Kristin Riott, BTG’s Executive Director and a passionate gardener, shares her experience and knowledge from years of gardening with native plants at home.
I have loved wildflowers since I was a child, picking armfuls of purple phlox and enchanted by the tiny pairs of pants called Dutchman’s Breeches, in a deeply wooded ravine near my home in Cincinnati. At Bridging The Gap, I now think of wildflowers as native plants—plants locally adapted to our conditions, never needing fertilizer or watering after the first year or two. In KC, we happen to live in an area that has some of the world’s most spectacular native plants. The international landscaping rock star Piet Oudolf of the Netherlands thinks a purple coneflower is hard to grow and would be wracked with jealousy if he knew how easy they are in Kansas City. Poor Piet, and poor olde Europe, which is just too rainy and cool for purple coneflowers to come back reliably.
Not only are native plants easy, but they feed our stressed local ecosystems. Pollinators (winged things that move pollen from one plant to another, with bees the leading category) are in sharp decline, foremost from the loss of their habitats to development. Converting millions of midwestern acres to farmland and suburbs has greatly reduced the prevalence of plants like milkweed and driven species like monarch butterflies, which can only propagate on milkweed, to near extinction. This is (or should be) a call to arms for midwestern gardeners! Not on our watch are monarchs and other iconic American species going down! Let us plant like mad until sterile, boring, you-could-be-anywhere gardens are a distant memory, and our gardens are dancing with Great Plains flowers, bees, butterflies, and birds again.
In time for fall planting, I hope to offer you some rules of thumb and shortcuts to a thriving, beautiful, and manageable native garden, and save you a few of the time-consuming and expensive mistakes I’ve made along the way. Here are some rough ideas for the beginning native gardener:
Learn about plants, their heights, habits, light and moisture preferences, and bloom times. This is a great pleasure, especially in the depths of winter. Browse Missouri Wildflower Nursery’s online site or order their print catalog. Sign up to our fellow non-profit Deep Roots KC’s Pollinator newsletter, great classes, and annual conference (coming up in September). Other local sources include Sow Wild’s website, and Alan Branhagen’s Native Plants of the Midwest, which is encyclopedic. Some of my own favorite plants include:
- Glade, yellow and purple coneflowers
- rattlesnake master, with light green, strappy leaves which stand out from other forms
- blue wild indigo, a slow grower which becomes a large, anchoring shrub
- butterfly, purple and spider milkweeds
- rose verbena, which spills beautifully onto sidewalks and blooms twice a season
- wild stonecrop, a low-grower which can take sun or shade—but not standing water
- the enormous leaves and dramatically tall flowers of prairie dock
- Joe Pye weed (cut off the heads at season’s end to avoid too many spring seedlings)
- Sky blue or prairie aster for bees in fall
Pay attention to height, season of bloom, and massing species when planning your garden (and see Missouri Department of Conservation for some lovely local plans). Prairie plants can look like a wild tangle if everything is the same height, and if there aren’t 6-9 plants of a given species together. Put shorter plants like prairie dropseed or prairie winecup in front, but also alternate tall and short plants throughout each bed. It’s nice to have something blooming all the time—downy skullcap, for example, has blue blooms when little else does, starting in late July.
Prune in June. Many American prairie natives grow too tall and lanky to look good in a garden setting. You can whack them down by half or a third– once, twice, even three times from early June to early July, to make them a more attractive, manageable height. The lopped ends will look rough for a few weeks, but everything does in the heat of July. They’ll start to look spectacular again and bloom in August through fall.
Make sure you’re not buying an aggressively invasive species. Learning from Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home that goldenrod supports many pollinator species, early on I bought a kind (maybe tall goldenrod) that ran amok. It spreads from underground runners, and it took several years to get it out. However, there are perfectly well-behaved species like cliff goldenrod which I wouldn’t be without. Other plants that have become out of control for me are red bee balm (monarda didyma), and some forms of Black-eyed Susans. Research—or ask– how the plant spreads before you buy.
For species that spread gently, save money—buy just a few! In this category are some of my favorites: wild ginger (best groundcover for shade, lush green hearts), packera (more shade groundcover), pussytoes (sunny groundcover), downy skullcap or the shorter version of it, spigelia. Buy just a couple, protect them well and let them fill in gradually. In fall, I dig up extras and spread to other parts of the garden. Using the same plant in multiple beds helps create a visual rhythm, the hallmark of a well-designed garden.
Mark your plants by name and year. Be a friend to your future self, and let yourself know what’s coming up next spring. I like metal tags from Paw Paw Labels because they last, and are fully recyclable. I have a labeling machine that prints the labels on waterproof tape. Popsicle sticks with heavily penciled names will do just as well.
You have to water in the first year, even though natives are adapted to our weather. Keep your eye out for dry spells in the 2nd year as well. That said, many natives cannot take standing water. I’ve killed a lot of stuff by planting it at the bottom of a slope which stayed wet through spring. Only water-tolerant species like Copper Iris can handle this.
Protect tender young leaves from the depredations of bunnies, deer, and other wildlife. I foil bunnies’ efforts by making chicken wire cylinders, placing over the plant and pinning in place with metal stakes. These can be removed when the leaves have toughened up a bit, and the plant is big enough to withstand some bunny browse.
Buy straight species when you can, not cultivars. Cultivars are plants sold under a patented name like Purple Coneflower “Ruby Slippers”. These plants have been cultivated for their ornamental characteristics, such as unusually strong color or big flower heads. It’s not known yet whether the various cultivars support pollinators like the plain old species do—but research is underway. It’s okay to have some cultivars in your garden, but make a point of searching out and planting the straight species.