If you are interested in incorporating native plants into your gardening, but don’t know where to start, you have come to the right place! This is a beginners guide to start a Native Plant Garden. In this article I will go through all the steps you need to know to make a Native Plant Garden from scratch.
One important point though, don’t forget to start gardening with Natives! Don’t delay starting to garden with natives because you want to have a perfect layout. Instead choose a good mix for even a small area so that you can start. Once you begin and see the difference in wildlife in you yard, it will make you want to convert even more of your yard to natives. And, you can always change the layout later.
I will guide you through determining your location’s characteristics, design, and show you some great resources that will help you get educated, plan, & implement your own native plant gardens. This article is going to cover the basics of what you need to know to start native plant gardening. Let’s get started…
Identify your yard’s growing conditions
The secret to having a ‘green thumb’ is to grow plants in the conditions that they like. That’s it. If you put a sun-loving plant in sun, it will probably do well. Conversely if you put a sun-loving plant in the shade, it will most likely die. So, below we will go through the primary physical growing conditions, what they are and how to determine them within your yard.
Knowing how much sunlight your garden will receive is critical for selecting the right plants. If you try to grow shade-loving plants in a ‘full sun’ area, they will likely die, and vice versa.
You need to determine how much sunlight your flowerbed or garden location will receive. To do this, you can simply glance at the location several times in a day to try to determine how many hours of direct sunlight it will receive.
- Full Sun – Full sun is when a location receives at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. If it receives six hours, then it is ‘full sun’. If it receives 12 hours of sun, then it is still full sun. Simple eh?
- Partial Sun/ Partial Shade is classified for locations that receive 4-6 hours of direct sunlight per day.
- Shade – Any location that receives less than four hours of sunlight per day is classified as Shade or Full Shade.
The amount of sunlight a location will receive can also be variable throughout a growing season as the Earth’s axis tilts toward or away from the sun. Also, don’t forget about how certain structures or trees can impact your garden, now and in the future as a tree grows. And finally, you need to do this in the Summer, or at least correct for the season, as there are far fewer sunlight hour in a day during Winter than Summer.
Your soil type determines many things. Whether it will naturally hold water, how porous or how much air will be present, and can also be a factor as to how well your soil drains. There are many tests one can do to determine soil type, and they take anywhere from 5 minutes to 48 hours to complete.
We have detailed step by step guides to help you classify your soil type. And, you should definitely consider making at least one test. Now, if you start building a flower bed or garden on the other side of your yard and the soil seems different, then you should conduct another test. It is much better to know this information before you sink many hours or money into plants that can’t grow in clay!
Measuring your soil’s pH is not typically critical, as the vast majority of soils are slightly acidic to neutral. But, soil pH meters are very inexpensive, and identifying if you have a severely acidic or alkaline soil could be very important as to what plants you can grow. Or, if you wish to attempt to modify the soil’s pH level (a big undertaking).
Your soil moisture level is a general condition of how much moisture is in your soil. Now, throughout a growing season moisture levels will often change as they can get drier or wetter depending on the weather. But, if you have a lowland or low spot, this would generally be considered moist soil (which you should confirm by measuring, or digging and feeling. On the other hand, slopes are often considered ‘dry’ soils as their elevation means the moisture will often drain away.
Another important measurement is how well your soil drains water. The speed at which your soil will drain excess water is called it’s drainage. Well drained soil will typically drain soil at least 1″ per hour in a 1′ diameter hole. If you don’t know how your soil drains, you may find out guide to test your soil’s drainage helpful.
Consider testing your soil’s drainage as an important step in determining your yard’s characteristics. While most plants like well-draining soil, there are some that thrive in moist, wet soil such as Swamp Milkweed or Cardinal Flower.
WHAT PLANTS ARE NATIVE TO MY AREA?
Ok, now you may be asking yourself “what native plants should I plant?” Well the simple answer is you should plant flowers, trees, and shrubs that are native to your area and that will grow well in your yard’s growing conditions of sun, shade, moisture, and drainage.
So, you need to determine what species of plants are native to your region. And then match those plants native to your region with your yard’s growing conditions.
We’ve compiled several resources below that we have found to be most helpful in answering the question, “what is native to me?”. Wildflower.org is particularly nice as it provides basic growing condition info for each plant, along with other characteristics. So, use these resources to identify native plants you are interested in growing, and make a list and jot some down noting their height, growing conditions, etc.
- Wildflower.org is a great resource to search for plants native to your state. You can search plants by name, state native to, and much more. Just select the state or area in which you reside, and choose any other characteristics such as bloom time, height, color…etc. It will return a list of all species native to your State. This can be a great starting point to get an idea of what kinds of flowers are naturally growing near you.
