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Return of the naturals

By Staff | Apr 29, 2011

Matt Wetrich, left, a naturalist with Carroll County Conservation, recently led a workshop on adding native plants to home gardens. Here, he points out areas around a pond at the nature center at Swan Lake to show where native plants could be incorporated into the landscape.

CARROLL – In Iowa, few plants fit the “right plant, right place” philosophy of gardening better than native grasses and forbs (flowers), so it’s no wonder that these hardy plants are becoming the stars of many Midwest gardens.

“Landscaping with natives is a no-brainer,” said Matt Wetrich, a naturalist with Carroll County Conservation, who shared tips on growing native plants during an April 21 lecture at the nature center at Swan Lake south, near Carroll. “Natives are low maintenance, they don’t have to be babied and they offer wildlife value.”

The vigorous plants that grew on Iowa’s prairies more than a century ago are ideally suited to Iowa’s climate, Wetrich said. Known for their tolerance to drought and cold, erosion control and natural pest resistance, many native plants also boast colorful blooms and striking forms that provide a smorgasbord of nectar, pollen and seed to attract bees, butterflies, and birds that like to feast on insect pests.

These diverse perennials come in a variety of sizes and shapes, from shorter plants like prairie smoke to showy options like false indigo and grasses like little bluestem.

Top tips

“Natives are low maintenance, they don’t have to be babied and they offer wildlife value.” —Matt Wetrick Carroll County naturalist

While it’s tempting to select native plants that offer pretty blooms, it’s important to consider which plants will thrive within your landscape, said Wetrich, who offered the following tips:

Watch microclimates

Assess whether the garden is shady or sunny, and whether the soil is cool and moist, or baked by the sun. “If you have a spot that only gets two hours of sun each day because it’s shaded by existing plants or other structures, don’t add native plants that require full sun,” said Wetrich, who added that rain garden plants can work well for the wet areas of a landscape.

Informed choices

When making plant selections, consider the height and spread of the mature plant, moisture requirements, foliar colors, bloom dates and colors, textures (for visual appeal), and wildlife value.

Prairie Land Return of the native scapes website at www.prairielandscapes.com/), which has been compiled by Iowan Inger Lamb, offers a great resource, added Wetrich.

He noted that the site includes recommended plant lists sorted by short, medium and tall native landscaping plants; short, showy plants; rain garden plants; and a “watch out” list of plants to use with caution, since these natives may only be suitable for very large sites, may only thrive in wet conditions, or can become invasive.

Start big

The placement of trees, shrubs and tall native plants should be considered first when planning a landscape. Also, it’s essential to stick with shorter native plants in smaller gardens.

Sometimes gardeners are surprised by how big some native species are relative to typical landscape plants.

It’s not unusual for commonly available prairie species to grow 5 feet tall (or more), and even 4-foot-tall plants can be quite large in a small flowerbed.

Since plant species are often described with a height range, it’s important to use the maximum height when deciding on suitability, Wetrich said.

Plant carefully

Once you’ve selected the native plants that are suited to your landscape, remember the “$10 rule” when planting. “By that, I mean you prepare a $9 hole for a $1 plant, so the plant gets off to a good start,” Wetrich said. “You can’t add too much compost, and you don’t want to plant too deep.

Be patient

It’s important to note that native plants do not establish as quickly as the traditional perennials many gardeners are accustomed to. Most native plants available for purchase are generally not available in large sizes.

In addition, native plants must work hard during the first year to establish their root systems, rather than adding lots of growth above the ground.

When adding deep-rooted native species, remember this garden adage:”the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap.”

Staying small and easily manageable is a great way to start with native plants, added Wetrich, who noted that a garden can always be expanded in later years.

“While natives won’t provide instant gratification, they will look really cool in a few years.

“I encourage you to get out in the garden this spring and try something new with natives.”

You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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