Here are a few books newly published this year which you might want to consider at least for yourself, if not someone else. Maybe you can add your own in the comments section? It's a rather simple guide but I heartily recommend them all, so go explore and learn like never before. It's been a great book year!
Anytime I post a meme that espouses kids don't need lawns to play in -- that in fact kids are healthier if they play in more biodiverse habitat -- a cavalcade of responses ensue about ticks. Fair enough. To be sure, the diseases that some ticks carry are terrible and can impact us for a lifetime (so can covid, another zoonotic disease just like lyme), and a variety of viruses and pathogens, as well as dirty outdoor urban air and dirty indoor air in schools and office buildings. I don't know if the tick argument comes about as genuine concern or simple whataboutism, in any case, let's take an initial stab at ticks; I'm sure I'll add research over time here just as I have for the honey bee vs. native bee post.
First, it's well established that kids need to be outside running around, touching, breathing it all in, getting dirty. Richard Louv's books are a great starting point. Kids who spend time outside are less likely to develop allergies as they are exposed to a wild world of microbes. Kids playing in nature develop better balance and stamina, they cultivate empathy for others through interaction with wildlife, and they become more creative in their thinking and response to challenging situations. Kids with classroom window views of more diverse habitat have higher tests scores and are better able to work in groups. Heck, hospital patients with views of trees recover faster. KIDS NEED NATURE. And so do adults. Get your 10 minutes of sun at midday to get that good dose of daily vitamin D, for example.
So back to ticks. It's easy to see the symptom -- there's a tick latched on to my skin -- and freak out. I do. I have. I will continue to do so. But saying we need to protect kids form interaction with nature because of ticks is a bit problematic because the benefits far outweigh the risks (maybe true for sending kids to school with no HEPA air filtration).
Ticks will thrive even more in the future thanks to us. We are a big problem. Of course we can also be the solution but that's unlikely to happen. Tick populations and their diseases will thrive with climate change: as winters warm, as ecoregions shift and change, ticks will grow in populations.
Habitat loss is a big one, too, in particular if we focus on lyme disease and especially in the northeast, where I'd say 75% of tick concerns come from when I have the "kids don't need lawn" conversation. Deer are not vectors for lyme disease (even though deer do breed ticks like crazy) -- white-footed mice are. Without large, intact habitats, as well as fewer fragmented habitat like we see in most urban and suburban and even semi rural areas, those mice will thrive due to a lack or predators. Fewer foxes and wolves and coyotes and owls and snakes (yes, snakes are good!) mean more mice.
So we have climate change and less habitat, the two core issues we must address, otherwise the tick issue won't go away. We also love to live in nature -- homes in forested areas and near lakes fetch top dollar for a reason. Now, we should always practice safety first -- we get flu vaccines, and polio vaccines, and chicken pox vaccines, we buckle up in the car, we look both ways before crossing the street, we bring water on long hikes and maybe a first aid kit. So we should absolutely tuck pants into shoes, wear insect repellent, and do tick checks, among other strategies. But like anything else, even basic precautions aren't always enough -- stuff happens -- but it doesn't mean you throw the baby out with the bath water and proclaim only lawns as healthy places for kids to play in. Heck, we haven't even addressed all the poisons put on lawns to maintain their lush monoculture goodness, let alone the fact lawns don't hold a candle compared to meadow gardens in cleaning the air or soil, or reducing stormwater runnoff -- or, ahem, providing habitat for tick predators and predators of other species that are disease vectors.
As for what we can directly control in our home landscapes, hey, I've seen ticks on our front door. Still, there are some things we can do design wise in small suburban spaces and larger rural ones. The low-hanging fruit is simply wider paths to explore the landscape, say 4-6 feet wide. Ticks usually latch on by questing, which is reaching out their front legs into the air as they balance on the tips of foliage. We can also, obviously, work to increase the biodiversity and habitat structure to foster predators. (Do note that the opossums-eat-10,000-ticks-a-day-thing is a myth.) Little patches of lawn make nice places to picnic or stargaze in, while also providing negative space -- a design technique that helps show order and intention in a wilder landscaper (it's a cue to care).
If you are able to use fire in your landscape, it's a great management tool to increase biodiversity and reduce ticks. Ticks don't like fire, says Kyle Lybarger of Native Plant Habitat Project. In fact, you'll find more ticks in woodlands than grasslands. As for No Mow May, mowing less does not increase tick populations. But you should probably also not participate in No Mow May. If you live in the Great Plains, the invasion of eastern red cedar trees increases tick populations.
Ticks aren't going anywhere. And they suck. Ahem. I will scream and nearly pass out when I find one on me like anyone else, but knowledge is power -- and habitat is key in reducing tick populations AND in fostering physical and mental health for ourselves.
Here are some reasons why seeing an adult insect on an exotic plant's bloom isn't justification that it doesn't matter what you plant and / or we've so wrecked the world the answer will always be plant diversity to mend the fabric:
And I want to say this, too, which I explore in A New Garden Ethic: when we use casual observations to justify our beliefs, that does not a peer-reviewed-and-replicated-study-in-you-region make. No matter where you fall on the plant origin spectrum, observation is just step one.
A common argument is, again, that we've so altered the world that plant diversity is key to supporting wildlife and adapting to all the changes we've caused. That's hogwash. It's also a defense of human privilege and supremacy, aka greenwashing, and an avoidance of critical thinking and certainly empathy for other species -- and it's totally ignoring that we need to dismantle the extractive, colonizing systems that CONTINUE TO ERODE LIFE (systems of which mainstream horticulture is a part of). Was that a lot? It's in the book, and we go through it a lot slower there in those pages if you're willing to take the ride.
Native plants HELP SPECIES ADAPT TO CLIMATE DISRUPTION. It gives them a fighting chance. It gives evolution a very small window to do its thing (see book). Most species can't and won't evolve within decades as climate disruption speeds along faster and faster. But this belief that we know better (human supremacy) than millenia of co-evolution is a little absurd, disgusting, and racist toward other species. That's right. Because another thing you'll often hear is that native plant proponents are racist, practicing some sort of eugenics by privileging plant species local wildlife have evolved with. No, it's racist to violently colonize a place, to replace a culture with another, and assume you are better, that what you do is benign, and that gardens are privileged art and thus natural and thus devoid of having any sort of environmental responsibility. (Did I mention a certain book?)
For a long time horticulture has been a colonizing force -- just consider the global plant trade, or how many invasive plant species are escapees from gardens. Plants are also often named after white males who "discovered" them. It's systemic human (and white and classist)) privilege, and until horticulture reckons with its hand in colonialism -- of humans and ecoregions -- any discussion about native vs exotic plants is just a pecking on the surface (Star Wars reference!).
The real conversation about indigenous plant species is about running roughshod over other cultures, human and plant and animal, and being unwilling or unable to notice and process the repercussions because they "make us feel bad" or feel too much like "shaming" (also something you'll hear a lot in reference to climate change and social justice anything for POC or the LGBTQ community or sick people or old people). Often, when someone feels shamed it's because they're being asked to do some difficult introspection that confronts a comfortable, self-defining ideology or dogma (which can occur all over the plant origin spectrum) that, when destabilized, makes us feel unmoored and lost. Again, A New Garden Ethic flushes this all out (it was published 6 years ago and is in its fourth printing, fyi).
This is hard work. It will make us feel very uncomfortable. It's good that it does. It's natural. And it's necessary if we are to grow. Confronting systems of privilege and power will never be without pain -- and that's exactly what native plants are about, whether we know it or not. Native plants don't bring division to horticulture -- horticulture does by privileging aesthetics for one species over what the rest of the planet needs, and doing it via violent colonization. Native plants are just the spotlight brought to bare on some uncomfortable realities we'd prefer to remain under the rug. To some, that makes native plant proponents feel doubly threatening -- not just that they are about "limiting" plant choices for a privileged species (natives aren't really limiting), but that the discussion is also about the systems in place that we lash on to which provide stability to our reality; just when we thought we had something figured out, it proves to be more complicated. But c'est la vie -- and thank god, too, because it's exciting to learn and grow. We are gardeners, after all, and the lessons never, ever end.
So I ranted. It's an opinion. A very different one, probably, and one that has irked plenty for around 10 years now. There's plenty to agree and disagree with, which I'm sure you will below -- just keep it civil please or we'll delete / close comments.
TLDR ---- Above all else I want this to be where we come together to think critically and evolve our thinking in the garden: we all value plants, we all honor and treasure them and the wildlife we see using them. But it's long past time to deeply and fully explore the ramifications of gardening, the connections it has to larger socially systemic issues within and beyond our species, and how gardening as we've known it is no longer tenable -- and that's exciting and hopeful, not something to be angry or depressed over (at least not for any longer than we have to be to cultivate change -- see the book when it explores the five stages of environmental grief and how we're all processing grief right now).
When you disturb a site -- plant a new garden -- you WILL have weeds. These weeds are usually annuals, but they can get pretty thick in certain circumstances (especially in seeding projects where it takes longer for plants to mature, and where germination isn't always guaranteed if dependent on timely rains).
It's important to rethink weed management in gardens the first 1-2 years. For example, hand pulling every last intruder is both impractical and problematic; for the latter this means every time you pull a weed you create more soil disturbance, bring up more weeds seeds to germinate, and potentially exacerbate the issue.
