Finding space in your yard for native plants
Your motivation comes from a good place. You want to try something new in your garden or yard. Something that gives you a burst of summer color, but is also environmentally beneficial, attracting pollinators or providing food for birds and other wildlife.
You heard about the native plant sale at the nearby nature center, so you jump in the car and load up on milkweed, coneflowers, asters, and maybe even a ninebark and a redbud. Now you have a flat of plants and no idea what to do with them.
Not to worry! They’re native, and they’re meant to thrive in Missouri’s climate. All you need is some prep work and to make sure you find the right spot to plant them. Before you put on your garden gloves, check out these entry-level tips on working natives into your landscape.
First, Why Choose Native Plants?
Understanding how native plants function in the ecosystem will cement their value in your yard. A quick Google search will show you they can be just as beautiful and showy as the nonnatives you’ll find at the big box stores. Unlike those colorful annuals, native plants have evolved with Missouri’s native fauna, which means they bring a multitude of benefits along with their beauty.
They serve as hosts for insects and are a food source for birds. They provide shelter for birds and other wildlife. They build deep root systems that hold soil in place, which prevents erosion and provides built-in stormwater management. They’re also more sustainable because they require less water and don’t need to be fertilized.
Alix Daniel and Cydney Ross are native landscape specialists who work at MDC’s Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center in Kansas City. They spend their days tending the grounds at the center and teaching others about the connection between native plants and native wildlife.
“Everything in nature is connected, from the tiniest organisms to the biggest predators,” said Daniel. “Native plants have evolved over thousands of years, and they provide food and habitat for everything on this spectrum, including humans.”
A native garden, even a small one in your yard, becomes part of the larger habitat that native wildlife will rely on. Ross says people ask her all the time about why they don’t see birds or butterflies in their yards. The culprit is what’s missing from your neighborhood.
“We have created food deserts by having turf grass lawns and nonnative shrubs and trees,” she said. “They’re just not offering the critical food supplies birds and butterflies need.”
Replacing a portion of your yard with a native plant garden provides an oasis in the desert. Just planting an oak tree will support hundreds of varieties of caterpillars, which fuel the earth’s food web. In fact, oaks support more life forms than any other North American tree, providing food, protection, or both to countless animals, birds, insects, and spiders.
Want more goldfinches in your neighborhood? They love coneflowers, goldenrod, and ironweed because those plants serve as seed sources. Monarch butterflies rely on milkweed. Other butterflies and critical pollinators look for wild bergamot, eastern blazing star, and aromatic aster, among many other plants. Native shrubs like American beautyberry, possum haw, and arrow wood provide berries for all sorts of birds and wildlife.
Assess Your Yard
Before you start planting, take some time to think about your property and where the new plants would thrive. The most important consideration is sunlight. A lot of native wildflowers need at least six hours of sunlight, but many thrive in shade, too. Prairie blazing star will flower from July through October in the bright, full sun, where a wild hydrangea can handle shadier spots. Daniel and Ross recommend keeping track of what time of day the sun hits various spots in your yard, which should guide you in finding just the right location for your recent impulse purchases.
Soil is another important factor. There are three basic types of soil structure: sandy, clay, and loam. Clay soil is sticky when wet, forms hard lumps when dry, and cracks in hot weather. Sandy soils let moisture drain away quickly, taking nutrients with it.
“Many people in Missouri will have clay soil in their yards because when their homes were built, most of the rich topsoil was removed and it’s just the compacted clay soil that’s left,” said Daniel. “You can find native plants that handle the clay but mixing in some organic matter such as composted plant material will help.”
Think about how much moisture is in your soil. Does the rainwater pool anywhere in your yard? Target those areas with plants that can handle soggy conditions, or plant a rain garden that will filter, store, and slowly release the stormwater. Daniel and Ross recommend checking out native landscapes that match your yard conditions for more ideas.
“Go to a nearby natural area and look at those native plant communities,” said Ross. “If your yard gets lots of hot, direct sun, check out a native prairie and see what’s growing there, and discover more native plants you might like.”
