May 12 2021 05:50 PM

Use native plants to build a vibrant, sustainable design.

Boring. Wild. Temperamental. The problem child of the landscaping world. Despite thousands of years spent adapting to the local soil type, climate and water conditions, native plants still get a bad rap. But by tapping into many available educational resources and shifting traditional views of design, installation and maintenance, landscape professionals and their clients will see the benefits of incorporating native plants into landscape design.

Education is key

Planting an exotic shade plant in full sun is not a recipe for success, and the same rule of thumb applies to native plants.

“It is extremely important to know your conditions,” says Elisa Meara, president of Native Plant Landscape Design in Falls Church, Virginia. “It is worth it to spend the time looking at your conditions, your soil type, your soil moisture, how much light you have, then do your research and see what kind of plants can grow happily in those conditions. Investigate the species and see how big and how fast it will grow, then choose the best plants for the site.”

Each region of the United States has a particular ecotype of plants that grow naturally in that environment, and each state has a plethora of resources to guide contractors toward the native plants that best suit their needs. If you are looking for a starting point, 44 out of 50 states are home to native plant societies.

“Any contractor can call their state’s native plant society,” says Karina Veaudry, principal of NFC Landscape Architects in Orlando, Florida. “They are literally there to educate and provide resources, so it’s not like you’re taking someone’s time and effort. They are there to field these calls. Don’t assume anything you know is correct for natives. If you talk to them, they will educate you and offer tips on how to avoid pitfalls.”

Native plant nurseries are another tremendous resource for contractors. Most nurseries have online catalogs, but a phone call will yield even more specific information about the best plant choices and how to successful install them.

“I have their catalogs and go on their websites to find things that work for my customers,” says Judy Nauseef, owner of Judy Nauseef Landscape Design in Iowa City, Iowa. “They are very happy to give help and instruction.”

Design with natives in mind

Part of the reason native landscapes have a bad reputation is because there is a misconception that they are all drooping and wild, says Nauseef. While some native plants do fit that description, those issues are easily remedied through design.

“The solution for floppy, messy plants is a design solution, not a maintenance solution,” Nauseef says. “The plants you choose will be ones that don’t flop, or you will learn how to place the taller plants in the back and then work with a palate of smaller plants around them.”

While many native plant landscape designs challenge traditional ideas of the landscape aesthetic, Veaudry says that some simple tricks can create a look that is more widely accepted. In order to contain the wilder look of some native plants, Veaudry recommends planting a low native evergreen hedge as a border to make a wilder plant, like a milkweed, appear contained within the hedge.

“It helps frame the messiness and the border helps it to be more aesthetically acceptable,” Veaudry says.

“Then you can let your milkweeds go wild behind it, and for people walking down the street, their eye is drawn to the hedge.”

Veaudry also recommends keeping a half-moon area of grass or native ground cover that can be kept short to mimic the look of a lawn and give the appearance of a more traditional landscape. Then, designers can create any look a customer desires using traditional design elements like color, shape, texture and height, and native plants that function as focal point shrubs, hedges and small flowering trees.

Pairing plants properly can also ensure that customers are pleased with the final result. Goldenrod, which begins as a 2-inch tall, 8-inch round plant, will shoot up a 2-foot-tall bloom stalk in the spring, which then gets heavy and leans over. Veaudry explains that by planting native clumping grasses around them, the grasses blend in with the wildflowers and provide support, preventing the stalks from flopping, therefore providing a neater look.

“You can create any style using native plants,” Meara says. “You just need to get to know your plants, and the more you know your plants, the more flexibility you will have.”

For a style that is minimalistic, modern and organized, Meara suggests choosing a beautiful sculptural tree enhanced by a native sage ground cover. For a looser, more informal look, designers can incorporate more color and a wider variety of textures.

Meara also encourages designers to consider planting every layer, including the area under trees and shrubs and the areas between plants. Ground covers, often referred to as green mulch or living mulch, help tie a design together while keeping weeds at bay.

