Aug. 14 2020 06:00 AM

Native plant choices turned this Kentucky property into a wildlife habitat.

Photos: Inside Out Design

The Sutley Sanctuary, just outside Frankfort, Kentucky, is filled with waves of colorful flowers, trees and grasses. Located near Benson Creek, it provides eight acres of certified wildlife habitat to support local animals and birds.

Thanks to design by Andrea Mueller, owner of Inside Out Design in Frankfort, it’s built mostly around plant species native to the Kentucky region.

The clients, who were moving to Kentucky from their Alaska home, were referred to Inside Out Design through a neighbor, Mueller says. They wanted an open, natural space with a focus on native plants that would attract wildlife. Mueller worked with them remotely on designing the space in multiple phases.

The first phase focused on planting about 100 native trees on the property to create a buffer. As the homeowners saw native plants incorporated into the design, they were excited to go even further, Mueller says.

“He drove a lot of the design, which was great. And the more they kept learning about native plants and the more I showed them, the more they got excited about it,” she says. “It just grew into this awesome thing.”

The second phase included the hardscaped back patio area with an outdoor kitchen and seat wall, as well as a waterfall element and landscape lighting.

The third phase brought in even more native plants focused on prairie grasses, Mueller says. A 6,000-square-foot garden was developed with plugged prairie grass and more native trees placed alongside the prairie gardens. The fourth phase brought in native plantings around a new circular driveway and some additional areas seeded with prairie grass.

Choosing native options

For the prairie grasses, Mueller used a blend of options, including multiple types of switchgrass, joe pye weed, sweet coneflower and mountain mint.

“I love to use mountain mint because it provides this nice mass with a white silvery color,” Mueller says.

Throughout the phases, she encouraged incorporating more cultivated spaces into the design.

“We took out a lot of the front yard and made it into habitat,” she says. Reducing the amount of turfgrass in the yard provided more areas that could support the local wildlife, which was a main focus of the clients. As a side effect, it reduced the overall amount of mowing area and made much of the yard more functional for the clients’ use. Hardscaping a circular driveway in the front provided accessibility options and gave the customers more room to work with in the back.

The front yard incorporated plants that would support pollinators, such as beardtongue and asters. It also features a lot of spring bloomers such as native phlox, golden alexanders and azaleas. The design is supported by shrubs and trees throughout that will provide cover and food for caterpillars and butterflies, such as button bush, spice bush, winterberry holly and viburnum.

One set of plants, including blueberries, passion vine, trumpet honeysuckle and Virginia creeper among others, was designed to specifically attract wild turkeys. Within three months of planting, the birds were spotted on the property, enjoying the comfort of the habitat.

Overall, the property is now home to about 90 different plant species. Of those, about 80% are native plants, Mueller says.

But even the non-natives that she chose for the property were picked because they help support the habitat.

“One of the plants I love using that’s non-native is Millennium Allium,” she says. “Bees and pollinators love that plant. It’s not native, but it’s beautiful, and it provides bloom, so I put that right at the entrance.”

She also incorporated a non-native hydrangea that attracts and supports insects and provides another strong burst of color, as well as something that might feel like a more traditional design choice, she says.

One of the biggest challenges Mueller faced with the design was working with the heavy grades of Kentucky hills on the property.

“Everything is hilly, which is beautiful, but it always does provide some challenges,” she says. Mueller brought in heavy equipment for rolling and excavating the backyard to provide the right setting for the hardscaped outdoor living area.

While most of the plants have done well in heavy clay soil, she’s done a couple replacements on a few non-native plants that struggled a little bit. But even with the overall success, she doesn’t just expect all native plants to handle that soil well. Contractors still need to work to choose the right plants for the soil.

“Natives can also get a bad rap because people will try to put woodland plants in full sun locations or vice versa, and then they wonder why it didn’t work,” she says.

Getting educated

While Mueller doesn’t exclusively use native plants, she does try to find ways to build them into her designs whenever she can.