- National Wildlife Federation. This organization is in process of building a Native Plant Finder by zip code. It is very simple. You just type in your zip code, and it will return a list of plants known to be native to your zip code. This handy tool is a work in progress, and more plants are being added all the time. But it is a great starting point that is quick and easy to use.
- Bonap.org is an excellent resource to search detailed information on specific species. If there is a certain species you are dying to have, and want to see just exactly where it is native to, you can easily search for the genus. It will return county-level maps of the United States showing exactly where the species is present, native, or rare.
- Here at GrowitBuildit, our Native Plant Profile Page is a listing of common native plants to North America with detailed growing guides on each one that we have written. We try to provide all necessary information for you to be able to successfully grow the species article, from gathering seed, germination, care, growing conditions…Everything. Our list is not comprehensive, but is being updated with new profiles all the time. If you have a special request, go ahead and request it (we are often behind!).
Should you grow species native to your country, but aren’t native to you area?
As a general rule, you should only plant native plants that are native to your area, or adjacent to your area with like flora/fauna. This will help ensure that you ‘do no harm’. The introduction of non-native plants can harm local ecosystems by reducing the number of native plants available for insects.
Should you choose to grow a plant that is native several states away, you can safely do so as long as you take the responsibility to understand how it spreads, and take steps to mitigate it from spreading (deadheading, disposing of seed heads).
If you have your heart set on a flower that is native to a neighboring state, or similar ecosystem as your own, then it may be perfectly fine. Alternatively if you want a plant that is adapted to the arid Southwest, but you live in a temperate Midwest climate, you could unleash a botanical disaster like Palmer Amaranth.
For example, common Perennial Black Eyed Susan, Rudbeckia fulgida, is native to much of the Western half of Missourri, but not Kansas. Does that mean a homeowner in Kansas City, KS should not plant it, but someone across the river in Kansas City Missouri should? Well, a purist would say absolutely not. But from a practical standpoint, the method of spread is seed and short rhizomes, and the areas are about as ‘adjacent’ as you can get.
For a counter example, consider that back in 2015-2016 wildflower seed mixes were sold nationwide that contained Palmer Amaranth. This is a very fast growing weed that is not native to Northern States, and can outgrow corn and soybeans, stealing sunlight. It has thus become established in these states, and is causing economic damage, as well as forcing farmers to try to spray even more pesticides to kill it. So, this error has pretty much been an all around ecological disaster.
Designing your Native Plant Garden
Determine your garden/flowerbed size
You should get an idea of how large an area you will make your garden so you can select an appropriate number of flowers and space them accordingly to make a visually pleasing garden. If you are just trying to make some nice flowerbeds that border a house, then you need to determine how much depth you will allow them.
But for any general garden, even a 5’x5′ or 10’x10′ is enough to start. If you have a place in your yard that you don’t use, it could be a nice area to convert part of your yard to a native plant garden.
Some general methods to do this we cover extensively in our “How to Make a Micro-Prairie” guide. It contains step by step info from removing grass to getting started on planting natives. Furthermore it contains several design schemes that are suitable for most of the Eastern United States.
Another great resource is a free ‘native plant design’ book, Native Plants for the Small Yard by Kate Brandes. It contains useful information and several layouts to get started designing a small, native plant garden.
Keep something blooming from Spring to Fall
Based on what is native to your area (or adjacent states) write down a list of the plants, and their approximate bloom times. Try to design your garden(s) so that something is in bloom from Spring to Fall. Growing a flower bed with something in bloom all season will provide nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.
If you review your native list of flowers, and find a gap, then perhaps see if there is anything available that could ‘fill’ it. Now, no matter what, don’t get hung up on this point. The important thing is that you are growing natives! Any amount of natives is better than nothing.
Sketch out your design
Use some simple graph paper to create a sketch of your garden ideas. Start by creating an outline of the area, and don’t forget to use the graph paper as a scale so you can have the approximate sizes. Keep an eraser handy, as you may have to make several iterations of designs.
Based on the listing of Native Plants, note the spacing for each one. As a general rule, for Native Gardens, it is better to use the minimum spacing listed. This will have less ‘open’ area for weeds to sprout, reducing maintenance. The added competition will also help keep your plants erect and vertical throughout the growing season.
Keep your tall plants to the North, or back
If your flowerbed is up against a wall or structure, make sure you keep the tall plants to the north of shorter plants. This will prevent shorter plants from being shaded out by taller plants. Essentially you can make a design that has the plants cascade from taller to shorter in the directions North to South.
