Using Wildflowers and Native Species in the Landscape
If you’ve been using plant material and wildflowers that are native to your local area, you’ve been in the eco-green movement for a while, although you may not have realized it. Now, more than ever, ‘going green’ is a growing, positive trend in our industry. The terms ‘going native,’ eco-green, sustainable—you understand them; however, there are many landscape contractors who don’t. Going native is now being heard, perhaps nowhere as loudly as within the green industry.
There are many parts to the ‘green’ movement. One part involves the use of organic materials wherever possible; another is not using chemicals at all.
Still another is water conservation. More than 25 years ago, the word ‘xeriscaping’ was coined to promote the use of drought-tolerant plants in a landscape environment. A xeriscape landscape means using plants that require little water, and either cutting down on the size of the lawns or eliminating them altogether.
Turning away from fossil fuels and towards tools that run on clean energy, such as propane and natural gas, solar power, battery power, and yes, even old-fashioned human “sweat power” is another facet of going green.
Installing landscapes using native plants and wildflowers is a large part of this movement. Rather than following the traditional approach, planting whatever we want, no matter where the plants come from, or the amount of water and chemicals it takes to keep them alive, the sustainable philosophy opts for local sourcing. The idea here is that plants that evolved in a certain environment naturally thrive in that place, needing few or no “crutches” to keep them going once they’re established.
It’s roughly analogous to the plight of us as humans, should we ever get to Mars. We didn’t evolve there and we’d die there without a cumbersome life-support system to keep us going. Well, the same is true of plants, says the native landscape movement.
Why go native?
Green industry professionals who work with native plants and wildflowers are downright evangelistic about it. Neil Diboll, owner and president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin, certainly is. His passion for designing and planting native landscapes and meadows began 31 years ago, “before it was cool.”
“We were outcasts and weirdos,” he continues. “People would say, ‘Why do you want to do that?’” His motivation was based on ecological concerns, a desire to preserve the gene pool of the native Midwest prairie flowers and grasses, many of which were becoming quite rare.
“What are the benefits of native landscapes? Many, many, many,” enthuses Reed Spector, owner of Austin, Texas-based Austin Native Landscaping. “First and foremost, it’s sustainable. We don’t have to go very far to get the seed, and the seed knows where it is and how to behave, so it’s easier. And because there’s such a variety of native plants, these landscapes are quite beautiful during every season. They contribute to the idea of nature as a place, versus merely a space.”
It’s less expensive
Lower cost is another plus of going native, although maybe not right at the beginning. “Upfront expenses are typically equal to or more than a traditional turf,” says Diboll. “The real savings are on maintenance and mowing. You don’t have to fertilize or put pesticides down—all the things that you have to do with a lawn.”
“The break-even point usually comes somewhere during the second year,” says Diboll. “From there on out, it’s an annual savings. If you look at the lifecycle-costing model, even with a 20-year lifecycle, you’ve still got 18 years of significant savings.”
It saves water
Native plants also use less water. “You don’t have to put in an irrigation system,” adds Diboll. “That’s a huge savings, both upfront and longterm.” He points out that in the Midwest, in lieu of normal rainfall, most residences will put down about four inches of water per week.
Not surprisingly, the extraordinary drought of the summer of 2012 brought Diboll some new customers. “It was brutal, and killed people’s lawns, but it was good for our business,” as some of those folks opted to plant natives rather than re-sod. “With the prairie plants, most of them never really looked stressed. The vast majority of them came through the drought with flying colors.”
“It’s amazing,” Diboll continues. “It’s almost as if the plants said to themselves, ‘We’ll look pretty ratty here for the month of July, while it’s 108 degrees with no rain for six weeks, but we won’t die, and we’ll be back again next year!’”
Native landscapes take longer to prepare for and get established. It can take two, three, even as many as five years for all the native plants and biennial and perennial wildflowers to really come into their own.
“That’s often too long for people to wait,” says Simon Barker, director of native horticulture and co-owner of Native Landscape Solutions, Inc., in St. Louis, Missouri. “They lose interest and kind of give up. There’s not the level of commitment to get it to the point where it really works.” Clients who opt for native landscapes need to be educated about how long it actually takes and reassured that it’ll be worth the wait.
A ‘natural’ look, or just a ‘weedy’ one?
There’s a common fear that people have, particularly when it comes to replacing lawns with natives, that the result will be a front yard that looks unkempt, like a vacant lot. They may be afraid of getting complaints from neighbors or their homeowners association (HOA).
“One of the bigger hurdles we’ve had to overcome is that native plantings haven’t always been done well, and tended to be literally, weedy,” said Barker. “Whoever planted them lacked the skill or knowledge of how to control that.”
Diboll admits that the native look isn’t for everyone. “There are some people who will just never want to do this, those who don’t like the ‘natural’ look. Those people are not our customers. We understand that, and that’s fine.”
Even so, he’s found ways to counter this objection. “I can design a garden using native wildflowers and grasses, primarily flowers, that’ll just knock your eyeballs out. You wouldn’t know it wasn’t an English garden, except that the plants would be different species. You wouldn’t have cool-season plants, such as delphiniums, that are commonly used in England, but there are some pretty good substitutes that will give a similar feel and look.”
Diboll also ‘paints’ with flowers. “I’ll drift some different colors of flower plants, some here, and some there, to create areas of interest. You can create a whole look by doing that, so it doesn’t look like some kind of crazy mess.”