In a sown meadow space, some folks recommend keeping the area mowed at about 6-12 inches the first year to reduce weed seed germination. I've worked on projects where this was helpful AND detrimental. Why detrimental? The space was sowed at such a high rate (over 200 seeds per foot) and using a healthy dose of biennials and annuals, that letting those early-succession species take off provided superior weed control -- even though we still had plenty of weeds. Luckily, it's harder for most to tell what is a weed and what isn't when there are so many flowers in bloom early on.
When there are more manicured / intentionally planted beds using potted material, there are some traditional strategies to reduce weed competition in years 1-2, such as a thin mulch layer (we recommend just 1-2 inches so there are / will soon be more soil gaps to allow desirable plants to self sow and fill in, thus creating a living green mulch sooner while fighting weeds sooner). Some pros try a pre-emergent, granular herbicide, especially for spring plantings. But the best strategy you can take is plant density -- planting at 12 inches apart or less -- and deadheading problematic weeds. The goal is always to cover the site ASAP and not allow invasive weeds -- like musk thistle -- to get a foothold, and that's where deadheading really helps.
If you're planting into a known weedy site -- especially one with aggressive species like creeping charlie -- it might be a good idea to prep the area for an entire growing season before planting. If you solarize, this means a 4 weeks on / 2 weeks off with the plastic (kill plants, let new weeds germinate, kill, repeat), or similar treatment with glyphosate (let weeds grow to 4-6" then kill a few times -- each time it will be less and less). Using cardboard may not be always be practical if you have large areas or are seeding.
It has been one heckuva year for weeds in 2023. A super dry winter and spring AND early summer, followed by much rain in July. This produced a bumper crop of weeds and later in the season. Luckily -- and as is most typical -- the weed pressure has been mostly from annuals such as crabgrass and foxtail, both of which are almost always out competed by desired plants within 1-2 years as those annual seeds need light to germinate (and often won't get it if shaded by warm season bunchgrasses and forbs if planted densely in layers).
Unfortunately, we never know what's in the weed seed bank when we prep a site by killing lawn -- and spray-killing lawn is preferred vs. sod cutting or tilling, because more site disturbance = more weeds by the truckload. Each space is unique, with unique hydrology and weather and even microclimates. It's been a very surprising year with plenty of hiccups in our landscapes, but patience and staying the course is critical. When we are ready to give up that's usually just about the point when the corner is being turned.
Remember, a weed is an undesirable plant in a place we don't want it. And weeds thrive where there's an opportunity -- open gaps with little competition. Nature abhors a vaccuum. In a new garden -- whether planted or sown -- desirable and necessary plant competition may be 1-3 years away. Patience is critical as the ecosystem rebalances and heals itself from a long history of colonization.
Here's a super cool story by gardener Asa Wood who used Prairie Up to create a cool landscape at the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend, Indiana. A lot of lessons here of the ups and downs that should inspire us all. Enjoy!
In January of 2022 I was presented with an opportunity to design and plant a large native plant garden at our local zoo. The zoo director, who is a good friend of mine, was telling me about the exorbitant prices landscape companies had quoted him for the area surrounding the zoo's new giraffe exhibit. Before I could stop myself, I offered to landscape the entire area for the price of the plants but only if I could do it with all native plants. Josh agreed and I was suddenly in charge of the largest garden project of my life! I am a hobbyist gardener and had been working on my own native plant garden for roughly 3 years, but I had no formal training and had never designed such a large and public garden. I was completely overwhelmed at the thought!
As luck would have it, this was right around the time I ordered a copy of Prairie Up. I had read other garden design books that focused on a "natural" look, but many of them relied on exotics and cultivars for their completed compositions. Prairie Up focuses almost exclusively on native plants and how to put together a cohesive plant community. The lists of plant combinations and tips on matrix planting were especially helpful. The lessons of "right plant, right place" started to make sense and I began to formulate my own list of plant combinations. Plants were considered for their light, water, and soil requirements, bloom period, structural elements, and years to maturity. In some areas, I purposely used plants, such as lanceleaf coreopsis, that would put on a show in their second year while other slower maturing plants, such as prairie dock and royal catchfly, get established. This strategy has worked very well so far.
After figuring out my total square footage, I realized that I would need upwards of 4,000 plants to complete the garden. As suggested in the book, I created drawings that were to scale so I could start to visualize the final planted space. It was then time to contact a wholesale native plant nursery and start the process of placing a large order and setting delivery dates. I am a member of our local Wild Ones chapter and was able to organize a group of Wild Ones volunteers for three planting days at the zoo. I arrived early in the morning to lay out my plugs and the volunteers came in behind me and planted. It was a community effort and I could not have finished this garden without the help of so many dedicated volunteers.
The area to be planted was largely backfill from the construction of the giraffe enclosure. Though I had chosen plants that can handle some pretty rough conditions, I decided to amend the soil with some compost supplied by out city's organic resources department. This turned out to be a mistake in the long run. The compost carried a heavy weed seed load and weed control has been by far the biggest thorn in my side ever since. I can not over emphasize the importance of vigilant weed control in the first year of planting. Hand pulling weeds and clipping off seed heads of annual weeds has slowly started to turn the tide in favor of the natives. Prairie Up had a suggestion of using a cover crop which I decided to try this year. I spread a half pound of plains coreopsis seeds throughout the garden and have been very pleased with the results. The coreopsis is not only pretty, it has helped to suppress weeds and still allows enough light to reach the perennials. In retrospect, I underestimated the hardiness of our native plants and I should have skipped amending the soil all together.
Overall, the response to this garden has been overwhelmingly positive. The zoo director commented that he thinks more animals live in the native plant garden that all the rest of the zoo combined. Every time I stop by to do a little weed control, the place is buzzing and twittering with bees, butterflies, and birds. The butterfly weed (all 200 of them) was loaded with monarch caterpillars this spring and flocks of gold finches visit the coreopsis seed heads daily. The swells of color change every week as a new species reaches its peak and another fades. I am anticipating the blooming of 100 rough blazing stars blooming against a stand of showy goldenrod in the coming weeks. I see visitors stop and take pictures against backdrop of blooming natives. Native plants are now a part of the memories these families are making together at the zoo. I really could not be happier with the progress of this garden.
Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi)
Grey-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
Hoary vervain (Verbena stricta)
Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera)
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurwa)
Lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
Black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Calico penstemon (Penstemon calycosus)
Dense blazing star (Liatris spicata)
Aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium)
Western sunflower (Helianthus occidentalis)
Side oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea)
Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)
Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Royal catchfly (Silene regia)
False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris)
Hollow Joe Pye (Eutrochium fistulosum)
Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
Plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria)
Wild petunia (Ruellia humilis)
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa)
This a post I've been thinking about for a while but for which I didn't want to spend time moderating comments. It's a topic I address in classes and webinars and certainly in Prairie Up.
I know people are super adverse to using glyphosate to prep an area for a native plant garden. Of course. I certainly don't love using the stuff, however, it has its benefits -- especially in the garden install world (time, efficacy), invasive weed control world, habitat restoration world. Anyway, I've discussed these points in detail on the blog and in the book -- including the fact that horticulture vinegar is more toxic, since I know some use it as a targeted weed killer. (NB: we don't use any product to weed in our gardens, it's all done by hand and by helping the good stuff out compete through various design and management methods.)
But the point I want to make today is about solarizing using plastic sheets to prep a site. We are, of course, all free to do as we choose and what fits our ideology and ability and timeframe and goals, but here are my thoughts on solarizing:
1) Solarizing fries soil life. And it does so over a long period of time. It sterilizes.
2) The best method to solarizing -- especially on a weedy site -- is to put plastic on for 4 weeks, take it off for two weeks to let weed seeds germinate, put it back on for 4 weeks to kill new weeds, take it off for two weeks, etc all through one entire growing season in order to exhaust the weed seed bank. I can guarantee you that if you do this in a suburban front yard you will face headwinds from neighbors -- and then again when, you know, you actually plant a garden and don't have lawn. Double trouble. And the larger the space you have to do (1,000-10,000 feet) the more problematic the entire, long process becomes.
3) All of the plastic sitting out in the sun for weeks and months is going to start breaking down. You may or may not notice -- fading, tearing, fraying, or nothing perceptible at all. In that process the plastic will likely release thousand and millions of little bits of microplastics we can't see, but it's there, just as it is from our washing clothes, walking on carpet, scraping a plastic food container with a fork, on and on. We have a MAJOR micro plastic problem and we don't fully understand what it's going to do to us. Those little bits will find their way into the ecosystem -- groundwater and air -- filtering and collecting up the trophic level from plants to insects to mice to birds and fish to people. That plastic will be around a heckuva lot longer, way way way longer than any residual from 1-2 applications of glyphosate, which breaks down in the soil quickly (of course, using it on a cornfield decade after decade DOES kill soil life and it then DOES runoff into streams etc because there's no soil life left to break it down).
There is no perfect solution to prepping a site for conversion to a meadow or other native plant garden. Again, I discuss the pros and cons of each in the book and on the website and in the online classes -- and have done so here before -- so won't reiterate in this small space. Do the ends justify the means, no matter what those means are? That's for all of us to carefully weigh.
