Gardening with Locally Native Trees and Plants


The overriding message is so simple, yet so genius: let nature be your guide! Of course, places like the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve and your own local horticultural societies are great places to start with questions, and to learn about the down-and-dirty of native species gardening for your area.

Ok, so, you do your homework, you take your forest walks, you connect with the local horticultural groups, and you make your wish list. Now what?

To understand the next step, I asked Miles about some of the common mistakes made when gardening with native trees and plants.

The answer: lack of planning.

Miles identifies that one of the biggest mistakes gardeners make – especially with trees – is failing to plan for the mature plant size. The eager gardener will bring home that lovely native tree, and plant it right next to the house. (Just as bad, they might plant it too low in the ground, or choke it slowly with a mulch volcano…shudder.)

Let’s say our eager gardener plants a Yellow poplar sapling a couple meters away from the house. Yellow poplars reach an average mature size of a whopping 24-37 meters in height, and up to a meter in diameter. The result? Both the tree and the house are structurally compromised, which ends with the removal of a perfectly good tree.

Native plant species are just as susceptible to the hardships of misplanting as any other plant species. Miles tells us that another critical error the eager gardener makes is planting native species in the heat of late spring or early summer, and then failing to provide adequate water.

The solution? Plant now! Autumn is an ideal time for planting native tree species (and many other plant species), because the trees aren’t working hard to get those leaves and flowers out, or fighting rising temperatures and water demands. Planting in Autumn allows trees and plants time to settle, root, and acclimate, so that they’re raring to grow come spring time.

You can ensure that the native trees and plants you bring home for your garden have the best chance for success by paying attention to a few key points:

1) Stay local.

Yes, that old "Buy Local" slogan. But we’re not talking politics here… we’re talking about the "germplasm." Germplasm refers to the genetic lineage of a particular species – in our case, a plant.

Seed-grown native plants are typically grown from seeds harvested in your local/regional woods. Miles explains that finding specimens which are grown from the local germplasm will ensure that your tree or plant is more naturally acclimated to the nuances of your locality than another plant of the same species would be from hundreds of miles away.

2) Be nosy.

Perhaps better said, do your homework, and ask questions! When you venture out to buy your native plants, ask questions to determine where the plants are coming from: "Are these plants wild harvested, or seed raised?"

Stealing plants from the forest (wild harvesting) cancels out the potential benefits of native species gardening. Buy from a reputable grower, get to know your local grower, and seek out local horticultural societies for recommendations. The source of native plants varies widely by the individual, so it’s up to you, eager gardener, to ask questions and get the dirt.

3) Go slow.

Miles’ parting words of wisdom about gardening with native plant species: "Go slowly and integrate. It’s OK to incorporate."

While there are purists out there who wish to be exclusive native-species-snobs, the rest of us will do best to stick with what it is that attracts us to gardening in the first place: a love for lots and lots of plants.

Take your time in selecting native trees and plants that are appropriate to your garden site and tastes. Don’t go digging up your roses to plant those native ferns – integrate them.  Be an equal-opportunity gardener!

Ultimately, Miles reminds us that gardens are important not only for their contributions to the local environment, but for their ability to provide us with a sense of place. Gardens which incorporate locally native trees and plants help to cultivate and sustain that sense of place which is unique to each region, and to every backyard garden.



Arnott, A. Miles. Interview by Jade L. Blackwater, 15 October 2006.

Little, Elbert L. Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Eastern Region (The). New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.

Native Plants & Resources. Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, 2006. Text accessed online: 15 October 2006. Source page URL: .

Photo by Jade L. Blackwater, © 2006.


  1. Many thanks to Jade for her guest piece, which I expect to generate a lively discussion.
    “Try to find a site in nature that looks like your garden site” is excellent advice and in the case of the typical suburban site – much-disturbed, treeless, topsoil-robbed – well, there isn’t any.
    And I applaud Jade and her sources for their inclusiveness and reasonableness in encouraging “equal opportunity” gardening.
    Now Jade, what’s up with “trees and plants”? Coz I know you know trees ARE plants. I’ve seen that before; is it something tree-lovers do to distinguish them from the rest of the Plant Kingdom?

