native gardens

Native Gardens

Native Gardening Basics

Native plants enhance your garden aesthetically and ecologically

There are many ways to start using native plants in your garden. Your garden can be attractive aesthetically and ecologically when you use native plants. You can start to incorporate native plants into your existing landscape – or – you can start completely from scratch. First, make an assessment of the environmental conditions (shady or sunny, drainage, soil types, irrigation, etc.). Also, make an inventory of your existing plants.


It is also helpful when creating a naturalistic landscape design to consider the associations found in specific plant communities (a prairie, wetland or forest). You may also want to visit some local natural areas to observe these associations first-hand.

Planning and planting a native garden does not have to be done all at once. It can be installed in phases as your budget and time allows.


Understand your site and select appropriate plants.

You need to know the amount of sun your intended garden receives:

•   6 hours or more of direct sun is full sun.

•   4-6 hours is considered part sun.  

•   2-4 hours is considered part shade

•   2 hours (the light should be dappled) or less is considered shade.  


We will assume you have the typical clay/loam Oak Park soil.  Does water collect where you plan to put the garden?  Or is it relatively dry? If it stays wet, in a depression or is near a downspout, you can select plants that prefer more moisture.  If it is a drier or hotter spot (near a sidewalk), you should select plants that prefer well-drained and dry soil.  


Soil Preparation if removing lawn

If you are removing lawn, there are two options after you create the outline of your garden.


First option: You can physically remove the lawn by simply digging a few inches down, pull up strips of lawn, shake off the soil, and you can place the grass in a compost pile or even use as a kind of mulch if you place them with the roots up to the air.  


Second option: The easiest method to start a new garden is to use sheet composting or lasagne bed, which is simply layering browns and greens on a bed of cardboard, in the fall. First make sure you have mown the area. Place down cardboard and wet it thoroughly. Then place a layer of leaves, then a layer of greens (lawn clippings are great), and so on till you have a pretty think bed. Water these layers. Add a layer of mulch on top.  


Over the fall, winter, and spring, all of the decomposers in the soil will be working and by late spring you can plant into your new garden. All of the ingredients may not be thoroughly composted, but they are usually enough so that you can plant. As the temperatures warm up, the materials will be consumed and turned into soil soon enough.


Soil preparation if weeds are a problem

If weeds are a big problem, you may want to consider not only hand-pulling, but maybe even covering them with a sheet of clear plastic for several months – a process known as solarization. Other methods to kill weeds are pouring boiling water or vinegar on them. By eliminating weeds first, as much as possible, before planting, it will be much easier than trying to control them in a newly planted site.  


Just as a note, methods that involve solarization, vinegar, boiling water may also kill the beneficial life in the soil.  If you use those methods, allow some time for pH of the soil to return to normal and consider adding good compost or healthy soil from other areas of your garden to help repopulate your soil with beneficial microorganisms.


Plant selection

Choose species based on the soil, light, and water conditions of your site and for the size, shape, texture, and color you desire. You can look at our Top Ten Lists for different conditions (under the Learn tab in the Main Menu). You can purchase plants from our Native Plant Sale or look at other plant resources here: Where to Get Native Plants.


Suggested Prairie Plants (full sun):

•   Spring: Spiderwort, Golden Alexanders, Prairie Smoke, Prairie Phlox, Cream Prairie Indigo

•   Summer: Purple Prairie Clover, Purple Coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, Butterflyweed, Culver’s Root,

•   Fall: New England Aster, Smooth Blue Aster, Stiff Goldenrod, Showy Goldenrod, Aromatic Aster

•   Grasses: Little bluestem, Big Bluestem, Prairie Dropseed, Indian grass, Switch Grass, Purple Love Grass


Suggested Woodland Plants (shade):

•   Spring: Wild geranium, Virginia Bluebells, Wild Columbine, Celadine Poppy, Jacob’s Ladder, Early Meadow Rue, Virginia Water Leaf, Wild Blue Phlox,  Columbine              

•   Ferns: Marginal Shield fern, Ostrich Fern, Christmas Fern

•   Groundcovers: Wild Ginger, May Apple, Allegheny Foam Flower

•   Three-Season Plants: Solomon’s Seal, Solomon’s Plume, White Baneberry

•   Fall: Short’s Aster, Large-leaf Aster, Elm-leaved Goldenrod, Zig-zag Goldenrod, Blue-stemmed Goldenrod, Blue Mist, White Snakeroot (can be a prolific self-seeder, grows smaller in shady situations)

•   Shrubs: Hazelnut, Witch Hazel, Arrowwood Viburnum, Pagoda Dogwood

•   Maintaining Your Landscape


Planting your native plants

Place your plants in your garden in their pots and arrange until you are satisfied. Be sure to allow for them to mature and fill out.  Plan for 12″ between narrow plants (like liatris) or 18″ inches for larger plants (like coneflowers). It is desirable to plant densely; plants support each other, shade out competing weeds, and offer cover for beneficial insects.


Place shorter plants in the front, taller ones in the back. Plant in drifts (e.g. if you have 3 plants, plants them near each other as opposed to spaced out. Easier for pollinators and more aesthetically pleasing.)


Once you are satisfied with your layout, plant them. Dig the hole a little deeper and wider than the pot or the root system. Gently tip the pot over to the side and ease the plant out.  Place the plant into the hole, start to fill in the hole. After the hole is filled halfway, sprinkle some water to help the soil settle and reduce air pockets. Continue to backfill the soil, and keep a little berm around the plant to help hold and collect water around the plant.  

Water well. Generally, there is no need to fertilize.


Your native plants will need time to become established.

The critical period for watering and weeding is two to three weeks after planting – or longer if you are planting in warm, dry seasons. If you are planting trees or shrubs, apply a four to six-inch layer of organic mulch around them (but, not touching the main stem) and a one-inch or less mulch layer for perennials. Mulch can help control weeds, reduce temperature fluctuations, help retain moisture and give a finished look to the landscape.  


Native plants usually do not require fertilizer.

Many thrive in poor soil and applying fertilizer could chemically burn them, or stimulate either lush or spindly, weak foliage growth with few flowers. Leaving the organic matter in the fall and spring is all you need to do. This material will feed the soil organisms which will then feed your plants. Fungi are critically important for the health of your plants, and they prefer whole material to consume.


Monitor your plants.  

If your plant suffers transplant stress, you can place a container or something to help shade the plant from the sun until it has settled into its new home.  


Be sure to keep the area weeded and watered appropriately.  All transplants will need watering on a regular basis for the first month.  If it’s hot and dry, you might need to water daily even for drought tolerant plants for the first week or so.  Then you can try to water every other day.  Then the third week see if you can stretch out to two full days, and continue till they no longer need supplemental irrigation.


Mulch is essential at this stage of your garden to help conserve water, feed soil organisms, and suppress weeds.  As your plants mature, keep the plant material in the garden and use a light layer of leaves as a mulch.  They will naturally feed the soil organisms which then feed your plants as well as preserving beneficial insects that overwinter.  


Enjoy your garden, and the real satisfaction comes from watching all the changes and paying close attention to the life that will discover and flourish in your living landscape.


Maintain and expand your native plants

Each year add more native plants. Make more prairie and/or woodland spaces. Educate your neighborhood by example! Once you get started, it becomes easier and easier every year to maintain your property/grounds — less mowing and watering; more wildlife and soil improvement. Enjoy the butterflies and birds that visit!


Source: West Cook Wild Ones blog posts

Posted by Stephanie Walquist November 16, 2014

Posted by Stephanie Walquist March 11, 2016