I strongly believe it's important that we fully reconsider solarization, from the soil life being cooked to the microplastics to the obvious plastic waste of that sheet when you're done using it (do you just trash it, either now or a decade after sitting in the garage?). Hopefully, we can reflect on the complex issues without being angry or defensive, and if this post doesn't move the needle that's fine, too; this post exists to try and provide a more well-rounded response to the many posts I see regarding how awesome solarizing is, how benign it is, how green it is, and how natural it is. If anything, solarizing is as problematic as any other method, including renting a gas-powered sod cutter.
As always, if you comment please do so respectfully of one another. And I hope the above helps us think more critically, no matter what way we all ultimately decide to go in site prep. We're all in this together. Prairie up!
Do you have rabbit damage in your garden?
Ready for a radical thought? It's not damage. It's nature. It's an animal using a plant to survive, and the plant was designed to be eaten.
Yes, it stinks when herbivores eat what cost money and then curtail our garden dreams, to the point where we have to pivot / alter our dreams to fit the reality -- which can be hard and frustrating, like marriage (we ARE married to our gardens, folks).
But maybe the problem with rabbits eating plants is that we see it as a problem. Also, we tend to plant this way: one specimen marooned in wood mulch (or icky rock!) not allowed to touch other plants. First off, this is like putting spotlights on the plant with flashy neon lights that say "eats -- open all night."
Just HAVING a garden is sort of the same, especially if you live in a place with few other resources -- food, shelter, general habitat -- like most urban and suburban areas.
You've put out a bunny buffet. They are thankful. Wouldn't you be? Especially when there's only lawn and concrete to choose from?
Now, if you want to see less plant eating, here are some tricks that use principles found in nature vs trying to force a square peg in a round hole (hello foliage spray of cayenne and garlic, or chicken wire, or sleeping with your plants). Still, nothing in life is guaranteed:
1) Herbivores tend to avoid plants with aromatic, waxy, or spiky foliage. Not a hard and fast rule as sometimes you gotta eat what you gotta eat, especially if not much else is available. So plants on this list we use include: Eryngium yuccifolium, Monarda spp, Blephilia spp, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium, etc.
2) Bodyguard plants. In nature plants tend to be close together and layered up, so it's a bit harder to find a tasty Dalea purpurea for example. Surrounding the really choice Pringles of the plant world with grasses and sedges can help -- because those plants tend to not be browsed. So if you're planting a shade or sun meadow using a matrix of bunchgrasses or sedge, you're already ahead of the game.
3) More plants. The more plants you have, the less you'll notice if one is topped or missing. It's pretty cool. Plus you have justification to buy more plants (also, select plants that self propagate).
4) Time and patience. As plants root out and are able to store more resources by getting larger, a little pecking here and there won't affect them too much -- in fact, it may be more traumatic to you if you tend to helicopter parent your garden.
Maybe rabbit damage is good since they are lower on the food chain and support so many other species, like predators we definitely need more of (hawks, owls, coyotes, wolves, foxes, etc) but whose habitat we've taken away. Those top predators also help keep mice, vole, and bubonic plague rats under control. And we do want to see our plants being eaten, especially if it's moth and caterpillar larvae, or leafcutter bees, or various beetles, etc -- because more pollinators AND baby bird food. We are trying to create an ecosystem, after all, to try and restore some balance up and down trophic levels, and provide a bit of habitat. We're going to have rabbits, and snakes, and mice, and spiders, and wasps -- and this is a good thing. It really is.
The last few years have seen the spread of No Mow May, a campaign that encourages folks to mow their lawns and meadows less in order to reduce fossil fuel emissions and water use as well as help wildlife. On the face of it, it seems almost too good to be true–you could do a lot of good things for the environment by doing literally nothing. So perhaps it’s not surprising that letting your lawn grow for a month has fallen short of its promises.
However, No Mow May has provided an important stepping stone for rethinking what pretty means in urban and suburban landscapes, and how these spaces can provide valuable habitat and other environmental benefits. Our yards have the potential to support butterflies, bees, and birds while also cleaning and cooling the air, rebuilding compacted soils, and reducing urban flooding through landscapes that absorb more storm water. To take the next step into creating healthier landscapes for our families and neighbors, we have to understand the flaws of No Mow May and look at these goals with more nuance.
Read on with my piece at Better Homes and Gardens....
In the top three subjects I get asked the most about is native shade gardening. As in, the assumption that there aren't native plants for shade, that you can't grow anything in shade besides wood mulch, etc. I've talked a lot about this subject before -- on the blog and in an online class.
Here's a client's garden installed in spring of 2021. These images are from two weeks ago (so two years):
The site is a clay-loam under a mature overstory tree. It may receive a touch of direct or dappled light early in the morning. How is this garden put together, and what are the plant components?
It is pretty much a matrix of Carex pensylvanica, which runs a bit to fill in gaps and serves as the living green mulch (however, the entire site is a living green mulch and acts as a lovely soft landing for moth / butterfly caterpillars dropping from the tree above).
The forbs and emphemerals include:
Packera obovata (aurea would work too)
This is a very small list, and very basic. We could add a lot more diversity here while extending the season earlier in spring and into mid summer. Ephemerals would top that list, but we could also add Blephilia hirsuta and maybe even get away with Echinacea purpurea on the east and south edges near the tree's dripline. Polygonatum biflorum would be a neat early-mid spring addition for it's white blooms and contrasting foliage to the sedge. We could add in more sedge species, too, like Carex sprengelii.
However, I think aesthetically this "simple" garden creates a very nice bridge between a wild cacophony and suburban expectations of neat, ordered beds that don't look like someone vomited out flower seed and just stopped managing the space. We have enough density just with these plants to mostly out compete weeds -- something shade already helps with compared to full sun or more moist sites.
Plants were placed in masses and then allowed to express themselves. For example, Geranium shoots out seed to create scattered individuals and Packera self sows to create drifting colonies, while Solidago slowly runs to enlarge its clump.
These plants were matched to the site conditions first and foremost, but also to one another. The majority of these species compete at levels 2-3, meaning they are compatible based on their sociability index. Right now the Packera may be the only plant that needs some thinning.
The tree is happier having shade over its roots which increases organic matter and soil moisture. Wildlife is happy with more floral resources, host plants for larvae, and cover throughout the entire year. And shade gardening isn't the barrier we presume it to be. Right?
There's a seemingly overwhelming amount of variables to consider when selecting plants and designing a garden: height and width, growth habit, perennial / ephemeral / annual, reproduction method, root structure, fall color, winter structure, soil and drainage, sunlight, moisture levels. See? Toss in succession and the idea of plant communities and it is perhaps a bridge too far for many folks. But garden management -- the time you spend doing it down the road as well as the overall success of your landscape both aesthetically and ecologically -- depends on making the best, most informed decision before you ever dig a hole.
And I think for many, using a plant sociability index might be really helpful. If there's one thing that might be the most helpful, and certainly if the above lists feel daunting, this one might be it. Because let me tell you, the most issues for new, native plant, natural gardening folks is choosing the wrong plant for the wrong place, and in most cases that means a plant that grows too fast, gets too tall, spreads too easily. And while most plants will behave differently in a more manicured home garden than in the wild, we can still create a general baseline of behavior.
A commonly-used sociability rating or index may go something like this:
1 -- the plant is primarily a behaved clumper that stays where it is, only growing in stature over time
2 -- the plant will creep or self sow lightly
3 -- creeping is moderate or self sowing is more liberal but it won't take over
4 -- give it 5 years and the plant will easily dominate the landscape
There are caveats, as you can well imagine. Plants will perform differently in a home garden where there's less competition above AND below the soil line; in a wild prairie or meadow, for example, there could be dozens of species in one square foot. In our garden beds? Maybe just a few, too often simply 1-2. These plants, used to be being shorter or unable to reproduce as easily in the wild, will look at your more spacious and liberating bed and think "oh yeah baby, this is the life, booyah." And other specific cite conditions can influence plant behavior. For example, clay soil -- even dry clay soil -- can be a great equalizer. Why do plants flop? It's often because there's not enough competition (it's not about buttresses).
Let's look at some example species. You may not be familiar with them, they may not be native to your zipcode or ecoregion, but you're likely to know of cousins. Right now, we're speaking from where we know -- eastern Nebraska, urban landscapes, tallgrass / mixed grass / riparian woodland edge.
What plants do you not want in a small urban front yard lawn conversion? Level 4, and level 3 if you don't have good plant density. What DO you want for sure? Level 1 and 2.
Another strategy is to plant like with like. So use all level 1 and 2, or use all level 3 and 4; the latter would be ideal to fight against aggressive or invasive exotic species. Once again, plant behavior is not a hard and fast rule -- we aren't working with parts to a bicycle here, but living organisms whose lives are partially dictated by the environment and climate and weather they find themselves in (just like us!). A level 3 plant may act more like a level 2 plant if the site conditions are outside what it prefers and / or if plant competition, layers, and community are thick and diverse. Take Conoclinium coelestinum, which prefers loam or loamy clay with medium moisture in 50-75% sun; put it in drier clay and it's much less aggressive (maybe even suffering a bit in August right before it blooms if it's a drought year).
So there you go. A primer on plant sociability rankings. These will vary by region and even micro climates and ecotype, but they can help provide a more cohesive, general baseline to work from -- much better than a plant tag. Over time, you're observations will help you create your own site-specific rankings to use for the rest of your life.
Oh we've stepped in it now. I know. It's ok. Let's dive in and think critically with nuance -- because what no mow may has to teach us is more empowering and liberating than we could have imagined, if we move forward with intention.