  2. How do you get rid of houseplant pests, like bugs that come during the fall, when you bring the plants in?

  3. I appreciate this advice, but I do have a couple of rather large questions.

    You neglected to tell us how to identify things we see on these hikes, which isn’t as easy as you’d think. Sometimes plants you see aren’t listed in guides, and sometimes even if they are the pictures look nothing like the plant right in front of you. Horticultural groups might not be able to tell you either — I hired the designer from the local nursery to walk through my yard with me, and while he knew a lot more than I did, he couldn’t identify everything.

    It’s hard enough to go to the nursery and ask for a plant by common name (ask for butterfly weed, and you’ll hear “there are several types of butterfly weed, which one were you looking for?”). Do we just truck on over to the nursery with a photo and say, ‘Gimme one of those’?

    And what if the nursery doesn’t carry it? I recently saw some wildflowers in bloom in early October — 1/4″ diameter lavender daisy-like flowers, tall plants with lanceolate leaves. They’re everywhere around here — in the woods, on the edges of dirt parking lots, in the margins of yards. If they’ll grow in places like that, my garden should be perfect.

    So, first step: identify plants to try to find legitimate seeds.

    But the plant wasn’t listed in “Weeds of the Northeast,” which lists everything (ragweed, Queen Anne’s lace, clovers, mullein, dandelions, and just about every other roadside plant). I had to pinch a stem of flowers and a leaf to look at while I answered questions at a wildflower identification Web site.

    Turns out it is arrowleaf aster, Aster sagittifolius — and, lucky me, the flowers I brought home poufed out into seedheads, because I can’t find seeds for sale anywhere, even though it’s growing everywhere.

    As I found, bringing native plants to the garden isn’t as easy as forming a mental picture and then going to the store and zeroing in on the shelf where it’s stocked.

  4. Gardening,any style of gardening can take a bit of investigating to get it right. Even using cultivars bred for gardens you would do best to find out about your soil and climate before planting.
    I suppose it is easier to go to the garden center and ask the clerks for advise. Or grab a preplanned garden package.
    For myself the learning and the individual garden that results is part of the enjoyment.
    Heading out into a natural setting gives you first hand knowledge of the way things work together in a more natural setting. It cannot be duplicated exactly but you would not try to copy kew gardens would you,or the local botanic garden?
    You would come away with ideas and impressions that would help you as you try to express yourself in your garden.
    Ideally a garden, even one that has the purpose of feeding and hosting wildlife, will be a creative endeavor which will reflect the nature of yourself as much as anything. Does that not warrant some searching out of what it will take to achieve.
    I use natives…you can to if it appeals to you…or not.

  5. Susan—thank you so much for inviting me. You’re so right about the “trees and plants” thing. It’s a challenge I often face in my writing. Since all trees are plants, but not all plants are trees, I find it the closest way to talk about trees (specific) and plants (general) in the same sentence. 😉

    The only thing I can think of which might come close to the disturbed-suburbs would be places disturbed in nature by landslides, clear-cuts, volcanic eruptions (ok, those are not going to be in your local community… usually…), etc.. But they present another problem, which is the tendency for invasives and non-natives to pioneer the disturbed areas (which I’ll mention more in response to Firefly below).

    Thanks again Susan, it was a pleasure. I hope you don’t mind if I field some of the questions in the comments. 🙂 Just cut me off if I’m talking too much!

    Martha—houseplant pests are a bummer, and I know (speaking as one who has kept in excess of 200 house plants in her home). Unfortunately, bringing/keeping the plants in the house isn’t a foolproof solution by any means. The best way I’ve found to get rid of bugs is 1) manual: pick ‘em off, squish ‘em, and replace the soil/wash the plant, 2) mild soapy water on the soil and sometimes the leaves, 3) neem oil and other non-toxic, “natural” insecticides, and 4) kill the plant (sad proposition in anyone’s home). If you want to try a non-toxic pesticide, try Planet Natural at But I’ve found that a mild dishsoap mixed with water works just as well.

