The lone voice of horticultural reason

Designing With Natives

Pursue gardening as a primary, lifetime hobby and one thing is certain: your taste in landscape design will change.
Quite often, we are unaware of any evolutionary process so far as it amends our opinions, actions and deeds. When did I start eating Thai food? I honestly don’t remember. And when did I lapse into my current custom of ordering Thai (and Mexican, and Caribbean) dishes so devilishly spicy they cause my fingernails to throb and sweat to escape out the top of my head? Me, who didn’t eat onion until I was 25 years old? I simply can’t recall.

Tougher yet, how in the world did I ever turn into a Republican? In ’72 I handed out flyers for McGovern, joined Students for a Democratic Society (a socialist puppet show if ever there was one), and read clandestine copies of the Berkeley Barb (Rolling Stone was too Establishment). Yowser. The list goes on and on.

Occasionally, however, we are awake and in complete control of our faculties as our tastes transform, and thus are able to recognize the process. That’s where I’m at, right now, when it comes to landscape design. I feel my tastes changing and I understand why.

Some of the change is due to boredom with the types of plants and style of design I currently employ. Some is brought on by laziness-if I complete landscaping my yard in the manner in which I’ve begun, irrigation system or no irrigation system, maintenance is going to take up a lot of time. The final factor in my metamorphosis is curiosity: there’s a relatively new style of suburban gardening out there that I haven’t tried. Add them all together and I recognize clearly the allure of landscaping with natives.

Native plants, that is. From the tallest trees to the lowest grasses and ground covers, creating the live art that is gardening can be spectacularly achieved with the native plants that have developed naturally, over centuries, in our region’s vast woodlands and prairies. The “look” their use creates is not for everyone. It’s not even for a majority of my yard, but as I gaze out at the vast, undeveloped back end of my lot, as well as the long, narrow swath of property that runs between my driveway and the start of my neighbor’s creeping charlie test-zone, I realize I have to try it.

Spectacular is in the eye of the beholder. Side-by-side, acre for acre, a native perennial planting doesn’t pack as big of a color punch as does a bed filled with standard nursery specimens. It’s the subtleties that draw you in. Sure, some of the stars of the native show are already known to most area gardeners, and score well in the color department, flowers like Echinacea angustifolia (purple coneflower), Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed susan) and Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly flower). But many others, particularly those suitable for shade, and the smaller native wildflowers, simply aren’t as broad and bold as their winter-hardy, yet non-native counterparts. Appreciating a native landscape can be an acquired taste.

Next column I’ll describe some of my favorite natives, unveil my plan for incorporating a native woodland setting, native prairie patch and even a wet meadow into my landscape, then share some of the places locally where native seed, potted plants, and hearty help are all available.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener