What Native-Plant Gardens Need


GuestSchmetterling by Guest Ranter David Schmetterling of Montana Wildlife Gardener

It is wonderful that
native plants and landscapes featuring native plants are gaining popularity. 
This departure from conventional landscape design and plant selection has been
in part spurred by the economic downturn and our nation’s increasing awareness
of the effect of our lifestyle on our environment.  Indeed, the economy has
inspired many to reevaluate their lifestyles and expenses, especially for
ornamental gardens.  Converting lawn to native plant garden beds or to a
vegetable garden is wonderful and will ultimately pay huge dividends to
homeowners, their families and to the environment.  Although it is fantastic and
encouraging to see native plants getting some attention and respect,
unfortunately many are choosing native plants primarily because of the
reputation that they do not require care or maintenance.

Too often I see native
plants advertised as "low-" or "no-maintenance". When teaching workshops I hear
people saying they want to plant natives because they heard they do not have to
care for them or they can just plant them and ignore them.  Unfortunately,
through neglect, plants die, weeds take their place and people are disillusioned
by the promise of native plants and think that native plants are overrated or
not as durable as exotic cultivars. 

You need to care for native plants,
especially while they get established.  Inherently, periodic care, cultivation
or just maintenance define a "garden" and distinguish it from a natural
area. Perhaps instead of "maintenance-free", native plant gardens should be
thought of and referred to, as "less resource-intensive". This is probably a
more accurate and appropriate descriptor, since, in their native environment,
native plants do not need soil amendments, fertilizers, pesticides, protection
from hot summers or cold winters, and additional water (once established), but
they do require care.

Unfortunately, failures
in one's yard can have cascading trophic-level effects (I love the opportunity to
use that phrase).  That is, the effects of poorly maintained and planned native-plant gardens can have consequences outside the owner’s garden- it gives native
plants a bad name.  To paraphrase an expression, “hate the planter, not the
plants”.   The lack of attention people pay to native-plant gardens does a
disservice to promoting native plants as landscape alternatives, especially when
the aesthetic of a native-plant landscape is a departure from the accepted norm
(the norm being the French or English garden of a manicured lawn, and a few
specimen trees).  In the dry intermountain West, one of the challenges is to get
people to look beyond the conventional, unsustainable landscape norms, and
embrace xeri-scape aesthetics, and the aesthetic of the natural plant
communities of the region (short grass prairies, in particular). 

In my area, “Trout-Friendly
Lawn” signs (don’t get me started on this, inherently a “lawn” in Montana is not trout
friendly, and not just because trout don’t use lawns), and “Pesticide Free”
signs abound, and have become a sort of status symbol (almost as common as a
catchy, eco-something bumper sticker on a Subaru Outback).  When I see one of
these lawn signs on lawn-alternative landscapes it practically signals “that is
my excuse for bad garden design and laziness”.  I am reminded of the phrase,
“good intentions are not good enough”.

As I have mentioned
(read: ranted) in past posts on my blog, native-plant gardeners need to be
thoughtful and consider the same design elements as for any landscape. Having a
native-plant garden is not an excuse to have an unkempt garden.  Maintenance for
a native-plant garden may be for a variety of reasons including: aesthetics,
"tidiness", to promote undergrowth, to deadhead and prolong the bloom (though
this is not very effective in our climate since we do not water), to maintain
diversity of plant species and structure, or so some flowers don't set seed.  As
I often remind people, it is "xeri-scape" not

David Schmetterling is a wildlife biologist and avid native-plant and wildlife gardener.  David's blog Montana Wildlife Gardener chronicles his
home garden on a small city lot in the middle of Missoula,


  1. Here here.I’ve seen too many “native plant gardens” that are just a hodge podge of lawn grass and random cohorts. Untended does not equal native, nor is it the other way around. Thanks, Wildlife Gardener

  2. Great!

    And…yes… You DO have to think about what you’re planting!

    Some advertised “natives” are native to elsewhere; that can cause problems…they may immediately die out… or take over.

    Micro environment matters…yes you live on the prairie; yes, it’s a great prairie plant; but under a tree…?

    Also, in the wild, plants tend to take over areas suitable to them; a stand of Cupplants dominating an acre of wetter ground is not unusual. But in a yard, the area suitable to a Cupplant may include your whole yard! (This means you either keep it in check…or plan to REALLY enjoy your Cupplants!).

    I always warn folks who buy our wildflowers that Cupplants have “big shoulders”… so do some others.

    Basically…many yards represent a single environment; if it’s bright and sunny, you can get many prairie plants to happily grow and be beautiful…

    If wooded; Spring and Fall wildflowers will do well…

    But… even with natives, you may have to put in some extra time to get what you want:)

  3. Great post! I love the phrase “less resource intensive” and plan to steal it and use it on my native gardening blog – http://www.2greenacres.blogspot.com.

    The dirty truth is, some non-natives are much more carefree than natives – because no birds or bugs will eat the leaves or berries, and because it can out crowd native plants.

    The value of natives can not be only, or even primarily, about maintenance. Instead, as I outline in this post: http://2greenacres.blogspot.com/2009/08/why-native-plants-are-important.html, natives provide a sense of place. Maryland (where I live) and Montana are beautiful in totally different ways. Native plants help celebrate the unique beauty of where we live.

  4. For those who don’t want a garden to be work, see previous day’s rant about lawns.

    A garden is work. If you don’t like the work, you’ll notice having to do it.