The "No Mow May" movement continues to frustrate. Just letting your lawn go will not result in a lovely meadow that neighbors or wildlife will admire. If you're on an urban lot, chances are you won't be getting aster and indigo and prairie clover and coneflowers -- they aren't in the seed bank because your house was not recently built on top of a remnant prairie.
What you WILL get are a host of plants with marginal to little benefit to wildlife, and several that will be terribly aggressive: crabgrass, creeping charlie, barnyard grass. And of course invasive species placed on most city's noxious weed list, like musk thistle or garlic mustard.
There's little chance a neighbor will look at your "let go" lawn and think wow, that's cool, I want that, I understand it. There's every chance they will rightfully report you to weed control -- especially if you're not actively managing the space or designing it in some way, particularly with cues to care or making some sort of significant plant additions. It's better to design the space, to choose the plant communities that will work together AND support wildlife. Well, read some perspectives by pollinator specialists.
You want to help the environment, pollute less, use less resources, and create resilient habitat that's pleasing to both wildlife and people -- and often that means rethinking lawn and lawn-type spaces entirely. But what happens when you let your lawn go or stop mowing?
The point of this post is not to push you to some hyperbole, like "well then what should we do, slather the lawn in chemicals?" It's to get you to think intentionally about your space -- from design to succession, to what you ideally want to happen and to the big leaps your neighbors will have to make when you break from the status quo.
Do you need lawn? Do you need a lawn-type space? Why? How do you use your landscape? How do you want to use it differently? What's the purpose of 4-8" tall plantings -- because at that height there are far, far fewer ecosystem services than with plants 12-30" tall (the height at which we design front yard lawn-to-meadow conversions).
Over the years much has been shared on this website about designing a landscape -- from plant selection (sociability and size) to plant succession over time. When you let your lawn go or stop mowing, there's seldom a plan that takes into consideration management or neighbors, let alone why you need clipped plants in the first place. So if you let your lawn go, think hard about a management plan that takes into consideration your ecoregion and lot size, as well as your environmental and community goals.
If we're not working smartly with a plan and a management / design goal, then we're just being lazy and ideologically polarizing for no reason. That's not helpful or neighborly. Now, I'm all for reducing mowing. And certainly for doing so in larger expanses, like business parks and city parks and golf course edges, because we have a lawn pandemic going on right now.
As for anyone who argues "baby steps," well adults should be taking adult steps -- similarly full of big dreams, big hopes, big risks, and big faith. Prairie up. Rethink pretty.
I get it. Learning another language is hard. And in the horticulture world you're almost having to learn two at the same time -- Latin and the plants themselves.
Very often I'm asked by folks to use common plant names, the inference being they are clearer or easier or more accessible. But I have a surprise for you: common names are actually going to make life much harder for you as you begin your landscape plans. Why is that? Here's my thinking.
Common names can refer to several species at once. Also, common names can be regional. They can be cultural. They can be hyper local. It may actually feel like you're speaking Greek -- er, Latin -- to someone even though you might be referring to the same plant. It's very helpful and very useful to use the Latin because it's more precise and universal. When you're researching a plant online, you'll receive far more accurate information if you are using the scientific binomial nomenclature vs a common name -- plus, it's more likely the source can be trusted.
And it doesn't matter how you pronounce the Latin. Whatever. We all know what you're talking about. Just try. I promise, after a few goes, it'll stick and you'll be off to the races. And another point: if you have an on-site meeting with a weed enforcement inspector, using Latin names will show you are an expert and know your stuff, that the plants and gardens are intentional. It's true. Ask me how I know.
While the Latin name has a host of cultural issues -- many are named after white explorers (some with dubious ethics) and totally ignore / erase the history of indigenous knowledge and naming -- it's probably the best system we have right now. Using the Latin makes gardening easier. Now Salix like you mean it.
The plain and simple fact is that any time you make yourself stand out in this culture, the culture will try to force you back into the box. Any landscape that is not lawn will be automatically seen as weedy, messy, and a general threat to the established cultural norms -- even if we all know here that a lawn monoculture is a real communal and environmental threat in urban areas.
So the very difficult task for wildlife and natural gardeners is to try and create a bridge between the common expectations of what a yard or garden should look like (and where it should be), and the fairly recent expectations (1950s) that a lawn makes you a team player in the parkification of suburbia (oh just you wait until my forthcoming Kill Your Lawn presentation -- the newsletter lands Saturday and will fill you in).
In books and lectures and classes and pocket guides, I've worked hard to try and lay out what that bridge looks like and how to cultivate it. Strangely, the below bullet points of that bridge have also led to a sort of fracas between wildlife gardeners and garden designers -- we are great at dividing ourselves as a species, but that's another topic entirely (maybe one embedded in A New Garden Ethic which is now in its fourth printing). But if we're not employing commonsense design and management principles into natural spaces -- using elements of design accepted by folks unfamiliar with natural design and thus afraid / dismissive / upset by it -- we're simply adding to the problem. A totally wild, unkempt, cacophony of lawn-to-meadow conversion is a lost opportunity, and indeed, shooting ourselves in the foot.
So what are some guiding principles for a more natural, front-yard lawn conversion that, in a few small ways (that admittedly often feel feeble and fruitless), extends an olive branch to the monoculture, resource-intensive, dominant suburban culture?
It is disheartening to to see images of front yards, touted as liberation for wildlife and from the tyranny of our monocultures, without any eye toward design or accessibility that would be more welcoming to others. Again, ANY landscape that isn't clipped lawn will be an affront, but we have to do better as advocates for change. None of the above bullet points will reduce the ecosystem services we urge for as wildlife gardeners conscious of climate change and mass extinction. However, just letting plants ramble about, get tall, flop into sidewalks -- and appear totally disheveled and out of control while blocking sight lines -- is a detriment to what we hope to achieve as we work for equity among all species by encouraging neighbors to rethink lawn monocultures.
Soon enough water restrictions will force the issue, especially in the west and Plains where we're writing to you from. At some point -- even our local weed control officials admit -- we won't be able to have the traditional lawns we have now.
In the meantime, it behooves us to design AND MANAGE spaces with intention, knowing the plants and tending the space as a new kind of gardener -- not a gardener who applies herbicides or annual mulch applications or fertilizers that pollute waterways, but a gardener who learns plants and maintains a sensible balance of design and activism for a healthier future.
It's starting to make the rounds again -- meme misinformation. Please ignore this advice below as temperature has nothing to do with when to clean up.
1) Various fauna "wake up" at different times throughout the growing season. They all don't magically emerge at 50 degrees. Take native bee species -- lots of them time their life cycles for different parts of the spring and summer, some not even emerging until late summer. It certainly depends on your ecoregion though when fauna emerge. Specialist bees schedule their lives for when specific plant families or genera or species are in bloom.
2) You don't want to walk in ANY of your beds at ANY time if you can help it -- you may be crushing queen bumble bees, adult mourning cloak butterflies, amphibians, beetles, bugs, spiders, etc. Plus you could be compacting wet spring soils.
3) Do you REALLY have to clean up? Why? Maybe for diseased material you do, or for highly-visible spaces where it's good to "tidy up" to appease neighbors a bit and show you're caring for the natural space. Cutting back can also help sunlight hit soil for new forb seed germination. But how much could you leave? New growth will hide much of it soon. And don't forget to leave last year's stems you cut at 12-18" tall -- those likely have bee larvae or adults in there waiting to emerge whenever they are timed to do so, again, sometime between spring and summer (not just when it's 50!).
3.5) It's possible that the original "50 degrees" met soil temperature, which is a cue to think about planting / sowing some species in spring. However, it doesn't have much to do with when fauna get moving about -- although many will be moving about by then.
Here's a handy, illustrated guide to cutting down plants in subsequent springs, what stems to leave, etc. You can find it at Heather Holm's website.
What is a plant community? How does it form the basis of a healthy natural garden that is in sync with the local climate and wildlife, making it resilient and dynamic to changing weather and other environmental pressures? These are critical questions to ask that you won't see answers to at a nursery, on a plant tag, or in most garden design books, so let's dive in.
A plant community is a community of plants. Oh, did you want more clarification as it applies to garden design and management? Ok then. A plant community is a community of plants where each plant is able to fulfill its natural abilities and characteristics, within its garden niche, without being marginalized or marginalizing other plant species within the garden. What this boils down to is that no plant is so aggressive it takes over, but also that no plant is so behaved it fades out of the landscape due to other plants taking over.
A plant community is both mutually supportive and mutually combative. In the wild plants jockey and tussle for resources -- what we see in a meadow, for example, isn't balance so much as it is a blood-thirsty fight for water, sunlight, and soil nutrients. The plants in that wild community are all filling their roles: some are early colonizers, some take years to bloom, some are aggressive, some are behaved clumps, some are groundcovers, some like to have part shade of taller plants around them, et cetera.
So a plant community in a garden setting is an assemblage of plants that "work together" to foster a variety of ecosystem services, from habitat to erosion control to whatever goals we have that plants can help fulfill. The plants we've selected work together because we've researched their behaviors, from reproduction methods to bloom time and color and mature size, while also managing the space to curate the continuity of the community as it evolves and ages.