For gardens designed in open land, you can simply keep the tallest plants in the middle. This way the shorter plants will receive sun in morning and afternoon from the East and West.
How to build your garden
When is the best time to start a native plant garden?
- If you are planning on direct sowing seed, then the grass should be removed by Autumn. Direct seeding can commence once cold temperatures set in.
- If you plan on starting your native plants from seed on your own, then the garden should be ready for planting by mid to late Spring.
- If you are planning on purchasing your plants via mail order or from a native plant nursery, then you can start the garden any time as long as you are able to keep them watered until established.
The best time to construct a native plant garden will depend on how you intend to populate it with plants.
In general, Spring or Fall is the best time to start a new flower bed as the heat load on plants is less, and the soil is cool and moist. If you start a new flower bed in the middle of Summer, you will likely need to water it periodically depending on the conditions.
If you think you are ready, it can be time to break ground. You mainly need to remove the grass, and then get started planting seedlings or plants you have purchased. We have a comprehensive guide on removing grass that you should review. But, I can tell you that the absolute easiest method for grass is to smother it with cardboard, then mulch on top.
But native plants should not require any amendments or soil preparation. You should be able to plant directly into the ground once you have plants or large enough seedlings. Seedlings should usually have about 3 sets of true leaves to be considered large enough for transplanting to their final location.
Note – young plants and seedlings should be protected from deer and rabbits. I strongly recommend a regular regimen of Liquid Fence until they are established, and as needed each year afterwards. I have been using it myself since 2013-2014, and it has worked well for me year after year.
HOW TO GROW NATIVE PLANTS FROM SEED
We were all taught that to grow seeds you need to just bury the seed and add water. But you will find out that often each species has it’s own special requirements. Many, if not most native seeds need something called cold-moist stratification, which is where the seed under goes a period of time in cold/moist conditions – similar to what it would experience in nature during Winter.
We’ve written detailed guides on winter sowing seeds and how to simulate winter by cold-stratifying them in the fridge. Other seeds have very hard outer shells that will prevent germination, and we need to remove or weaken that shell prior to planting via a method called scarification. We have written a detailed guide on that too.
- Guide to Winter Sowing – This detailed guide and video will teach you how to successfully winter sow native plants.
- Guide to cold stratifying seeds – This detailed guide shows how to cold-stratify seeds in the refrigerator
- Scarification of Seeds – what is scarification, and how to do it. We show you 5 different methods and even have a video.
Also – one thing I want to say to you is not to get overwhelmed. Most of us started this native plant journey from nothing, not even knowing what cold stratification is! It’s ok, you just take it one step at a time. Identify what plants you want to grow, write down their germination requirements, and go! If it’s a plant we’ve written about, it is likely that you will have step by step instructions to help you out all along the way from seed to bloom.
Also – once your little seeds are sprouting, you have to either thin or separate them. We have a handy guide/video for how and when to do that too. It covers different methods based on winter sowing, and seedling age.
Another helpful resource we’ve developed is a visual guide to native plant seedling identification, as well as what mature species look like when they are emerging in the Spring. This can help make sure you don’t accidentally mistakenly pull some of your new plants!
WHERE TO BUY NATIVE PLANTS?
If you aren’t into starting plants from seed and just want to purchase native plants from a nursery, then you’ve come to the right place. We have done exhaustive research to identify and map as many Native Plant Nurseries in the United States as we could find. Just zoom around the map to locate nurseries near you!
Another topic related to purchasing plants is the importance of straight-native plants versus cultivars. A straight-native plant is just that, the species you think it is. While is often a hybrid, cross-bred, or even-grafted to produce specialized characteristics that don’t normally occur on the plant.
While these ‘cultivated features’ can sometimes be ok, many other times they will interfere with pollinators ability to obtain nectar and pollen from the plant. The easiest way to identify a cultivar is to look for a word in single quotation marks after the plant name such as ‘blaze’ or ‘autumn sunset’. These types of plants are often a different color from the normal species, and that alone can interfere with a bee’s ability to locate the plant!
This short section is just scratching the surface of this topic. So, you should probably read our guide on differentiating true natives from cultivars.
Principles of garden design
One of the primary reasons for growing native plants is that we want to attract wildlife and help the environment, but we also want it to be visually pleasing. While a native meadow or micro-prairie can go a bit wild and bring in tons of wildlife, there are some methods we can use to make a neat formal flowerbed with natives that will still bring in the pollinators.