He says that the ‘weedy look’ can come from the use of seed mixes. “The plants just show up where the plants want to show up. To the human eye, it doesn’t make sense. There is a kind of logic to the way plants orient themselves that makes perfectly good sense ecologically. But it doesn’t meet the standard concept of what people think a garden should look like.”
It comes down to two different methodologies, according to Diboll. One is making gardens using transplants; and two, making meadows using seeds. The results will be strikingly different, with the meadows appearing chaotic. Even so, he contends, seed mixes, properly used, can result in a true prairie look.
“We like to think that a xeriscaped look can be quite clean, or as manicured as an English garden,” says Spector. "I'm probably biased, but we've installed plenty of designs that varied in their aesthetics, between a West Texas desert look and a more manicured look."
For clients who want a more formal look, Barker (who happens to be English) offers different levels of plantings, "We'll do beds of native plants, and keep them immaculately weeded so they perform really well, essentially using native plants in a traditional type of setting. And that's tidy enough for some people. It's not really a native ecosystem, but it is using natives in a highly gardened kind of normal way."
As for the regulations of the HOAs, Spector says the law is on his side, at least in Texas. "They passed a law last year that says HOAs can no longer prohibit people from putting in native landscapes or xeriscapes."
Not strictly residential
You may be thinking, "This native landscape thing may be fine for homeworkers, but my commercial clients won't want any part of it." Not so, says Diboll. He admits that when he began doing native landscapes, his clients were strictly residential. But that changed.
"Business owners had no clue as to how this could benefit them. Slowly but surely, they started realizing that the expense of mowing their huge, expansive lawns wasn't working out so well for them. Even for a business that has its own equipment, there's not only time, labor and gas, but wear and tear on that equipment and the price of maintaining it. All of that adds up quite rapidly, " explains Diboll.
"I started getting jobs with golf courses. Then more and more corporate work started coming in. Once commercial clients started to see what coulf be done with this, and they saw the actual cost savings associated with it, my business really started to take off.”
Site preparation is crucial
“The biggest pitfall to planting natives is improper site preparation,” says Diboll. “You can have weeds still on the site, especially perennial rhizomes. There might be a long history of weeds and bazillions of seeds in the ground.”
So how do you kill them? “Quite frankly, the most common method and the most cost-effective one is to use glyphosate herbicides. Most of our customers are fine with that.”
Spector doesn’t use any chemicals, but Barker does use herbicides, especially during site prep. “We’re not organic; we do use herbicides as a tool to create natural habitats. We use them to kill the exotics, the non-natives or sometimes even natives if they’re invasive, in order to create a perfect community, a complete ecosystem.”
Smothering is a non-chemical technique Diboll has used very successfully. You cover the weedy area with large pieces of cardboard with compost on top, and keep it there for an entire growing season. Most perennial weeds will be killed. The cardboard biodegrades, and the compost remains.
You also need to find out what kind of soil is on the site. “We look at what’s already growing there,” says Diboll. “That tells us what plants can successfully get established. We can overcome most soil issues by selecting the right plants, and in some cases, amending the soil.”
Diboll uses cover crops to amend the soil organically and at low cost, particularly on a big meadow installation. “Two years of a buckwheat/winter wheat rotation really helps break up heavy clay soil and adds organic matter.”
It increases biodiversity and helps pollinators
Diboll notes that only recently have people given any thought to attracting pollinators to their gardens. “People didn’t want bees. Well, one-third of our foods are pollinated by bees. Most people still don’t get that.”
“A lot of native pollinators and very small insects are actually pretty specifically tied to certain ecosystems, even certain species of plants,” says Barker. “Some of the native pollinators only pollinate one genus or species, and then go dormant for the rest of the year.”
“There are a lot of things that are tied in with each other, and if there’s not enough biodiversity then things don’t work right,” adds Barker. Scientists have been voicing concern lately that the combined effect of development and agriculture has reduced forage for pollinators, contributing to their demise. And one leads to another. Little creatures are food sources for bigger ones, like birds, for instance. “No bugs, no birds,” says Diboll. “People forget that.”
Interest is growing
You’d expect a town like Austin, known for its youngish, progressive population, to be more open to the native approach than the rest of Texas might be. Spector says that while that’s probably so, “I’ve been surprised by people’s knowledge of sustainable landscaping outside of Austin.” He thinks that may be due to the severe drought that hit Texas hard last year. It brought more customers to his door. “We had plenty of clients call and say something along the lines of, ‘Take the lawn out, especially the St. Augustine grass. Do it over, and make it look like the Texas Hill Country (known for its wildflowers), please.’” “I believe that it’s similar to the organic foods movement,” adds Spector. “In almost any city now, one can buy something organic, or at least know what the word means.”
Education is key
Diboll has some advice for landscape contractors who want to get into natives, and that is, educate yourself, and then pass that knowledge along to your clients. He does that with all his customers, whether they are fellow landscape contractors, homeowners, or corporations.
“We do a huge amount of handholding, although I hate to use that word. Education is a better one. As I’ve told our employees, ‘Education is our number-one product. We also sell plants and seeds.’” “We want to make sure our customers have success,” he continues.
“For people who’ve never done this before, it can be quite daunting, because it’s such a totally different approach. We want to make sure that we cover all the possible pitfalls and address them prior to the actual installation.”
If you take the time to learn everything you can about natives and wildflowers—and there’s lots to learn—before you start planting them, your chances of success will be much greater. Like a native garden itself, start slow, but be thorough, and you and you clients will end up with great-looking landscapes that fit in with the local area, and save resources as well. Now, that’s worth going native, don’t you think?