Working with native plants often requires a personalized maintenance approach with fewer inputs.

In addition to creating visually pleasing designs, many designers interested in creating native landscapes want to create a garden that provides nectar and pollen from early spring into late fall, to ensure that bees, butterflies and overwintering birds are provided for year-round, Meara says.

“That means the client will have species that will be giving their garden color in the early spring, summer, fall and winter,” she says. “For winter, we have an array of evergreens that we can choose from or shrubs that produce berries during the winter, so you get these beautiful red berries throughout the winter months that are food for migrating birds.”

A personalized approach

One of the biggest mistakes a contractor can make is caring for native plants the same way they care for exotics. While using fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides might be part of maintaining traditional landscapes, they can be not only unnecessary, but harmful, to native plants.

“When you have a nonnative plant, like an oleander, it attracts an oleander caterpillar, and the birds won’t eat those caterpillars because it isn’t a native shrub or caterpillar,” says Veaudry. “When you have no predator to keep those in check, the caterpillars will eat the plant all the way to the ground without pesticides.”

Veaudry says that native plants follow the rules of basic biology. Native birds feed their young the insects that are attracted to the native plants they have coevolved with. Because there are so many hungry birds, the insects will never have a chance to destroy the plant.

When the appropriate native plants are chosen for the conditions, they will acclimate quickly. In fact, Nauseef says most natives can be planted in poor soil, as their deep roots will grow very low into the soil, improving it as they grow. Smaller plants won’t be as needy for nutrients, and as they send roots deeper into the soil, they will access everything they need to thrive.

When planting, natives should be planted more densely, according to Meara. Planting in groups of five or seven mimics the way natives grow in their natural habitat.

“Sometimes people have the perception that you need a lot of space between the plants, that the plants are like museum pieces, and that is not the case,” Meara says. “In nature, for the most part, they grow very close together, and you can do that in your own garden.”

Once native plant material is installed, maintenance also looks different. While nonnative foundation hedges can be sheared, shearing a native hedge will remove the fruiting and flowering that feeds wildlife, and the plant will not recover like nonnatives.

“Often contractors assume they can maintain natives the same way they maintain traditional plants, and they ruin the plant material or make it look really bad,” Veaudry says. “When you prune natives, they don’t fill in the holes like hedges that have been cultivated in nurseries for 100 years. It stresses them out, and they will start to decline.”

Because native plants have evolved to exist in a region’s weather and soil conditions, water needs are also different.

“In terms of watering, any new plant needs to be watered the first season, and we usually use a soaker hose for that, because you don’t want water hitting those plants all the time,” Nauseef says. “Using natives is much more sustainable because after the first year, you aren’t going to need to water as frequently, which saves time and resources.”

Share your knowledge

“There is a connection that has been developed and created for thousands of years between the ecosystem and the native plants, and an ecosystem isn’t healthy if it doesn’t have the native plants to support it,” Meara says.

Nauseef says she is constantly surprised by how many customers have become aware of the realities of climate change and are interested in incorporating native plants into their landscapes.

“It’s coming from their desire to do something for the environment, and everyone can do something with their own yard for the environment,” she says. “I’ve put in gardens in newer developments and when I come back there are monarch butterfly caterpillars on those plants. That’s what customers want, they want to see that kind of life in their landscape, especially if they had very little life before.”

When discussing native plants with clients, Meara says a little education goes a long way. When clients learn that they can have the look they desire while using plants that support the ecosystem and require no chemicals and little maintenance or water once established, she says they are excited about the benefits.

“If you think natives are boring, you aren’t aware of the array of natives,” Meara says. “Famous designers in Europe are using plants native to the United States in their gardens in Europe. If the most prestigious designers in the world are using them, when we aren’t using them here where they are native, that tells you something.”

Lauren Sable Freiman is a freelance writer based in Cleveland and can be reached at laurensable@gmail.com.