Like all forms of specialty gardening, landscaping with native plants is just a matter of personal taste – as well as how much your interest in these lovely plants evolves over time. There’s nothing that says once you go native, you can’t garden with other plants. (Gardeners – much like their gardens – typically grow into this style.)

Trollius laxus

Trollius laxus is easy to grow but rare in the wild.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Native plant display

While you might not find Sanguinaria canadensis, Adiantum pedatum and Aruncus dioicus growing together in the wild, you can combine them in your garden for a dramatic summer-long display.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Bloodroot

Sanguinaria canadensis is a sturdy native perennial that you can tuck into any landscape.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Bee on Aster divaricatus

Planting natives in your garden helps support important pollinators – like this bumblebee on Aster divaricatus.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

You hear the same story from many gardening enthusiasts about how they got into this passionate hobby: Homeowners typically begin with a need to spruce up their yard, so they get some plants from a friend or perhaps see something enchanting and find their way to a garden center to figure out what it is. This casual interest launches them on a voyage of discovery and specialization, not only in botanical knowledge but in self-expression.

Native-plant gardeners have similar stories, too. Some start by picking a particular native for its ability to thrive in shade, cover the ground, provide a nice background or add texture to the garden. Others start because they simply wanted to add some pretty native plants and do their part in the conservation movement, or maybe they wanted to support pollinating insects and the genetic strength of an entire species.

No matter how native gardeners got started, as soon as the intrigue of native plants sets in, they’re hooked. And it’s easy to see why: Once you learn how natives thrive in specific habitats and form communities that interact with each other, you can adapt your garden to meet those plants’ requirements (and sharpen your botanical skills at the same time). This is where the enthusiasts who shift into the native-plant gardening theme begin to impose limitations on themselves (just to kick the challenge up a notch). They often opt to garden only with specific natives, or they try to create their own communities of plants. And once they start, it’s hard to stop.

The more you delve into gardening with natives, the more you’ll come to find most of the rules center around creating habitats necessary to support plant life (such as wet, moist, semidry and Xeric conditions). These rules also have to do with the regions specific plants are native to, so the more narrowly you define “native,” the more challenging native gardening becomes.

But the results can be wonderful!

There are so many different and beautiful microhabitats! If you’ve got an artificial pond in your yard, you’ve got the potential to create a wetland or stream bank environment that can sustain native species that thrive in these circumstances. By adjusting your garden’s soils, you can establish small swamps, alpine gardens, moist meadows and dry fields. If you incorporate larger trees and shrubs, woodland habitats can evolve. How far you take your native plant passion just depends on where you sit on the casual-to-obsessive line, as well as the resources you can bring to your projects.

Of course, you need to be careful which plants you choose, and that’s why it’s important to know there’s a subtle difference between “wildflowers” and “native plants.” Wildflowers include natives, but they also include species that have escaped cultivation and set up shop in the wild. They also include those that snuck in from somewhere else – and many of these are now regarded as noxious weeds. Introducing those to your native habitat is sure to disgruntle some neighbors!

Speaking of neighbors, be aware of their native-plant enthusiasm – or lack there of. Sometimes a well-meaning property owner gets enthusiastic about wildflowers, turns their suburban lawn into a rustic meadow, then upsets the entire neighborhood because of the jarring difference in appearance. So perhaps let the golden rule be: Keep your “meadow” neatly groomed so it blends in with the rest of your neighborhood to some degree – rather than looking unkempt and sticking out like a sore thumb. If you really want a “natural” yard, you should probably move to the boonies.

I’ve taken my native gardening passion a bit farther than many. I try and work with the native habitat as I found it, and then I look for more native plants to grow there. In fact, I narrow my list of “native” plants down to the species native not just to the county I live in, but to the specific upland habitat I have. When I first started this adventure, I worried that I might not have many plants to choose from, so I connected with native-plant societies, conservation and restoration groups, and horticultural specialists. (And I learned as much about ecology as botany!) Surprisingly, I came up with a shopping list of more than 200 species to add to my garden! Sound like work? Not to me! It was all fun (if not a little addictive).

That’s just one of the many great things about gardening with native plants: You can get as involved – and I mean way involved – as you like. So whether you’re just out looking for some new plants to bring back a little of your yard’s untouched feel or you want to bring back an entire habitat, turn to this wonderful kind of gardening. It’s a lot of fun to go native!