Gardening with Native Plants
Aligning Expectations with Plant Behavior Makes for a Happier Gardener
Gardening with native plants requires that one has realistic expectations about how they will perform in the garden. Many of these plants are short-lived perennials; they move about by reseeding, and therefore the landscape will not be static. This element of surprise can be viewed as an opportunity to investigate how new plant combinations look in a garden. It can also require a firm hand when deciding to remove errant seedlings (which can be an easy source of plants for sharing with like-minded gardeners).
Plant Reproduction - and Invasiveness
Gardeners are probably aware of non-native plants that were brought to this country either accidentally or for gardening purposes but have become aggressive colonizers of our landscapes (oxeye daisy and dalmation toadflax are examples). Just as we don’t use the behavior of these few troublemakers to condemn all non-natives, it is important to realize that some native plants can also expose their more aggressive side in cultivated environments. The glowing white blossoms of pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida Lindl.) may be enticing in their isolated clumps in the semi-arid landscape of the Intermountain West, but invite this species into your garden and it will truly take advantage of your hospitality. When a plant aggressively invades your lawn or hops, skips, and jumps out of the flower bed, consider killing it off—even if it’s a native plant. Be extra cautious if you garden near natural areas.
Plants spread by several means, including by underground roots or rhizomes or by reseeding. We have noted in the descriptions if plants are aggressive reseeders. Note that limited reseeding can be a very beneficial attribute for a native plant, especially for short-lived ones. Plants with a relatively short bloom time can be controlled with respect to reseeding by deadheading (i.e., cutting off spent blooms before seeds are set). We have also observed that some plants reseed much more under certain conditions (e.g., some penstemons reseed robustly in gravel mulch, whereas they are less likely to generate offspring in beds mulched with wood chips).
Sun and Water Needs
All plants described here will take (and most commonly require) full sun unless otherwise noted. Their water needs will vary depending on the plant and its exposure to sun and wind in the garden and the type of soil and mulch in which it is growing. Most native plants need good drainage, even if water needs are listed as “moist” or “moderate.” Do not assume a native plant is a drought-tolerant plant. Indeed, no plant is drought tolerant until fully established. Even for the hardiest species listed here, plan on watering these plants regularly during their first year after transplanting or longer.
Locating Plants for Your Garden
Once you become inspired to try some of these plants, it may take a little effort to track them down. For each listing, we provide guidance as to how easy or hard it might be to purchase these plants. Please note that when we refer to nurseries, we mean regional nurseries and not the big box store garden centers, in which these plants may be rarely found. Contact your local extension office/Master Gardener program to find the names of local nurseries that specialize in or carry native plants. And when hunting down plants in nurseries, don’t forget to look in their alpine/rock garden sections (many of these plants hail from the West). In addition, tree and shrub sales through your local conservation district are often a great way to find native shrubs for conservation purposes.
Seed Sources and Starting Seeds
If attempting to garden under particularly harsh conditions, you might have greater success with plants that began their lives under similarly tough conditions. Wholesale nurseries in the Midwest can supply plants far afield, and an Ohio-grown plant might have less of a chance in a Pinedale garden than one started along the Front Range. This line of thought is not, however, meant to entice you to remove plants from the wild. In many cases, this practice is illegal, and many wild-dug plants have a very low chance of being transplanted successfully. Similarly, if you are interested in collecting seeds from the wild, learn how to collect seeds in a manner that reduces possible impacts on the wild plant population, that is sensitive to different land use restrictions, and that is in compliance with relevant laws.
Instead of collecting seeds, consider their many commercial sources. Sellers of native seeds often include a much wider variety of plants than can be found in the nursery. An Internet search can help locate reputable seed dealers (as well as sources for various plants). Don’t forget to look for companies that sell seeds for alpine or rock garden plants. Local, regional, and national organizations for plant enthusiasts often have seed exchanges in which difficult-to-find seeds may be found. Such organizations can also provide expertise in starting plants from seed.
Some seeds that you purchase or collect require specific conditions for germination, but thankfully the most common requirement—cold stratification—requires little more than forethought and some patience
Another benefit of starting plants from seed is that you learn what the plants look like at their earliest life stages. This will help you identify volunteer seedlings in the garden (either for the purpose of tender cultivation or eradication). We have also noted that sometimes self-sown seedlings are hardier than their parent plants in the garden. Whether because they have the luxury of never being transplanted or because they have ‘chosen’ an ideal site is hard to say, but even if you lose a first-generation plant, watch for its offspring.
A Few Other Thoughts on Incorporating Native Plants into the Garden
We have included with the plant photos and descriptions some information that should help you use these native plants in the landscape. The size of a plant often depends on the location in which it is grown (e.g., the length of the growing season, severity of winter weather, wind exposure) and the available moisture. Thus, our information should be considered approximate.
Group together plants with similar water and exposure needs, whether you are creating a garden from scratch or retrofitting an existing landscape. This will increase the likelihood that they will survive and thrive and will make tending the garden simpler (more water here, less there, etc.). Also make sure you know your soil—how much water a plant requires will in part depend on the type of soil in which it is planted. Clay soils can hold more moisture. Sandy soils are typically fast draining. Growing in clay soil can be a problem for some native plants, especially during winter months, during which they rot from too much moisture; however, clay soil can also be beneficial in gardens that are rarely watered. Choosing plants that are well adapted to your site is far easier than trying to adapt your site to a specific plant’s needs.
There are many other aspects to designing a well-thought-out garden, which we will not go into detail about here. Perhaps our favorite piece of garden designing advice is to simply wander around well-established landscapes, cultivated or wild, identify what you like, and take lots of pictures and lots of notes.
Whatever your gardening style or level of experience, native plants have a lot to offer in Wyoming gardens. We hope the practical information provided here will help you discover new plants that will add color and life to your world and help foster a deeper appreciation and understanding of our amazing native flora.