Plant Community Components
We'll have groundcover plants, seasonal theme plants at various layers, and taller architectural plants (learn about these in the online class on layers). There will be plants that spread easily by seed or runners and some that tend to clump in tight masses only. Some will emerge early in the season, fade, and then later season plants will take over the show. There will be plants that thrive in the early years, called early-succession species, to stabilize the site and reduce weed competition, then they will give way to perennials that have finally rooted out and are ready to take over. There will be grasses and sedges and forbs, but also woody plants like shrubs and trees of various sizes -- all which together increase ecosystem services and provide dynamic habitat edges where wildlife thrive.
Most importantly, the plants in this community will have evolved and be adapted to the site conditions -- sun, soil, drainage, etc. They all come from the same wild conditions, and so we know they should work well together here in a replicated natural garden bed, even if the garden bed can never be as dynamic or lush or complex as the wild plant community. Remember, in a prairie or meadow there can be dozens of plant species in a square foot or square yard. In a garden, that's often impractical and -- from an aesthetic standpoint -- often undesirable (it would lead to a messier looking garden). However, the one place you can pack in plants that are critical to the health of the site, from weed control to habitat to increased soil moisture through soil shading, is the groundcover layer; and this is especially true if the ground layer becomes shaded to a good degree by taller plants. There are a plethora of species 12 inches tall or less that love shade or part shade, from sedge to geranium.
Plant Community Management
There are always additions you can make, and again, certainly in the ground layer. The showier seasonal theme layer -- forb species that take over the aesthetic flower show in various weeks of the growing season -- may require more careful intention. This intention is where massing and drifting come into play, if those species grow like that in the wild. For example, Asclepias tuberosa is more of a loner than a big drifter of 7 plants, however, Allium cernuum loves a long sweep or drag of 15-30 plant together (especially evident because it spreads primarily by creating new bulbs underground, whereas the Asclepias sets seed aloft in the wind to scatter all over the place). This is the kind of knowledge we need to have when selecting plants for a site and when matching them to one another. Plants aren't art to place on a shelf -- they are dynamic and responsive, which is a benefit to the gardener who doesn't want to be a helicopter parent to plants.
Over time, management will be primarily addition and subtraction once the initial garden bed has established and filled in. You'll notice plant succession, and which species may have adapted too well to the site. Often, a late winter or early spring cut down will be the biggest action to take. If the garden has a significant warm-season bunchgrass component, you may need to rake out fluff every 2 years or so to encourage forb seed germination (they need light hitting the soil surface) or, if you can, the occasional burn.
A dense plant community thrives on disturbance and shifting weather patterns and climate. The community shifts from year to year, with new surprises, just as in a wilder landscape. This dynamism is a benefit, as gardens are not static statues. The dynamic nature of living organisms means the garden -- if planted densely enough with good diversity -- can adapt more easily than a mow and blow bed with just a few species, dominated by wood mulch, with lots of open gaps susceptible to stress (weeds, drought, erosion, flooding, etc).
If you want to learn much more on how to create a natural garden based on dynamic plant communities, the book Prairie Up will help a lot -- as will the even more in-depth online video classes.
Someone asked me about the term "rewilding" and if I thought that's actually what we're doing when we replace traditional urban landscapes with gardens that use plants and plant communities endemic to the region.
This might get to be a long post, because the conversation isn't just about academic semantics. A recent thread on Twitter explored how the term "rewilding" echoes a lot of violent and privileged colonialism -- this idea that it takes people (often white) with privilege (money) to create an ideal landscape. You see this a lot with naturalistic garden design today, which is still embedded in a tradition of privilege. Even I struggle with helping folks get an echo of what they see in books and magazines -- least of which is learning a whole new way to garden with nature and not against it. But gardens are still, in so many ways, unnatural. And they always will be.
For me what we're doing is not rewildling. I know that the gardens my firm creates will never be as dynamic or rich or stable or beneficial as the prairie we eradicated not that long ago. There's just no way. The best we an hope for is an evocative echo that provides some key resources for more mobile species finding an island of refuge -- weather that refuge is among a sea of lawn or a sea of corn. The goal of our gardens is to wake us up in a time of mass extinction, to reconnect us to the world and other species, and to heal our bodies and minds (because that's what plants do, literally and figuratively). We need to experience more nature where we live and work -- that's in the urban environment for 80% of us.
Native plant gardens are not really about restoring ecological function in the ways a prairie restoration is -- there's an issue of scale here. Plus, urban gardens have to be more concerned with a balance of ecology and aesthetics. These are GARDENS after all, highly managed and curated spaces. So is a prairie restoration, alas.
So no, our gardens are not rewilding -- they are reconciliation ecology, the definition if which is: "the science of inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work, and play." That was coined by Michael J. Rosenzweig, and for our purposes here we can say that reconciliation ecology is about mending the rift between humans and other species through intentional design and management choices in the places we live. That intention includes using native plants, using local plant communities in designs that mimic wilder plant communities, reducing or erasing the use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides and herbicides and even watering, and observing nature as it comes with an eye toward letting said nature guide the evolution of a site.
There Are No Shortcuts to Natural Garden Design
So much of it has to do with learning the plants, learning from plants, and embracing the hard truths they teach you. Sure, every garden echoes life lessons, but perhaps the natural garden does so even more.
Lessons in letting go of your control, lessons in stepping back and listening or observing, lessons in trying again, and lessons in giving up the thing you labored over (seeing it not as a place solely or mostly for you, but for other species).
Natural gardens can take longer to establish than a traditional landscape because in the latter the plants are kept in a perpetual state of establishment from the get go via pre-emergent herbicides and annual wood mulch applications. In the latter, plants are spaced far apart like statues or mile markers on the highway, with any self sowing or spread seen as weediness.
A natural garden will never be complete. It is rambunctious and it is determined to find its own way, like a preschooler, changing by the week, the day, even the hour. As gardeners we are forced to learn the true nature of plants, their preferences over ours, and discover the joys of constant and responsive management vs. scheduled and intensive maintenance.
But none of this easy. Not because of physical labor -- perhaps there's just as much in natural design as a cookie-cutter industrialized bed. No, this is not easy precisely because it asks us to cultivate that which we don't fully understand or may never fully understand. Plants don't come with install guides like a new fridge or bike that lead to specific and universal results. It's a leap of faith, setting things in motion and then allowing the plants to be our guide, not the other way around. In the 21st century gardens will achieve greater balance between all species, even as we struggle to navigate and survive climate disruption. I can't think of a better place to cultivate defiant compassion.
The Problem With Plant Lists
[I posted this over at Milk the Weed -- it's important to consider when getting and giving advice via online forums and social media pages. However, please note that when you work with me via an online consult, I can provide everything below as we collaborate on your landscape.]
I cannot provide you with a native plant list to try at home. I cannot do this because I am not familiar with your site conditions, which have a litany of variables including soil type, drainage, sun exposure, nearby plant communities, aesthetic and practical considerations, and of course ecoregion. And cost. Be wary of anyone who provides a native plant list and treats it as a universal prescription (this is rampant on FB). To me, this is unethical.
Now, in my articles and classes I may discuss specific native plants for specific situations, but those are just guiding examples based on my experience in my ecoregion, and in that way can serve as a launching pad for you. But they are not apples to apples. Some species might be, and that's great. In order to set yourself up for the best chance at success you need to do the research yourself. That starts with learning about your ecoregion, studying up on what's native to you (university extensions, guidebooks, even basic lists from Xerces and Pollinator Partnership), researching each plant and how they grow and where (guidebooks, reputable nurseries and botanic gardens and websites -- the more local / regional the better). And yeah, the forthcoming book Prairie Up is loaded with this information and resource tips, but they are also in the online class Starting Your Native Plant Garden.
You gotta do your homework. You really do. Winter is great for this process. And yes, it's worth it on so many levels, least of which is overall empowerment and confidence. No, all of this research is not a magic bullet -- plants are plants, weather is weather, deer are deer, etc. The plants will eventually teach you and show you the way as the landscape evolves and you with it, especially if you design with plant communities vs. plants as lone specimens. Gardens are not cookie recipes. There are no precise measurements that lead to a specific outcome -- not unless you have a full time staff and sizable management budget.
Choose the plants that work for the site and with one another (think habit and sociability aka rate of spread), and you're way ahead of the game. Let plants move about. Let them self organize. Let go of helicopter gardening. This all takes years.
P.S. -- You should probably do most of the above for exotic plants, too.
Seeds $ vs Plugs $$$
This is a good time of year to discuss seeds vs plants, especially since the concern on so many social media forums is showing design purpose.
While seeds are less expensive, it takes years for them (perennials) to develop into a sizable plant. 2-4 years. If you get rain at the right times. Dependent on soil type and ecoregion. It can then take a few more years for the plants to self select and organize into discernible patterns, like sweeps and drifts, that a passerby would interpret as intentional or "pretty."
The design of a seeding is much less controlled for the average gardener. "A sown garden is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get." If there's any way to get potted plants, even plugs, and curate the species used so they match one another and the site, that might solve some long term management issues. Even simple massing of forb plugs among a grassy matrix can help when it comes to design and layout.
You can also put a thin 1" layer of wood mulch in the planted / plugged bed to show it's a "garden" -- you don't need a border or barrier per se to highlight the space as intentional (although you could trench a border). Remember though, you can't seed into wood mulch. If you're 100% seeding species then diversity is super critical. And on bare soil rates are 50 seeds per foot, if into killed grass 100-150 seeds per foot or more. It's starting to get expensive to the point where you might be thinking why not just buy plugs instead -- especially to get a garden much sooner AND control the design to appease neighbors.