    A yard and garden is carved out of the work of the world. If you want to keep your garden looking good, you’ll need to counter the work of the world no matter what you plant.

    The world keeps on working even when we have our feet up.

  5. In our area (San Diego), natives need a different type of soil microbes than non-natives. So you not only have to take care of the plant you have to take care of the soil and establish the right microbe system. Until I learned that I lost a lot of plants.

    But my hillside is very low-maintenance now, with a mix of natives and Mediterranean plants. It needs almost no additional water beyond a spray once a week or so. I have a few natives mixed in through the rest of the yard as well. I think what gets people is either the purist approach where it must be all natives, or the “low maintenance” turning out to be being able to tolerate the plants’ dormant season when here, they can look like crap for the hot months.

    The most important thing is to understand any plant’s needs, native or not, and make sure it works where you plant it.

  6. Great guest rant, echoing many thoughts I have had propagating and selling native grasses during the past year. A garden is cultivated – one is not trying to create a wilderness in one’s yard. I fear that native plant gardeners will always be viewed as shrill fundamentalists in the horticultural world, however. I am happy to live with that opprobrium.

  7. Part of my biz is maintaining native gardens in the midwest.

    People are often surprised at how much work they require to keep the diversity high.

    Unlike traditional perennial gardens they have different needs. For example in an urban and suburban setting much much more pruning to keep it looking respectable and tidy especially if it is in the front yard.

    Bob mentioned the Cup Plant – if I have a large property where this can be safely integrated into the landscape I oftentimes prune it 50 percent at least once or twice during the growing season. Some, like the New England Aster up to 3 times.

    The second is that natives typically seed and spread like crazy so you have to be ruthless in culling all the extras and to some extent some deadheading for the winter if you don’t wish to have 1000’s. It’s nice to leave up some seedheads for the critters in the winter but on a smaller lot you often have remove at least half the seedheads in order not to be overrun the following season.

  8. I love native plants and grow lots of them, but in a suburban setting of surrounding manicured lawns, it makes the most sense to treat the natives as if they were exotic perennials and woody plants, planted in a formal bed, in the traditional grouping in odd numbers, or in drifts. That way, the lawn police and the critters, as well as the gardener, can all be happy. Native doesn’t have to equal sloppy.

  9. What a spot-on post, and well said. This message really needs to be spread. I’m tired of seeing weedy messes explained away as natural gardens. Even naturalized areas benefit from attention. This season we weeded sow thistle and Queen Anne’s Lace out of our native meadow of prairie species, and what a difference that has made. The job seemed daunting as we started, but in the end it just took two of us the better part of two mornings to pull those weeds out of a 2-acre meadow.

  10. Yes, I have a yard in the city full of Midwestern natives (over 80 species), and yes it is messy and floppy, especially this time of year. I have grown these plants from seed as that was affordable and buying garden-ready native plants wasn’t. So I planted what germinated and survived each year, of the seeds I purchased, not what I pre-planned and bought as plants. I learned the habits of each plant as it grew in my yard, so some are bigger and floppier than I expected, some should be moved. And then things grow differently each year as weather and other factors vary. I love all the interaction between species and environment, knowing these plants have evolved in these very conditions. And I love how attractive my yard is to the multitude of insect species that visit it. I will continue to “tweak” my garden “design” to give it an appearance of tending, while also loving the unfolding of associations between life forms. Thanks for the well-informed “rant” !

  11. David well said.

    A plant native to your region may not grow well in urban landscapes because they may have been altered in many ways. The native topsoil may have been stripped away. There are more heat sinks like concreted areas and large buildings. The rainwater is rushed away into storm drainage systems, which reduces wetlands and seasonal ponds. On the other hand, over irrigation is a common way to kill natives that need the wet and dry seasons to survive.

    Since native plants often fail in such landscapes, the gardeners give up on them and plant the 20 cultivars and aliens offered up by the neighborhood big box stores that will grow successfully in their yards.

    Before you invest in natives, start building up your soil and restore at least some of the naturally occurring conditions where natives can be successful. It’s certainly not sustainable to spend your time and money on native plants unless you can provide some semblance of a native landscape.

  12. Glad you said that! It’s such a heartbreak to see people plant natives, ignore them completely, and have them die. Here it CA, the problem is not that they spread, they most likely don’t make it through the first summer.
    And really, for my eyes, a garden is more pleasing and restful than a field of dead grasses, so some pruning and some watering is essential not only for the neighbors but also for my own enjoyment.

  13. ‘Less resource intensive’ is a good way to describe it. I think that the number one obligation of people planting natives is to make sure the planting looks good so other people will want plant them. As a result of some of the poorly-maintained, less-than-successful plantings, many people only recognize a planting as “native” if it looks ratty and weedy. If a planting of natives looks too good, many people somehow don’t recognize it as a native planting. Frustrates me sometimes.

  14. Excellent post, David. I get so frustrated with my clients who have hired me to design and install native-plant gardens for wildlife when they call me two weeks later to complain that their plants are dead.

    Yes, often when native plants are established, they don’t need to be watered, but when they are first planted, they do require the same amount of care to make sure they make it. We cannot just plunk natives in the ground and forget about them.

    And a little homework before we plant them would be great, too. What kind of soil do you have? How much rain do you get? How much sun does your yard get? We have to learn to plan, even with natives.

  15. Oh Too Well Said! I am big on using natives, but you still gotta get out there and do some work to keep a garden looking kempt…please!

Comments are closed.