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Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) with a butterfly, native wildflower, Hamilton Native Outpost

Mother Nature’s Landscaping Secrets

Using native plants in landscaping can be easy with the help of Mother Nature’s secrets.  Native wildflowers have many benefits; they add beauty to a home or business, they are low maintenance, and they create an excellent food source and habitat for native pollinators. 

Native wildflower meadows suit Mother Nature’s landscaping taste, and she has many landscaping secrets for us to learn. From the prairies to the glades, Mother Nature’s landscaping is filled with native plants.  Using native plants in home landscaping allows us to recreate her design.  Not only are native plants pleasing to the eye, but they provide food and habitat for native pollinators, bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Learn Mother Nature’s Landscaping Secrets

  1. Flowerbed vs. wildflower meadow – A flowerbed has a more formal look that is very pleasing to the eye; it is a very appropriate choice for, say, a front yard.  To achieve this look, certain design elements such as borders, focal points, and large masses of a few plants are often used.  Thus, exact plant positioning and spacing are desired, and this is easiest achieved with potted plants.  Also, potted plants give more instant results, which is advantageous in a highly visible area.  Wildflower meadows, on the other hand, are a great choice in larger spaces where the cost and labor to plant potted plants becomes prohibitive or where the work of mulching is not desired.  Seeds are the most effective way to establish a wildflower meadow.  The wait for a wildflower meadow is longer, often taking 3 years before many of the wildflowers bloom, but the results can be worth the wait.  Also, the inclusion of annual or biennial species that bloom the first year or two can help add some color to the wait.   
  2. Choose plants based upon soil – There is a sweet spot for each plant as far as soil moisture on the continuum from wet to dry.  Obviously, a water lily and a cactus grow in very different sites and neither would do well if their sites were swapped.  All plants have a certain amount of soil moisture that they like, so understand the planting site and choose plants or a mix adapted to that site.  Characteristics such as rocky soil, clay soil (for instance after topsoil has been removed), ridgetop or side slope landscape positions, and rooting restrictions (e.g. bedrock or fragipan) all lend dry characteristics.  Wet soils are often evident because they are the places that your shoes sink into the wet soil at time other than just after a rain; these locations are often where water is coming to the surface from within the soil.  Mesic soils (those that are not too wet nor too dry) are deep with good organic matter content and few rocks.  Keep in mind that if the slope of the land is facing west or south, the site will be drier than the same site that faces north or east due to sun intensity.  It is also possible to alter a site to make it match the requirements of the desired plants.  Remove topsoil to make a site drier (this has the added benefit of removing weed seeds) or add organic matter (e.g. compost) to make it moister (this is questionably practical on most sites of any size).  Remember that growing plants where they are not adapted will either create a high maintenance landscape or the plants will not thrive.
  3. Choose a diversity of wildflowers – Since  native wildflowers do not bloom season long, the secret to always having color is to have a diversity of wildflowers.  This also provides season-long pollen and nectar sources for butterflies, hummingbirds, honeybees, and other pollinators. 
  4. Choose plants based upon sun & shade – Just as different plants prefer different soil moisture; each plant has a certain amount of sun or shade in which it thrives.  The amount of shade is a range with full sun on one end, full shade on the other, and varying amounts of sun and shade in between.  Understand the site to be planted.  Is it evenly sunny or shady or is the shade only in certain areas?  What percent of the day does a given area get direct sunlight? 
  5. Include grass and grass-like plants – Native ecosystems contain a component of native grasses and grass-like plants.  A mix of both warm and cool season grasses is part of nature’s design and is beneficial for a wildflower meadow.  The function of the grasses in a wildflower meadow are many.  The grasses help shade the ground between wildflower plants, which discourages weeds.   They also provide beautiful shades of rusty red, various browns, bright orange, and silver in the late fall and winter.  Additionally, the grasses offer support to tall blooming wildflowers and carry a fire if a controlled burn is desired to renew the earth for next year’s flowers.  At least 25% of a planting should be grasses.
  6. Seed in winter – By design, many seeds – especially wildflowers but also some grasses – will not germinate until they have been through winter.  This is a protective mechanism to ensure that the seed does not germinate in fall when the temperatures and soil moisture are favorable only to find the plant is too small to live through the winter.  So, built into the seed is the knowledge that after winter comes spring, and spring is the time to start growing.  Therefore, unless the meadow is only going to be grasses, plant in winter or cold-moist stratify the seed.  
  7. Don’t fertilize – Natural ecosystems don’t have a fertilizer buggy that brings them nitrogen, phosphate, or potash, and usually wildflower meadows don’t have any need of it either.  Nitrogen is especially problematic as it encourages weed growth and can make the wildflowers tall, gangly and cause them to fall over.  So, unless the pH is really low or really high or the phosphate or potash levels are really low (which does happen, especially on areas where the topsoil is missing – in this case read the Critical Area Treatment guidelines), it is usually best to forget the fertilizer unless you need a carrier to spread the seed with, and even then don’t apply nitrogen.
  8. Remove the old growth – In natural ecosystems, fire was present.  The frequency varied between ecosystem type, but almost every one of them experienced fire in the dormant season.  The fires removed the last summer’s dead plant leaves to allow the roots below those leaves to once again, bring forth greenery the following summer.  In a wildflower meadow, do the same – use prescribed fire or winter mowing every year or every other year to rejuvenate the plants.  Do NOT, however, use fire for the first couple of years of the planting as the seedlings, when young, can heave out of the ground and the roots can be consumed by the fire thus killing the plant.

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