what a plant’s requirements, any plant going into the ground needs TLC. Treat newly establishing plants as if they are still in a container, providing ample water through their establishment period to make sure they get off to a good start.

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My Garden: A Native Garden Designed for All Seasons

Benjamin Vogt is in love with the Nebraska prairie and laments the loss of the original tallgrass ecosystem with its amazing native plants and wildlife. It is said that the only remnants of this original ecosystem are in pioneer graveyards that were never stripped for farming. In a small, 1,500-square-foot backyard behind his new house, Benjamin's love for these plants has created a model of good planting design that is low maintenance, ecologically inclined, and fabulous in every season.

Shown on the right is huge Rudbeckia maxima, native to eastern Texas and through the south. "It's a wet-ground lover that thrives in the low spot of the garden. Wind never knocks it down despite the big leaves. On the far left are the tall stalks of Joe Pye weed.

"I want a modest echo of those plants that once lived here before settlement," says Vogt of his microcosm of plant communities that once blanketed this region. "I love the aesthetic of a prairie—the look. It's become a moral issue for me—we're in a time of climate change and vanishing plant and animal species. If it's human caused, I might be part of the problem. But at least my garden allows me to remain aware of prairie restoration and conservation."

The highlight of Vogt's sideyard in spring is the crabapple tree as it buds out.

Vogt's favorite tree, the prairifire crabapple tree grows in the sideyard. "I like its leaf color change through the seasons—from purple in spring to green over summer, then bright orange in the fall. In spring, this one is the only crabapple that lures cedar waxwings. They won't touch the others. Crabapple fruit needs to go through freeze and thaw before it's palatable to birds."

Vogt's garden, which he began in 2007, is full of seasonal interest.

In July, 2007, Vogt moved into his new house, where the topsoil was scraped away to grade the small backyard. "I found these native prairie plants prefer leaner soils. The perennials produce very deep roots to reach what they need, so there was no need to do much soil preparation on top." This demonstrates the benefits of using locally native plants that are well adapted to regional soils and weather. "These days I'm tired, so I don't want to do much in the garden. We all need to learn to let go of the idea that a garden is perfect and accept its natural character."

Unlike many other gardeners, he does not cut the plants back for winter.

"There's tons of fall color even in November. I am so against cutting the garden down for winter because the remnants are where the beneficial insects winter over. They need that cover. All I do to prepare for winter is bring in a hose and remove part of the urn fountain."

Vogt carefully researches plants to determine whether or not they are a good fit for his garden.

"People never spend the time to research their plants," Vogt laments. "It's so important to learn about their habitat." It is only by understanding how native plants behave in the wild that we know their true wants and needs in the garden. "I look at all my prairie plant resources to determine where and when to plant." One revelation about planting a prairie garden is that these species are already super adapted to local soils and weather to become established far more quickly. "If I was to do it again I'd buy smaller plants to save money by going with seeding or plugs."

Thanks to the changing colors, autumn is his favorite time of year in the garden.

Vogt's sense of plant arrangement allows each individual to stand in contrast against its neighbors so they stand out. It is never more visible than in the fall when leaf color is perpetually changing. During the autumn months the garden is always in its glory.

Every effort is taken to provide shelter for insects during the winter months.

Vogt is keen on supporting local insect species by creating places for them to overwinter. A bundle of perennial flower stalks provides the ideal place for protection from the elements. "The beauty and purpose of a four-season garden is to support insect pollinators—one of my most important issues."

Vogt's garden even looks lovely after a winter snowfall.

"I like winter because it's quiet—nobody's mowing lawns. I feel my neighbors blowing leaves interferes with the natural quiet beauty. I think you can see the garden more clearly in winter when its black and white. The philosophical and psychological aspects of a garden are often lost in the summer, but are quite apparent in winter."

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