Fall is an ideal time to plant a sustainable garden that supports wildlife and looks good too
Getting started: Native Plants 101
1. Native plants are less maintenance when they’re in the right place. You’ll hear a lot about natives being easy to take care of, but you won’t often hear about matching the plants to the right soil, light and drainage conditions. You wouldn’t put a water-loving plant on a hillside that has sandy soil, would you? Knowing the site for your proposed garden is key — everything from where the light is spring to fall, to how rainwater flows or collects, to doing a soil test on your growing medium.
Then you need to research plants. Make sure to use Latin names since many plants share common names. What do respected institutions say about where and how the plant grows? Is it competitive or a behaved clumper? How does it spread?
2. Site prep can be handled in various ways. If you’re matching plants to soil and drainage, you shouldn’t have to amend that soil, adding expense or labor. If you’re converting part of a lawn into a native plant garden, a sod cutter can be used to remove grass once you’ve mapped out the edges of your garden border with a garden hose, rope or spray paint. If you have an established garden area and want to add native plants, there’s even less prep work to do, unless you want to remove some tired, old plants or river rock mulch.
3. Try to have blooms all season long. You’re more likely to help pollinators and other insects if you always have flowers blooming — plus it looks good. When choosing plants, plan to have at least one plant blooming from spring to fall, with a bit of overlap. Large parts of the U.S. share the same native plants, but you’ll need to be careful when researching bloom times, as a specific plant will bloom earlier in the south than in the north. Local cooperative extension offices and native plant nurseries can help, and some native plant societies and garden clubs even have handy bloom-time charts, so reach out to ask if these are available.
4. Pollinators need more than just flowers. Without foliage to eat, many youngsters and future butterflies, moths, flies and beetles would starve. The same can be said about pollen, which a lot of native bee species use to feed their young. Shallow flowers like asters and sunflowers tend to attract a greater diversity of adult pollinators, but that doesn’t mean you should stick to that one form.
Additionally, try to use straight species where you can. These are native plants that have not been crossed or bred with others to produce new leaf colors or new flower colors and shapes. When plants are altered, the chemical makeup of their leaves may change and be unable to support as many caterpillars.
5. Leave plants up for winter. Standing plants not only add beauty to a winter landscape, but they also serve a greater purpose for the ecosystem: providing homes to overwintering insects, spiders, amphibians, birds and more. Within many stems are slumbering bee larvae, and under leaf litter are butterfly and moth caterpillars — and even some winged adults. Standing plants also help gather snow, which can insulate their roots and add moisture to the garden during springtime melts.
When spring arrives, cut down perennial flower stems and grasses to about 12 to 18 inches tall, which will leave future homes for spring and summer bees to nest. Whatever stems you do cut down can be used as mulch to spread over the bed, returning the nutrients your plants need to thrive to the garden.