It's the time of year when breathtaking photos show autumn foliage color, primarily from northern and eastern deciduous ecoregions, as well as riparian areas on the Plains and southwest. Well folks, trees and shrubs are just one layer. Maybe they are the most obvious, but we're here to highlight just a tiny glimpse into the awesome diversity and color of the ground plain. We're looking at you, forbs and grasses and even sedges (hover over images for the scientific names). Enjoy the pictorial, which comes mostly from the online class on fall and winter garden design.
Don't just dig a ten dollar hole for a one dollar plant, but also spend ten minutes researching that plant before you ever buy it. Successful, natural garden design starts at plant selection. If you end up choosing plants that will get too tall or spread too aggressively (creating a monoculture you hoped to get rid of in the first place), it's likely that as a gardener you'll feel more discouraged than you need to be.
While natural garden design is always about learning from the plants and letting them show you what they want, it's also about trying our best to select species that will work well in the site conditions, in the ecoregion, and in that chosen plant community. This invariably means plants that won't lend to the "weedy" look neighbors and weed inspectors will abhor. Of course, there are also elements of design that are critical -- like placing taller plants in the middle or back of beds, repeating groupings / patterns, and have cues to care like wide paths, benches, art, signs, etc.
In this piece we'll briefly explore several landscapes by looking at the plants, why they were chosen, and what we expect management to be.
First, it's important to note that species discussed here may not be native to you. In fact, these plant communities may not even be applicable to your ecoregion. So as you take some of this with a grain of salt, know it's always your job to learn your place and plant with local nature in mind.
The above photo shows a roughly 350 square foot bed in front of a typical suburban home. There is a matrix of grasses -- Bouteloua gracilis and Bouteloua curtipendula -- planted about 15-18" apart on center. These species become the living green mulch from which forbs emerge. All of these species can be seen growing in the wild together, and / or are from the same ecoregion and thrive in similar site conditions. This is step one to making sure your garden is off to a good start when using native species.
Second, this plant community is using each species' natural tendencies for a purpose -- to build layers and fill the ground plane, which means less weeding and erosion, and increased soil moisture and soil building. This bed was not amended. The sod was spray killed with a one-time treatment, a thin 1-2" wood mulch layer applied, and then the plugs (younger, more affordable plants) were drilled in place.
And one more aside -- notice that no plant is over 3 feet tall. This is on purpose, and part of meeting the neighborhood in the middle. There's no floppy Ratibida pinnata or Helianthus, and no aggressively rhizomatous Asclepias syriaca (which also gets quite tall). Using those species would absolutely create a weedy look to most folks.
So let's look at the species and what each is contributing to the community and design:
Bouteloua gracilis -- 12-18" green mulch / matrix / groundcover
Bouteloua curtipendula -- 12-18" green mulch / matrix / groundcover
Callirhoe involucrata -- 12" vining groundcover weaving its way among other plants filling in gaps, long bloom season
Monarda bradburiana -- 18-24" clumping perennial that blooms in early summer and provides ornamental winter seed heads
Pycnanthemum tenuifolium -- 24" slowly rhizomatous (in clay soil) perennial that provides summer blooms and winter seed heads
Heuchera richardsonii -- 12" (24-30" when in spring bloom) with dense basal foliage for groundcover and contrast to thinner grass leaves
Echinacea pallida -- 24-36" bloom that provides superb winter interest and structure
Coreopsis verticillata -- 18" summer bloom, slowly rhizomatous.
Anemone virginiana -- 24-30" bloom with poofy fall seed heads
Liatris ligulistylis -- 24-36" thin spire of late summer blooms, uses a very small footprint
Symphyotrichum oblongifolium -- 18-24" mounding, shrub-like perennial with late autumn bloom, provides some formal shape
Now, there's FAR more to consider about this plant selection and arrangement, considerations such as root structure, reproductive behavior and senescence -- all topics I explore in far more detail in the online classes and my forthcoming book (December 2022 / January 2023). But all that we need to really consider for now -- from an introductory standpoint -- is that these plants fill niches, provide continuous bloom succession for human aesthetic concerns and adult pollinator needs, are host plants to lots of insects, have decent winter interest, and stay at a manageable height and spread. They are all matched to one another and the site (soil, light, drainage).
Here's a wider view and different angle of the same bed. You can see a few gaps up front that need more grass additions, which is par for the course on any garden. Even natural gardens require gardening, it's just that the management is more responsive to what's going on any given week, requires less contact time per engagement, etc. Maintenance is on a calendar, and it often require intense and long periods of physical activity (mulching, weeding, etc).
I won't go into too much detail on this site, as it's principles are almost the same as the first example -- and many of the same species were used, even though the species are starting to self organize themselves in a different way. And that's great. The Bouteloua curtipendula matrix serves as a living green mulch from which clumps of Pycnanthemum tenuifoloum emerge, from which sporadic clumps of Echinacea pallida emerge, and among which Callirhoe involucrata creeps around and fills in gaps.
Annual maintenance for this and all spaces is a spring mow on the highest setting -- about mid to late March every year. In the first year weeding is the biggest challenge, usually deadheading annual species like foxtail, crabgrass, horsetail, and ragweed (pulling brings more weed seeds to the surface). Sometimes in year 2 or 3 we'll need to touch up with additional plugs. No big deal.
Here's a mid range shot of two beds -- the first is in the foreground. But I'm using this angle on purpose to show how natural wildscaping can blend well with more traditional strategies of garden design without losing any habitat value. It's all about making solid plant choices -- and even, over time, editing out choices that turn out to be incorrect. Sometimes you have to kill your darlings for the good of the whole.
These two front yard beds are split by a 6' wide lawn path. That's one cue to care. But as you can see in that far bed, some of the plants are presenting a more formal shape. Nearest the lawn path is a Baptisia minor, which tends to look like this for me in full sun situations. Behind it are two Smyphyotrichum oblongifolium specimens (one popped up on its own -- works for me as it creates a nice triptych).
As for the rest? See how the taller Eryngium yuccifolium and Echinacea puprurea are in the middle of the bed. And the same for taller and yet-to-bloom Oligoneuron rigidum. There's a matrix or what's become a border of Bouteloua curtipendula and Schizachyrium scoparium. Then in back further still are some Cornus sericea which I coppice almost every year to keep at a lower 4 feet tall or so (coppice means cut down almost all the way to the ground -- which I do in February or March most years). So there are traditional tiers, and none of the plants is super aggressive by seed or root runners -- certainly not so in dry clay soil with good plant competition (aka plant density and layers, aka thick plant communities, aka, plants need stress to thrive).
So I know that was a lot to take in over a relatively quick post, but that's honestly why I wrote a book and created online garden 101 classes -- so anyone could dive in deeper over and over as their gardens evolved. I think the ultimate lesson is this -- try your best to research plants. And while from a design and ecosystem perspective there can certainly be a lot of variables to consider, start by focusing on plants with more compact habitat and slower reproductive methods. Once you get that base working in your garden, you can expand, experiment, and challenge yourself and neighbors more through different plant species.
In summary: avoid the weedy look by selecting plant species with shorter heights and less ability to self sow or run a lot. And make sure you mass flower species and repeat those masses. Think 3-5 plants in a clump, with those clumps repeated evenly 3-5 times in a small urban front yard.
The call to plant milkweed -- while easily sharable and actionable -- is greatly reductionist and oversimplified. Maybe even harmful in some ways. I don't see it as a baby step or gateway, I see it as a sleight of hand.
Telling folks to go get some milkweed for their small foundation bed is like telling folks to get some wheat bread crust for dinner. Monarchs need an entire native plant community -- host plants AND nectar plants. And they need other interactions that occur in a dense, layered native plant community; interactions involving other species, interactions in the soil, interactions among the plants. Health and life is more than one genus of plants. And besides, there are many insect species at greater risk than monarchs, but we aren't planting for them.
My concern is folks will rush to plant milkweed and, like so many other of their garden plants, maroon them in a sea of wood mulch with plants spaced far apart. Milkweed, like most plants, did not evolve to grow by itself. Monarchs and milkweed need a plant community to thrive -- especially over vast stretches of a landscape, well more than a city can provide.
Monarchs also, most importantly above all else, need an end to burning fossil fuels as well as big agriculture as it's implemented now. Monarchs need MASSIVE systemic change to our society and culture at breakneck speed, not a "plant more milkweed" panacea that makes us feel better for a moment, but doesn't really practically address issues that will make a lasting difference for monarchs and so much more. Climate change is increasing occurrences of drought along the Mississippi flyway that stretches from Mexico to Canada, and it’s decimating fir trees in the overwintering grounds of the oyamel forest of central Mexico while also creating a risk of exposure to freak storms that bring cold rains and snows. And then there's the illegal logging.
I recently drove from the arrowhead of Minnesota to Des Moines, along the so-called I-35 Monarch Highway. There was a lot of mowing going on. In mid summer. About peak larvae action time. If we can't manage those small strips for wildlife rearing, what hope do we have in the monoculture fields beyond them?