Match plants to your growing conditions for success
As stated in the beginning of this article, you will have a thriving garden by matching plants to your yards growing conditions. It really is that simple.
For example if you have dry soil that drains really quick, then you probably shouldn’t plant Swamp Milkweed as it likes moist soil. Conversely if you have constantly moist clay soil, then you shouldn’t plant Butterfly Milkweed as it will likely succumb to root rot and prefers drier, well-draining conditions.
Don’t let tall plants shade out short plants
When sketching out a garden design either mentally or on paper, try to remember that tall plants should always be on the North Side of a flowerbed so that they don’t shade out the smaller plants in the front. This sounds like a simple thing, but believe me that every gardener (myself included) have made this mistake!
The reason for keeping tall plants in the back (Northernmost side) is that not only will they shade out smaller flowers, you won’t be able to see the smaller plants behind the taller specimens!
Sunlight from as many directions as possible
Native plants can sometimes develop a reputation for leaning or flopping. And while this can happen for a variety of reasons, one of the most common ones is that they don’t receive sun from all directions.
Plants ‘eat’ by converting sunlight to energy via photosynthesis. And if they only receive sun from one direction, they may lean or ‘reach’ for the sun in that direction. What they are going to do is try to get their leaves to be perpendicular to the direction of the sunlight, and thus will ‘lean’.
By providing sunlight in the most ‘open’ conditions, one in which the plant can receive sunlight from all possible directions, it will not have an incentive to grow only in one direction. Additionally, if a plant is sheltered from wind or sun, it will generally flop in the opposite direction. The clip below illustrates this principle nicely in my own yard with examples from Lanceleaf Coreopsis.
Plant at least three for the bees
In order to attract lots of pollinating insects, plant at least three of each flower you wish to grow. Having three specimens will make for efficient pollination for the pollinator (more pollen/nectar for less flight time). It also will mean you will have more visitors overall.
Isolated specimens will be visited, but infrequently compared to mass plantings. You can even compare it to humans. If there are two rest stops on a highway and one has only a single vending machine, while the other has a fast food and convenience store, which rest stop will be visited more heavily? Pollinators will flock to large number of blooms & mass-plantings over single specimens all the time.
All native plants can look great and grow beautifully in their natural habitat. But, some plants may wish to lean or flop over. This can be due to many reasons such as very fertile soil, supplemental fertilizer made the plant ‘leggy’, irregular sunlight, or lack of competition.
But one way to overcome the ‘lean’ is to prevent it in the first place. A tried and true method to prevent plants from flopping or leaning is to cut them back before they flower, a practice known as the Chelsea Chop. A good rule to follow is to cut back plants that are prone to leaning by 1/3 to 1/2 their height by June or July.
When cut back, the plants will send out two new stalks (usually) that will be a bit thinner and shorter than what the ‘normal’ height of the plant would have been. This results in a slightly shorter plant, but one that stands tall and erect.
- ==>For a detailed guide and list of plants that you can use the Chelsea Chop on, Click Here.
Other helpful resources on Native Plants
Curb-friendly native plants
Native Plants that have great ‘curb appeal’. Sometimes Native Plants get a reputation for being too wild or unruly. Well, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite ‘landscape friendly’ natives that can fit great with a traditional, formal flowerbed.
How to make your own backyard wildflower garden
Ever wanted to have your own backyard meadow or pocket prairie? Well, we created a 15’x50′ micro-prairie in our backyard. It provides us with beauty all growing season and brings in tons of wildlife. We see tons of bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and songbirds that come feed on the seeds of our plants. Not too mention the occasional turkey!
How to save seeds from native plants
If you start growing plants from seed, you’re going to get ‘hooked’. It is the most economical way to obtain landscaping plants, trees, or anything else. And if you can identify natives to your area that you would like to grow, well, you may be able to locate local populations that you can harvest some seed from.
It is important to do so ethically, so be mindful of park or gameland rules and ask permission when necessary. In other situations, follow the guidelines from the National Native Plant Society on harvesting of wild seed.
 – Smith, Robert J. The prairie garden : 70 native plants you can grow in town or country. Madison, Wis. : University of Wisconsin Press, 1980
 – Holm, Heather. Pollinators of native plants: attract, observe and identify pollinators and beneficial insects with native plants. No. 595.79 H747p. Pollination Press,, 2014.
 – Sawyers, Claire. Gardening with wildflowers & native plants. Brooklyn, N.Y. : Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1989
Want to create a beautiful mini-wildlife sanctuary that is beautiful year-round? Maybe provide some valuable food for pollinators and save the bees? How about making a natural bird feeder just...