“I think natives are obviously important because they have co-evolved with all of the species here in Kentucky,” she says.

Non-native species can be useful, but customers and contractors might not be aware of just how invasive a particular non-native species can be, she says.

This can be a particular struggle for homeowners who go to garden centers and assume that the plants sold there work well with native plants just because they come from a horticulture professional.

Another reason that using native plants can be important is that they provide ecosystem balance, she says. A native tree or plant is already set up to support local wildlife, including pollinators like insects and birds. Non-natives can seem like an easy switch, but some local species depend on particular types of trees and plants to thrive. She references Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home, as he equates installing non-native plants to putting fake flowers in your yard because they’ll attract the same number of beneficial insects.

Mueller continues to use non-native plants in her designs, but more sparingly, to help support local biodiversity.

“By planting natives, we’re supporting the species and supporting the whole ecosystem,” she says.

When Mueller is building a design that balances native and non-native species, she likes to bring a strongly textured plant or bloom.

“Aesthetics are important, but you can still achieve that with native plants,” she says. “You just have to know a little bit about them.”

She makes her plant decisions by judging bloom time, then finding the right textures for the project.

One rule that she follows is to avoid invasive species altogether, especially as they can even be toxic to some local wildlife, she says. Part of the initial process in this project was identifying and removing invasive plants that were already on the property, such as garlic mustard, winter creeper and Japanese honeysuckle.

“It’s learning about each plant and knowing whether it’s good for your region or not,” Mueller says. “It really depends on where you are and knowing how plants react in your area.”

Knowing the difference between native, nonnative and invasive plants can be difficult, as that range will change throughout the U.S. She encourages contractors to use online resources to build an understanding of what plants are native to their region and which plants pose the biggest threats invasively. She relies on the Missouri Botanical Garden, which provides listings and backgrounds on many different types of plants in the region. She also uses resources from the Kentucky Garden Club, which publishes a listing of native alternatives for invasive species, and the Kentucky Invasive Plant Council, which she uses to help guide those plans. Landscape contractors can look for local versions of those resources to develop a knowledge base of native plants and invasive species.

Even if the majority of a contractor’s designs don’t center around native species, it’s useful to know about the most common invasive offenders in your area, she says.

Building excitement

A common landscaper complaint about working with native plants is that it can be tough to find the right texture or colors to provide a pop. Mueller says she felt the same way when she started working more natives into her repertoire. But she began leaning on her resources to find more options for some of the plants she commonly used in designs, discovering a variety of native plants became part of her usual repertoire.

“I would say to learn more about your native plants,” Mueller says. “I’m still discovering plants that are new to me.”

One technique she suggests to incorporate them better is to try out one new native plant in each design you work on. That way, the entire landscape isn’t riding on how familiar you are with that particular plant, and you can see how well it works alongside some of your other regular choices and in different settings.

“Introduce a new plant every project and take a chance on it,” she says.

Mueller also likes to test out new natives on her own property before using them in a design to get a feel for what works best and how it looks throughout its life cycle and in different climates.

Using native plants as a main part of her design work hasn’t significantly changed how she approaches a job, she says. Just because the work highlights natives doesn’t mean that the customer expects less in the final experience.

“It’s still design,” she says. “You’re still assessing sunlight, soil conditions, orientation and screening. And you’re applying all the same design concepts such as texture and color.”

Developing designs that provide a stable habitat while being aesthetically pleasing for clients is a main goal for Mueller.

“For me, pretty is not enough,” she says. “I feel like we need to do more with our gardens, because we can be pretty and functional.”

Working with native plants, especially in a situation like the Sutley Sanctuary, gives her designs an extra edge by bringing in wildlife and pollinators, she says. That brings a “lived-in” quality to the space that helps the homeowners feel surrounded by life.

“It really has enriched their lives because they go outside every day and they see butterflies and bees,” Mueller says. “It is about helping the environment and balancing that ecosystem, but it’s also about getting people excited to be outside and engage with their landscaping.”

The author is the editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at