Speaking of Iowa, it's at the center of monarch reproduction in summer (estimates are that around 38% of eastern U.S. monarchs come from the northern Midwest, the so-called corn belt and the largest slice of the pie). For those who don't know, over 99% of the tallgrass prairie is gone in Iowa and it's nearly as dire in neighboring states. Without those plant communities -- and the milkweed found within them -- what hope should we have?
This post is not to douse the flames of people rushing to spread the good news about milkweed -- most of us here already know the benefits of milkweed and native plants. But it is the idolatry over one charismatic butterfly species, and the subsequent narrow perspective on what the "solution" to "helping" them is, that becomes highly problematic if we're not willing or able to address the underlying or fundamental issues at play here. (And don't get me started on folks killing tussock moth larvae or milkweed beetles so there's more milkweed for monarchs to eat.)
No, you by yourself can't go convert 25% of Iowa from corn to prairie or get the U.S. to transition away from oil and coal. Yes, putting in more milkweed and a native plant garden in your suburban landscape is much more actionable and will get people talking / thinking (even though that can already feel like a mountain to climb for many -- what's native, what will work, what about the HOA, etc, all stuff we try to cover here and at the website as best we can).
What monarchs need is a revolution of compassion that draws a line against human privilege and supremacy, that says no more to this culture of waste and greed and violent colonization that's as suicidal as it is genocidal. And make no mistake, monarchs won’t vanish even if the two great migrations in North and Central America do (migration distances that many other butterfly species make around the world).
Don't just plant more milkweed. Call us all out on why we need more milkweed, more goldenrod, more aster, more bluestem, more coneflower, more prairie clover, more sedge. Call out our lawns. Call out our parking lots. Call out our farm fields. Call out our coal trains. Call out special interests that have taken over our system of government. Do what you can where you can -- a pot on an apartment deck, a front yard lawn, a YouTube channel, a farmer's market, a city council meeting, your close personal friend Bill Gates.
And don't just talk milkweed -- folks can handle the complexities, we're a highly-evolved species with immense hearts and immense brains. None of this is easy. It takes as much physical action as it does some complex personal, emotional reflection (and book reading) as we work for a healthier future. What are you going to risk in your life today to rewild your community?
[This post will surely evolve over time -- it's full of raw thoughts and emotions that will probably become a larger essay some day. Please keep comments civil and constructive without hyperbole.]
Many issues in a landscape bed can be addressed by increasing the number of plants in that bed. I see it time and again -- a native plant garden filled with wood mulch and plants spaced far apart, like in a bed that mow and blow landscapers install. Or like sculptures in a museum.
I think we treat our plants with too much reverence. We need to let them get tangled up, struggle, and compete. And even fade away. This is how nature works, and we do the plants -- and our goals of creating a sustainable ecosystem -- a disservice when we space plants far apart and without layers. This is something I hammer home in several of my lectures, especially "Fundamentals of Garden Layers."
So what are the benefits of greater plant density and layering? Here is a highlight list:
1) Mimizing herbivore damage. When we use bodyguard plants (grasses, sedges) around plants we know herbivores think are candy (Dalea purpurea, asters, etc), we can reduce our frustrations. One method of design, called matrix planting, is totally suited to bodyguard plants. Employing a matrix or base layer or ground cover of sedge or bunchgrasses placed every 12 inches provides a host of benefits synonymous with every bullet point on this list.
2) Increased habitat. Shelter, food sources, nesting sources, etc.
3) Reduced erosion. More plants intercept more rainfall which they hold on their leaves and stems (big trees are good at this, especially). More plants means more roots, which are also good at holding soil in place.
4) Increased soil moisture. As plants shade the soil surface they help slow evaporation. As plant roots amend soil naturally they help the soil hold more water.
5) Dense plantings compete much better against weeds. Nature abhors a vaccum and wants to fill in the space -- will you let it fill in with crabgrass or would you rather have some pretty flowers with foliage butterfly larvae eat? How much weeding do you want to do year after year after year?
So stop thinking about plants as little sculptures, even in a native plant garden created for wildlife. Wildlife don't want big gaps of wood mulch -- they want plants. Plants want plants. You want more plants. Your plant addiction wants more plants. Choose plants that self sow or run around a little to fill in gaps for free (but choose wisely based on research of the plant in your region, and matching it to your soil and other plants in your bed).
If you need help thinking this all through, there are 13 hours of video content to guide you step by step -- and fall is the BEST time to get planting.
One of the hardest aspects of nature-inspired gardening is the fact that we need to know the plants -- which I suppose is true for most gardening. Still, this can be a significant hurdle, especially in regards a natural garden's need to reproduce and fill in and move about; we don't like to give up control, or let plants teach us.
So how can we select plants that work on site and with one another? Instead of taking the traditional gardening approach -- going to the nursery, reading plant tags, hoping -- it's time to look to wild plant communities, in person and in good books and websites. Research the plants. Put that time in, as it's like digging a good hole.
What grows together in the wild? How? If you want to make things a bit easier, use plants that grow side by side in the prairie or forest or desert. Or at the very least, grow in the same sort of environment (soil, light, drainage, competition, ecoregion) while matching their growth and reproductive habits. And of course, think about the niches plants will grow in and how to let them do their thing. Don't force it. Don't re-invent the wheel, especially at first.
Yesterday we planted a small front yard with these principles in mind. Of course, I'm a designer and I know a lot of plants at least moderately well, so I brought more things to the table -- plant and bloom succession, plant behavior, senescence and winter structure, controlling height so sight lines near driveways are clear, et cetera. But ultimately, I was selecting plants to work in various ways with one another, short term and long term. This is what I try to show you in my forthcoming book, and what I'll briefly highlight below plant by plant.
The 500' garden was planted into spray-killed lawn with a thin 1" layer of non-dyed hardwood mulch for initial and partial weed control. It's in full sun on a busy road with moderate pedestrian activity.
Bouteloua curtipendula (blue grama grass) -- Serves as the matrix. Gets only about 18-24" tall (that's mostly late summer seed heads).
Aquilegia canadensis (wild columbine) -- Short-lived perennial that will sow around in gaps and finger through the grasses.
Heuchera richardsonii (prairie alumroot) -- Large leaves shade the ground and remain through winter. Works well in drifts. Clumper.
Monarda bradburiana (bradbury's monarda) -- An ecoregion cheat because of it's shoulder-season blooms, shorter habit, and ability to fill in gaps.
Echinacea pallida (pale purple coneflower) -- Airy stalks reach 3' tall. Basal foliage stays low. Deep tap root goes below roots of other plants. Superb winter seed heads.
Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyes susan) -- Biennial provides early color and coverage, gently self sows, eventually fades away as perennials take over.
Asclepias tuberosa (butterflyweed) -- Slow-to-develop perennial that prefers to grow singly dotting the landscape. Deep taproot.
Callirhoe involucrata (poppy malow) -- Creeping groundcover with long bloom time, helps fill in low gaps and shade out weeds.
Coreopsis palmata (prairie coreopsis) -- Light runner will move between gaps, prefers less competition.
Liatris ligulistylis (meadow blazingstar) -- Tall but open stalks that push up through lower plants. Corms won't compete with fibrous roots of grasses or taprooted perennials.
Liatris punctata (dotted blazingstar) -- Shoulder-season bloomer with shorter stalks than LL, so works well with a short bunchgrass.
Conoclinium coelestinum (blue mistflower) -- A little patch by the downspout will bring early fall blooms to the space. Slowly spreads.
Symphyotrichum oblongifolium (aromatic aster) -- Dense, short, shrub-like perennial that provides late season pollen and nectar. Slowly spreads.
There are several things to notice from this list (which does not include the shade plants nearer the house):
1) There's decent bloom succession from April to October.
2) There are multiple plant species that share similar roles -- creepers, architectural, etc.
3) Root structure was considered to create the same sort of layers below ground as above ground.
4) There's a general uniformity of height at about 2 feet tall, which will help show intention and control.
5) While you can't see it in the image, plants were initially placed in masses and drifts IF the species grow this way in the wild. This also will help show intention. Over time, the plants will find their own way, and can be left to this exploration or lightly edited to help maintain some of the original layout.
6) There's an idea of plant succession. For example, Rudbeckia gives us early color and coverage (nice basal foliage in year one of new plants shades out weed seeds from germinating). Aquilegia will probably give way in time as other plants shade the ground (its seeds need light to germinate). And the Coreopsis might not last more than a few years as it doesn't like competition, but if it can find the gaps it will keep popping up in new spots, much like the Callirhoe and Monarda, and keep plugging holes for us.
There's not really an aggressive self sower in the bunch for these site conditions -- you likely wouldn't want that in a smaller area. And there are only a very species that might get aggressive with us on this dry, sunny spot: Coreopsis, Monarda, Callirhoe; if they get a bit too exuberant they ear easily edited. Most species here are clumpers, and the density of the site -- everything on about 12" centers -- will keep plants more honest and more in tune with how they may grow in the wild where competition is an asset (which is why a matrix of grass is so useful, plus it gives us a nice uniform base layer people love to see, hence lawns).
So there you go, a deeper dive into one of our many installs this spring season. I hope it's helped you think about gardening in some new ways. If you want to keep the ball rolling with more instruction and nuance, try the suite of 15 online classes.
What native plants work in shady sites, from moist to dry soils? Last week our team installed a 2,500' backyard meadow, which replaced a hosta monoculture. Our dense planting of layered plants will help improve runoff issues while increasing pollinator habitat and helping out the overstory trees.
