About two years ago I learned something that completely changed the way I saw gardening. Gardening doesn’t need to be the typical showcase of “garden center” plants. Gardening is important. More important than I ever realized. Gardening can restore habitat. Your garden can have real meaning. It’s something everyone should know, no matter where you live, so I thought I’d share it with you.
It’s simple, and it’s highly important. Give up those typical garden center plants. It’s time to plant species that are native to your area. If your yard is shady, you may want to add woodland plants. If you’re in full sun, consider prairie plants. Maybe your yard can support both. Just plant native plants.
For me, it started when I was standing at the northern edge of the Scuppernong Prairie. Whenever I’m at the Scuppernong Prairie, or any prairie, I could spend hours there. Looking at the plants, watching the insects and animals. Why couldn’t I have a yard that looked like a prairie? Maybe I could. Sure, a garden is not a prairie. Although, why can’t it be? Why can’t I have the same plants I see in the prairie in my own yard?
Maybe someday I’ll live somewhere where I can turn my entire yard into a prairie, but for now, I started with an 8′ by 8′ section. I was given a few native plants, and I also bought a few seed packets that I planted in late fall shortly before the first snowfall.
There are countless species native to my state – Wisconsin, and I needed to decide what I wanted to add. I decided that the plants I was going to add needed to be both colorful and beneficial to native wildlife. I decided on a few basics. Milkweed is a necessity for Monarch Butterflies, so it’s a necessity in my garden. I decided on Orange Milkweed, Common Milkweed, and Swamp Milkweed, to be exact. Black-eyed Susans, Gray-headed Coneflowers, and Purple Coneflowers are the most well known prairie plants. They also needed to be added.
They would be what holds my garden together. In between those species is where I would add a little variety. I began researching. I wanted to learn about other prairie plants. What else was out there? I wanted interesting flowers. I wanted colors I don’t normally see in prairies, even though I know they’re out there.
The very first plant I added was interesting, it was brightly colored and very unique. One problem, though. Gaillardia is a US native, however it’s not native to my state, though it does grow in the wild. I needed to decide what “native” meant to me. Does every plant need to be native to my state, or even my right down to my county? I decided that the answer was no. While I would do my best to add only species that were native to my area, there would always be a few that I’ll accept into my native garden regardless of where they come from. The trade-off would be that they still have to be beneficial to native insects. Gaillardia certainly is. I see at least 6 species of bee on it daily, along with caterpillars, soldiers beetles, butterflies and more. It’s probably the single most active plant I have.
In total, I’ve decided on three non-native species. The second is Globe Thistle. This is the furthest from native I plan on adding. Its native to Europe. I has an interesting look that I think will go well with my native plants, and bumble bees in particular benefit from it. I’ve not added it yet but plan to next year. The third and final non-native species is Long-headed Coneflower. This is probably the closest to native. It’s native to the US, including nearby states. It also grows in the wild here in Wisconsin, and benefits the same insects as the native and closely related Gray-headed Coneflowers.
So, the non-natives are out of the way. How about the natives? My grandma was nice enough to let me take some of her three native species. The first is Liatris. This is another flower that Bumblebees particularly love.
The second is Penstemon. An interesting white flower that blends well with brightly-color species.
The third is Spiderwort. This flower is in between purple and blue, but I usually refer to it as blue.
There aren’t many blue flowers out there, and I wondered if Spiderwort was going to be my only blue flower. Research paid off, and I found a plant called Blue-eyed Grass. Native to my area and sold at a local garden center for less than any other plant they sell. I couldn’t pass it up, and it’s since been put in my top ten favorites. This is a small plant. The flowers an inch at largest, and the plant is about 8″ tall. It’s best for the outside edge of the garden, and that’s how I’m using it.
Another top ten flower is the previously mentioned Orange Milkweed, and this is right up near the top of that top ten list, too. This plant is as orange as orange can get. It practically glows. It stands out more than any other plant. It’s foliage is nice aswell, and I can’t forget the mention the long narrow seed pods that it forms in late summer. If anyone ever wanted to “test the waters” of native gardening, this would be the one to start with.
One more plant I wanted to share today is one that isn’t quite as showy as the others, but it adds variety. This tiny-flowered plant is called Flowering Spurge. I feel it’s important to have a wide variety of species, and that’s why I have this plant. It’s a simple flower, and yet you can’t deny how unique it is. The bigger variety of plants, unique or not, the more beneficial your garden is. As I said, plants like Black-eyed Susans and Purple Coneflowers hold the garden together, but when you get up close, you get to see the real variety tucked in between.
I currently have over 20 species of native plants, however most won’t flower until next year. The garden is very young and still has quite a few bare spots. I should also mention that I’ve double the size of the garden and also added four additional 3’x3′ native gardens under birdhouses. I can only imagine the color boom when they all bloom next year! Until then, enjoy these scenery shots of it over the past couple of months!
Add native plants to your yard. You wont regret it!