    Firefly—you are so right about the challenges of plant identification. In the interests of space, I decided to conveniently leave that topic out of my post… but speaking as one trying to teach herself plant-identification, I can completely sympathize.

    As you point out, plant identification is a challenge in many ways, and there is no one single way to tell plants apart: leaves/leaf orientation, growth habit, fruits/flowers, and many other characteristics all work together to identify a plant… and still some plants are really tricky! Moreover, as you adroitly identified, there are plenty of non-natives to be found in the woods.

    I defer to Miles on this one: take your time. As you know, you can’t rely on the folks at the garden shops to know what you want or to even know for sure what you’ve got. But if you take your time and do your homework, plant by plant you’ll find what works for you and your garden space.

    As far as the best way to identify, I attack this problem from a few angles (and I’d love to hear other suggestions for better ways to do it). I walk around, I look, and I take pictures/notes/sketches of what I see. I watch things change over the seasons, and I use several different plant identification books (and my handy Google toolbar) to find what I have. I like the Audubon Society field guides, and a couple tree and plant encyclopedias I have. For me, I do best when I look things up from a variety of sources and piece things together. It must have taken me six months to confidently identify the butternut tree in my front yard!

    Thank you for raising these important points – plant identification is a huge component of gardening with native species (since you’ve got to know what you’re looking at!).

    Gloria—I also enjoy the time it takes to observe and create from a variety of sources. There is less instant-gratification, but I do learn a lot more along the way. 🙂

  6. JLB, thanks as usual for a great article, this is very well- researched and good advice all around. You have a very sensible approach to native plant gardening, and thank you for not being fanatical!

    I agree with some of the commenters who mentioned how difficult it is to identify and find plants. Almost every state has a wildflower society or native plant society, these are usually the best places to get local information, and almost everything they plant in their gardens is labeled!

  7. Finding the right plants for the type of ground you have can be a real chore. I have a flower garden with one end that holds water and the other end is dry. I keep moving things around to find the right place for each plant. It can be a chore but a lot of fun too!

  8. “Almost every state has a wildflower society or native plant society, these are usually the best places to get local information, and almost everything they plant in their gardens is labeled!”

    Thanks, Jade, for adding some material to the original, and Caroline, for the heads-up — I’ll check to see if Maine has one of these societies.

    One other thing I’ve picked up on in woodland walks (and seen mentioned in print) is that the deep forest is often like deep ocean: fewer species grow there. In the case of forest, it’s because the tree canopy limits the light that reaches the ground.

    Often, it’s along woodland margins that the most intense concentrations of species can be found.

  9. Thanks so much for the nicely written and practical article! I’m always looking for ways to incorporate natives into the garden, and as everyone has said, identification is an important key to getting it right. If you have a native plant nursery in your area, you could bring in some pictures of a tree you’ve seen in nature (close-ups of the leaves would be most important, any fruits or seeds also very helpful) and ask them to identify it for you. If you don’t have a native plant nursery, try your local extension service, the DNR or an aboretum.

    Jade writes, “Try to find a site in nature that looks like your garden site”, and Susan rightly asks how that’s possible when you live in a city/suburb. The key is to find a site in nature that has some of the characteristics of your site. Is it low-lying and wet, or on a southern-facing rocky slope? This will obviously affect your choice of trees.

  10. I have a personal thing about wanting to use natives in my own yard. However, I appreciate all plants, just so you know. Hiking is the best way in the world to understand how and in what environment things naturally grow. I have no intention, nor would I be able, to ever match the environs of a site in the woods (or dry prairie or wherever)in my own yard. The best I can do is see how it all works together and try my best to simulate something, even remotely, like it.

  11. pooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo all of you guys are a bunch of fuck heads… a gay fag that likes to to take it up the arse so hard that i get rectal bleeding

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