Keep in mine that not all of these plants will be suited to your site conditions, and their respective behaviors might not automatically mesh with any other plant on the list (think clumper vs spreader). We place plants intentionally in the landscape, to match the site and even microclimates as well as the nearby plant community. So having a list of "shade plants" is simply just a starting point -- do your research.
For example, Carex pensylvanica pairs well with a more aggressive runner (and runners run more in looser / richer soil) like the Conoclinium or Solidago, while Aquilegia goes semi dormant by mid summer so it works well among a more behaved clumper like Carex albicans.
What plants did we use?
Packera aurea -- golden groundsel
Aquilegia canadensis -- wild columbine
Polygonatum biflorum -- solomon's seal
Mertensia virginica (ephemeral) -- Virignia bluebells
Geranium maculatum -- wild geranium
Thalictrum dioicum -- early meadow rue
Heuchera richardsonii (in part sun spots) -- prairie alumroot
Amsonia illustris (in a spot that gets some late afternoon sun that will be hedge like) -- ozark bluestar
Blephilia hirsuta -- hairy wood mint
Rudbeckia laciniata -- cutleaf coneflower
Campanula americana (biennial) -- tall bellflower
Eutrochium purpureum (again, in a part sun spot) -- sweet joe pye weed
Eurybia macrophylla -- bigleaf aster
Conoclinium coelestinum (hoping the site isn't too shady, but it's not dense, deep, dark shade) -- blue mistflower
Symphyotrichum lateriflorum -- calico aster
Solidago flexicaulis -- zigzag goldenrod
Carex albicans (main matrix) -- white-tinged sedge
Carex pensylvanica (main matrix -- primarily used on slopes or erosion-prone spots) -- penn sedge
Carex sprengelii (drifts) -- sprengel's sedge
Carex blanda (scattered masses to create visual interest / texture) -- common woodland sedge
A few of these plants aren't strictly native to eastern Nebraska, but they are close enough -- their habitat value, garden aesthetic, and site benefits are well suited to the larger community. What else could we have used, though? Certainly more spring ephemerals like Uvularia grandiflora. One could always use more sedge species -- Carex radiata, Carex rosea, Carex eburnea just for starters. As for perennials: Asarum canadense would look nice for contrast, and there are other goldenrods and asters like Symphyotrichum cordiflium. Oh, and there's goat's beard, Aruncus dioicus. Phlox divaricata (to feed the bunnies, alas). Mitella diphylla (underused). Hepatica acutiloba. Frankly, there are just too many to list!
Shade gardens aren't difficult. Really. There are many, many options for a variety of site conditions -- especially for the eastern U.S. (what we know best here). Maybe we give up too easy and settle for what's available at thebig box -- like wildlife-snoozing Astilbe and Hosta. If you have a shady or part-shade space that's giving you fits, we can help you design the space, but if you're DIY check out the online classes on how to create layered landscapes for various sites.
Using exotic plants is not rewilding -- that's just the same old colonialism and privilege rebranded.
I know we have this unfortunate line in the sand between native and exotic plants; we humans are great at dividing ourselves and relying on black / white thinking (memes feed off this and I'm as guilty as anyone). But it gets far more complicated when we have to also consider other fauna in the landscape, not just ourselves. Who are we gardening for? What's left for them? And in what ways will we greenwash our privilege to convince ourselves that what we want is actually what local wildlife want?
Over the years I've been eviscerated for being a native plant proponent because it comes off as moralistic finger wagging akin to puritanical religious ferocity. It's a fair critique, especially in the first years of my devotion to native plants as a cause. But as I explore in A New Garden Ethic, folks who feel like they've been guilted are also folks who've been asked or forced to look inward more authentically and unnervingly, to confront their privilege and supremacy, and be asked to rewire their point of view -- no easy task as humans love to find a groove and stay in it (it's comforting and stabilizing amid the chaos of existence).
Every garden, no matter what plant we are using, seeks respite, joy, peace, harmony, connection, and celebrates most wildlife that partake of our creation. But again, "our creation" rings with a hubris reserved for an apex species. No garden is ever truly natural.
The native plant debate is the tip of a much larger iceberg. The real conversation is about climate change and mass extinction, about one dominate species being out of balance, and about our culture openly and directly confronting our preconceptions of self worth.
Asking gardeners who use plants from any point of the globe to "restrict" themselves to mostly species endemic to their local ecoregion is limiting purely from an aesthetic point of view. Any critique of a native plant gardener (didactic, myopic) could easily be used on someone who believes plant origin is irrelevant, however.
The dominant system in horticulture now is to use any plant from any locale as long as the plants work together on that site -- even if the landscape appears more "natural" (dense and layered vs plants marooned in oceans of wood mulch). Any advocate of native plants will be seen as a destabilization of the status quo, a fringe voice, a radical voice, and a voice that needs to be silenced. The same goes for those advocating for a reduction in urban lawns.
And the voice needs to be silenced because, again, native plant advocates are asking us to confront a much larger, much deeper, much more complex topic -- who we garden for, how gardens effect various ecological functions, and how gardening is an extension of human colonization, privilege, and supremacy.
Let me say that again: native plant gardening asks us to confront human colonization, privilege, and supremacy. It's a profoundly uncomfortable act, and few of us will embrace the journey because humans are resistant to anything that asks us to reconsider our perception of self, our perception of self in the world, and our perception of the world in general that we've carefully curated to stabilize our emotional responses to being alive. A garden is, inherently, a place of refuge, personal freedom, solace, and artful expression. When we complicate this reality in any way, we erode or entirely remove our ability to cope with our animal brain that needs to create predictability from chaos in order not to feel threatened or afraid. This is gardening 101. And this is why looking at a garden from the perspective of indigenous fauna will always feel like a threat -- and if anything, it's a direct link to our colonization of indigenous human cultures. Horticulture is rife with colonization and erasure and appropriation and renaming. You don't have to look far.
Until we address horticulture as part of a larger system of violent colonization, we'll be stuck in the surface-level discussion of native vs. exotic plant and seldom enact more constructive change to our role within the local, regional, and global environment as agents of social justice for other species. And perhaps what's also at issue is that we are all trying to work through and process our environmental grief, each of the five stages a hurdle that trips us up (anger, denial, despair, bargaining, acceptance).
Gardening is powerful. It is an act of liberation and compassion and empathy. Gardening also carries great responsibility and power as it bridges cultures (human and animal) -- or burns those bridges knowingly and unknowingly. In the end, every gardener wants and works toward the same goal -- coming home to the natural world and finding our way through the practice of touching the soil. In that way we will always be fundamentally united as we struggle to find our way forward.
Seeing that meme of the deep roots of prairie plants? Chances are you're also hearing someone say something like "this is why you don't have to water native plants" or "native plants are drought tolerant."
Just. No. It's always about right plant, right place. You could place a deeply rooted blue grama grass in a moist site and it will die. And native plants aren't automatically drought tolerant -- they aren't full of magic juice. Right plant, right place. Also, it's very helpful to water native plants during the establishment period -- and if your soil is sandy, it's critical to do so for months.
There are plenty of exotics plants that also have deep roots or are very hardy or drought tolerant.
And about those deep roots and supposed drought tolerance....
No mow May continues to frustrate the heck out of me. Just letting your lawn go will not result in a lovely meadow that neighbors or wildlife will admire. If you're on an urban lot, chances are you won't be getting aster and indigo and prairie clover and coneflowers -- they aren't in the seed bank because your house was not recently built on top of a remnant prairie.
What you WILL get are a host of plants with marginal to little benefit to wildlife, and several that will be terribly aggressive: crabgrass, creeping charlie, barnyard grass. And of course invasive species placed on most city's noxious weed list, like musk thistle or garlic mustard.
There's little chance a neighbor will look at your "let go" lawn and think wow, that's cool, I want that, I understand it. There's every chance they will rightfully report you to weed control -- especially if you're not actively managing the space or designing it in some way, particularly with cues to care or making some sort of significant plant additions. It's better to design the space, to choose the plant communities that will work together AND support wildlife. Well, read some perspectives by pollinator specialists.
Now, I'm all for reducing mowing. And certainly for doing so in larger expanses, like business parks and city parks and golf course edges. Also -- kill you lawn.
I know I'm going to get a lot of flak for this post, but there is a lot of nuance to the above topics and reducing them to cute little memes will, I fear, set folks up for more failure than success. Topics similar to these are what I tackle in my next book, busting some myths and exploring the important nuances so we all have more success and appeal to both neighbors and wildlife.
As for anyone who argues "baby steps," well adults should be taking adult steps -- similarly full of big dreams, big hopes, big risks, and big faith.
Our climate and ecological crisis needs adult steps asap.
Keep on rethinking pretty. And prairie up!
Benjamin Vogt's thoughts on prairie gardening in Nebraska. With a healthy dose of landscape ethics, ecophilosophy, climate change, and social justice.
In a time of climate change and mass extinction how & for whom we garden matters more than ever.
"This book is about so much more than gardening."
The Deep Middle
Gardening & writing in the prairie echo
Monarch Gardens is a prairie-inspired design firm. We specialize in lawn to meadow conversions as well as urban shade gardens.
Employing 95% native plants, our designs are climate resilient, adaptable, and provide numerous ecological benefits while artistically reflecting wilder landscapes.
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