6 Tips for Designing With Native Plants

As a landscape designer, one of the most common complaints I hear about native plants is that they are too messy, weedy-looking, unstructured and unkempt to be used in a designed landscape.  While there are plenty of native plant gardens that unfortunately live up to that reputation, it’s simple to incorporate native plants into any garden to increase it wildlife value while also adding to its overall beauty.

There are appropriate native plants for every gardening style from formal to informal, from cottage to contemporary and any style in between. By following some simple steps – let’s call them the six S’s of wildlife garden design – you can create a lush, beautiful garden that is more than just a collection of pretty faces.

Structure ~ One key to designing a garden that looks good all year long is to design for winter interest. And one aspect of creating an attractive winter garden is to provide structure with conifers and broadleaf evergreens. By choosing  native conifers and evergreens, you’re also  providing vital shelter, nesting spots and food as well as creating that structural back bone every garden needs.

Native rhododendrons offer year round structure, shelter and nesting spots...an they were a favorite hiding place for my boys when they were growing up!

Native rhododendrons offer year round structure, shelter and nesting spots.

 

Select ~ There are native plants for every use in a designed garden. They can be planted as specimens or focal points, for screening out unsightly views, creating a sense of intimacy and dressing up front foundation plantings.

These native Eastern red cedars were planted to screen the client's pool from the road.

These native Eastern red cedars were planted to screen the view of the client’s pool from the road. They also provide food and shelter for the local wildlife.

Simple ~  It’s tempting to buy one of everything when you go plant shopping, but it’s much more effective from both a garden design and a habitat creation perspective to choose several species of  plants and then use them in multiples. Cluster plants of the same species together in groups of 3+ plants. Not only will this maximum their visual impact, the groupings will also be more attractive to wildlife.

One foamflower is good but six are even better!

One foamflower is good but six are even better!

Sequencing ~ When designing your wildlife garden, think of how plants can be connected and work together to create interest and depth. Combine native plants with sequential flowering times, and play up contrasts in texture, size, shape, and color.

Cottage Garden

A collection of perennials that combine different colors, flower shapes, and textures.

Sweeps and swathes ~ Use sweeping lines for beds and plant in swathes, drift or masses to create a sense of abundance, continuity and movement.

A  mass planting of native ferns and Virginia bluebells is simple but very effective.

A mass planting of native ferns and Virginia bluebells.

Shrink ~ I personally feel a little lawn is appropriate in a garden, in part because it helps set off the designed elements. But lawn grass is an ecological wasteland because  it does not contribute to the wildlife value of your garden so remember when it comes to lawns, shrink your lawn because ‘a little’ goes a long way.

A colorful lawn with dandelions and ajuga, as well as grass. © Maryellen Pirozzoli

A colorful lawn with dandelions and ajuga, as well as grass. © Maryellen Pirozzoli

Every wildlife-friendly garden needs to provide the basics for supporting local wildlife:  water, shelter, food (nectar, insects, seed heads, berries, fruit and nuts) and place to raise their young. This blog is the perfect place to explore specific native plants to add to your garden, regardless of where you live.  And with a bit of planning, you can design a native plant garden that supports a broad array of wildlife and looks like it was designed by a pro.

© 2013, Debbie Roberts. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    iDebbie, thanks for the design advice. Just please don’t encourage people to plant ajuga (last photo) – It is a very invasive non-native plant. It would also be nice if you would point out that everyone should use plants native to their own region and include lots of nectar and host plants for pollinators…

  2. says

    Hendrica, You’re right, ajuga can be invasive in many regions and there are many options that will not be invasive. This ‘lawn’ in Connecticut is organic and is alive with pollinators of all sorts when it’s in bloom and then it is mowed and maintained so that the ajuga doesn’t escape. I have a feeling the dandelions travel more than the ajuga does.
    Debbie Roberts recently posted..Wordless Wednesday ~ Tapestry

    • says

      Donna, Starting with plants that can be easily divided is a great way to plant in multiples, and get free plants. I have a few groundcover plants in my garden that I divide and transplant every other year. It’s a relatively easy way to create cohesion in your garden, too.
      Debbie recently posted..Wordless Wednesday ~ Devouring

  3. says

    Generally great tips Debbie, but I must agree with Hendrica. Any impression that deliberately planting invasives is okay under any circumstances should be deleted. Too often the ‘fine print’ about containing invasives is lost (or impossible), and all that is left is “I saw it on a post about wildlife gardens”. Sure, most flowers can be used by generalist pollinators, but native species are always a more ecological choice supporting a broader range of wildlife. I just spent the last several months convincing my sister to remove her newly purchased ajuga (sold as an “easy care/rapid fill-in groundcover”)…advice she only took when it started spread uncontrollably. She’ll be digging it out for years.

    How about highlighting an all-native “freedom lawn” of silverweed, wild strawberry, and early buttercup instead? Pretty, low growing and useful…and tends to also discourage the non-native dandelion.
    Deborah Dale recently posted..Green Evolution Site Gallery

Trackbacks

  1. […] As a landscape designer, one of the most common complaints I hear about native plants is that they are too messy, weedy-looking, unstructured and unkempt to be used in a designed landscape. While there are plenty of native plant gardens that unfortunately live up to that reputation, it’s simple to incorporate native plants into any garden to increase it wildlife value while also adding to its overall beauty. There are appropriate native plants for every gardening style from formal to informal, fromcottage to contemporary and any style in between. By following some simple steps – let’s call them the six S’s of wildlife garden design – you can create a lush, beautiful garden that is more than just a collection of pretty faces.  […]

  2. […] As a landscape designer, one of the most common complaints I hear about native plants is that they are too messy, weedy-looking, unstructured and unkempt to be used in a designed landscape. While there are plenty of native plant gardens that unfortunately live up to that reputation, it’s simple to incorporate native plants into any garden to increase it wildlife value while also adding to its overall beauty. There are appropriate native plants for every gardening style from formal to informal, fromcottage to contemporary and any style in between. By following some simple steps – let’s call them the six S’s of wildlife garden design – you can create a lush, beautiful garden that is more than just a collection of pretty faces.  […]

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