With growing awareness of the impact of climate change, many gardeners are reconsidering the important roles that native plants can play in home landscapes. But just because a plant has been growing somewhere for as long as anyone can remember doesn’t mean it’s a native plant!
Native plants are not the same thing as wild plants. Without being planted and cultivated, some plants that grow wild are originally brought to the area by humans. Some were deliberately introduced into the area for human use, while others were brought there accidentally, such as seeds clinging to people’s clothing. Native plants, on the other hand, are plants that are observed growing in an area when scientists first begin tracking.
There’s no getting around it: Using native plants makes your landscaping plans more complicated. Instead of just driving to the nearest garden center and picking out plants that look nice, you have to do some research to find plants that are native to your area and fit into your goals for your garden. But the extra effort you put into planning your garden now will pay you back in the time you save on yard work every year from now.
Evaluate Your Environment
The first step in planning your landscape is to take a look at what you have right now. This is the starting point for the dream landscape you’re trying to create. Walkthrough your yard and make notes about its features – both the ones you’d like to keep and the ones you’d like to change. Along with these notes, including some observations about the natural conditions in your yard. That way, you can choose plants that will thrive in those conditions.
Some factors to look at include:
- Sun and Shade
- Soil Texture
- Soil Acidity
Don’t Assume Your Soil Is In Good Shape
If your lawn is full of weeds, those weeds won’t suddenly disappear because you planted some flowers. And if they’re left unchecked, weeds can choke out the very plants you’re trying to cultivate. Pull the weeds by hand, or try solarizing your planting beds to avoid using chemical herbicides and weed killers.
Spend time prepping your planting beds several months before you plan to plant anything, especially if your home was built relatively recently. Newly constructed homes are often surrounded by yards made up of clay-based and rocky soil—not good for any plant, native or otherwise—so you may need to beef up the nutrient balance with compost, aged manure, or other amendments.
Outline Your Goals
Once you know where you’re starting from, think about where you’d like to end up. Brainstorm a list of all your different goals for your garden, including activities you’d like to do outdoors and particular features you would want your garden to have.
Possible goals include:
- Relaxing outdoors
- Entertaining guests
- Growing fruit or vegetables
- Making your compost
- Having play area for kids or pets
- Having a place to grill
- Enjoying beautiful views
- Attracting birds or butterflies
- Having trees for shade
- Requiring low maintenance
- Using less water
- Absorbing excess water (rain garden)
Once you have a list of goals, start thinking about places where you might like different garden features to fit. Try sketching out a “bubble diagram” on a piece of paper with circles for the different features you’d like to have, such as “patio, “butterfly garden,” or “swing set.” This isn’t an exact blueprint – just a rough diagram of which part of the yard can house each feature or activity. Connect the bubbles with arrows showing how people will move from one area to the next.
Compare your bubble diagram to the notes you made earlier about the conditions in different parts of your yard. If you see that you want to put a flowerbed in a moist, shady area, you know you need to find some native flowers like shade and moist soil. You can always change these plans if you have trouble finding suitable plants, but they’re a good starting point.
Find the Right Plants
Once you know both what you have and what you want, you can start making a list of plants that fit your goals and your yard conditions. For instance, if you have dry, sandy soil and want a butterfly garden, you know you need to look for flowers that are native to your area, are attractive to butterflies, and grow in sandy soil.
A good place to begin your search for native plants is at a local garden club or botanic garden. You can also search online to look for a native plant society or wildflower society in your state.
Don’t Toss Your Gardening Tools (Not Yet, At Least)
Filling your garden with native plants doesn’t mean that you’re off the hook when it comes to yard maintenance. Unless you hire a gardening service in Orange County, here are some tasks you’ll need to keep on your radar:
- Keep an eye on weeds, removing them promptly before they take over.
- Prune shrubs, bushes, and trees to prevent them from getting too leggy.
- Deadhead flowering plants to keep them healthy and to bloom.
The other option is to revise your goals. For instance, if you can’t find flowers for your area that attract butterflies, you could grow shrubs that attract songbirds instead. You can also try moving the feature you have in mind to a different area. If a butterfly garden doesn’t fit your backyard conditions, see whether it could work in the front yard instead.
Plan Your Garden
Once you’ve decided which plants you want in your garden, you need to figure out where to put them. Earlier, during the brainstorming stage, you thought in general terms about which parts of your yard you wanted to have native plants. Now it’s time to figure out where within those areas the plants should go.
The simplest way to do this is to work from big to small. Find spots for the biggest plants first, and then fit the smaller plants in around them. On a piece of graph paper – or in a layout program on your computer, if you have one – sketch out a scale-size plot of your yard, including the outlines of any permanent structures such as the house, a shed, or a swimming pool.
All landscapes need several years to become well established. The critical period for watering and weeding is two to three weeks after planting — longer if you are planting in warm, dry seasons — when nursery-grown plants are making the transition to living in a landscape. Your landscape will need minimal maintenance once it is established. Many maintenance practices used for traditionally cultivated plants also work for native plants.
Native plants are beautiful, and they do wonderful things for the environment, but they aren’t a cure-all for your gardening woes. Unless you hire a lawn maintenance company or professional landscapers in Orange County, you’ll still need to spend some time in your yard pruning and weeding.
As a whole, however, the benefits of native plants outweigh the downsides. But keep in mind that you don’t have to take an all-or-nothing approach. Your home’s landscaping should be an expression of your style, so plant what you love!