Adding Native Plants to your Landscape

Wildflowers and grasses planted in Proctor Park Conservation Area in Brighton Ontario by The Brighton Garden Club, summer 2020.

You have probably heard and read a lot lately about adding native plants to your landscape. Before we continue, let’s establish what a native plant is. A native plant is a plant that grew in the region prior to European settlement. Some wildflowers such as dandelion and Queen Anne’s lace are not native. They arrived in North America with the European  settlers. These plant that have been introduced are known as non-natives, aliens or often just plain weeds.

When you garden with native plants, you are providing huge benefits to wildlife. For example when you include milkweed in your landscape, you are providing larval food for monarch butterflies. When you include a variety of native wildflowers in your landscape, you are providing a haven for a variety of pollinators, and birds.

How do you go about doing this? Look to nature for your guide. If you walk along a path beside a meadow, you will notice that mother nature, plants in layers. There is a canopy of trees, a sub canopy of smaller shrubs and finally understory layers of  grasses and wildflowers.  The ground cover is also important as it suppresses weeds and acts as a natural mulch.

When you choose the wildflowers, think of them as a community, cohabiting in whatever conditions your yard may provide. If you have a lot of sunshine, you can choose brightly flowering wildflowers such as aster (Aster cordifolius) or New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) , swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), bee balm (Monarda didyma), rough blazing star (Liatris aspera)  and black eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba) or (Rudbeckia hirta).  This combination will provide blooms all summer long and will continue to bloom till frost.

Grasses to consider for your sunny wild garden include big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), or Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis)

If you are planning for a shady area, your choices will be different. You would choose plants such as  trout lily (Erythonium americanum), western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia), blood root (Sanguinaria canadensis) and white  trillium (trillium grandiflorum). Many shady area plants bloom early in spring and then disappear for the summer. Interplanting these with sword fern (Polystichum munitum),  solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and wild ginger (Asarum canadense) will give you a rich textural green garden the rest of the year. Sweet woodruff (Galium ordoratum) makes a wonderful ground cover for the shade garden.

If you wish to include a  grass in your shady wild garden, consider bottlebrush grass (Hystrix patula).

Ethically, it is important that as you establish your wild garden you Do Not take plant material from the wild. Obtain your plants from seed or from nurseries. Try to purchase these from sources originated in your region. Use only natural means of fertilizing, weed and predator control rather than chemical means.

If you are planting native plants from seed, it is best to wait till autumn to sow them. They require a period of ripening through our cold dormant winter before germinating. An alternative to this is to put the seeds in the fridge for six to eight weeks and then plant them in the spring.

If you are like me and like an instant garden, you can source many of these plants from local nurseries. Many nurseries now include a native plant section  and conveniently divide the plants into shade and sun lovers. Lower Trent Conservation offers wild flower collections each year, usually available in early June, but orders must be placed in advance.  These come with a planting guide which is very helpful. Ontario Native Plants is another excellent source of native plants. You can source wildflowers, ferns, grasses, trees and shrubs from them. They ship in early June.

For the most part the plants I have suggested above are easy to grow natives who are not fussy or demanding. Having said that, before you plant, you will want to get rid of any  existing weeds and grass to eliminate competition. I like to lay down cardboard or newspaper on top of the grass and cover it with a thick layer of triple mix.   The best time to do this is in the fall but I have started gardens using this method in the spring and have been very successful. The other method is digging up the sod. This is more labour intensive but getting rid of the grass is necessary if you want to establish a wild garden.

The first year, your native wild garden will  require some weeding and some watering especially during summer drought. However, once established, it will look after itself. Leave the plants standing over the winter. This is not only aesthetically pleasing as the snow settles on the leaves and seed heads, it is beneficial for insects and birds who continue to feed on the seed heads and over winter in the dried foliage. In spring, once temperatures are consistently above 10 degrees C. use a trimmer or mulch mower to trim the tops but allow them to lie in the bed to replenish the soil for the following year. The bulbs and later the perennials will push up through the debris.

Resources you may find hepful:

Johnson Lorraine, 100 Easy-To-Grow Native Plants For Canadian Gardens. Denise Schon Books Inc., 1999.

Nolan, Tara, Gardening Your Front Yard :Projects And Ideas For Big and Small Spaces. Quarto Publishing Group, 2020.

Oudolf. Piet & Gerriten, Henk, Planting The Natural Garden. Timber Press, 2019.

authored by Carol Anderson


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