“If you’ve got a lot of shade, go to a conservation area or state park with woodlands or forests and use that as a guide to inform the plant choices in your yard,” Daniel added. “I love the idea of finding inspiration out in nature, and it’s a great excuse to explore.”
Remove the Invasive Invaders
Planting natives is one of the most important things you can do to promote biodiversity and environmental health in your yard. Equally important is the removal of invasive species. There are plenty of nonnative perennials, shrubs, and trees that aren’t invasive. Nonnative hostas or irises, for example, won’t necessarily harm the Midwest ecosystem. They just don’t provide the same benefits of native plants.
What does cause problems? Nonnative plants that spread aggressively. Many have spread beyond our backyards because there are no natural defenses to prevent them. What makes things even more difficult is that invasive plants and trees are often available for sale at the chain home and garden centers where we shop.
One of the most problematic offenders is the Bradford pear tree, which is a cultivar of the Callery pear tree (Pyrus calleryana). While the tag might claim it to be sterile, it needs only to cross-pollinate with another cultivar of the Callery pear (such as the Cleveland select or autumn blaze) and it will spread into nearby fields and woodlands. These trees have been very popular landscape trees for decades because they grow fast and have showy spring blooms. If you’ve got one in your yard, have it removed and replace it with an American plum, eastern redbud, or serviceberry.
Japanese honeysuckle and wintercreeper are two other incredibly damaging nonnative invasive plants that are regularly found for sale. Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is a vine native to Japan that was first introduced in 1806 as an ornamental ground cover. It is found all over Missouri, spreading along the ground and forming dense mats. Like the Callery pear trees, it escaped cultivation and chokes out natives plants wherever it spreads.
Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) is another home and garden center favorite that has become a serious threat to native plants. It spreads rapidly and replaces the early spring blooming plants.
“Not all nonnative plants are bad, but the ones that cause damage to the environment need your attention,” said Ross. “They choke out other vegetation and release chemicals that deter native plants from growing. Most of the time they don’t even offer much as a food resource for our insects and wildlife.”
Take the time to properly research the best ways to remove invasive plants effectively. Pull them up, cut them down, dig them out. It will take persistence and hard work. Consider using herbicide to make the work a little more permanent. A carefully applied herbicide like a glyphosate mixture painted on cut stems will help kill the invaders for good. If you choose to use herbicides, read the label and do your research. MDC’s invasive plants webpage, short.mdc.mo.gov/4SX, is a great place to learn more.
Tips for Fall and Winter
Fall is a great time to plant native trees and shrubs. The cooler air and still-warm ground is ideal for establishing root systems. Give them plenty of water and don’t forget to mulch. Any time of year, mulch will help maintain soil moisture and control weeds. Use organic mulch made of wood chips, pine needles, shredded bark, or compost mixes and leaves. Keep in mind that too much mulch can prevent ground-nesting native bees from accessing soil to create nests.
One big tip for fall and winter is to leave your yard as is. Leaving plant stalks and skipping raking leaves means habitat for insects and better soil composition down the road.
“Not raking your leaves is a big deal, we know,” said Daniel. “If you can make it fit with your yard aesthetic, leave the leaves and dead plant stalks. They become a food source for birds, you’ll help the plants to seed themselves and leaving all that organic material to break down in a natural way.”
Daniel and Ross find beauty in winter plants, too.
“One of my favorite plants is rattlesnake master,” said Daniel. “It provides so much winter beauty, and it has lovely base foliage that can be woven into cordage. It’s got gorgeous upright stems that withstand winter weather and the flowerheads are very similar to how they look in the spring.”
Where to Learn More
It’s time to plant. Give your native plants plenty of water and enjoy them for years to come. But if you feel the urge to visit the native plant sale again, do a little research first. There are excellent resources to learn more about adding native plants to your landscapes.
MDC and the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native! Program offers detailed information at grownative.org, including a database of native plants, a directory of native plant nurseries, landscape designs, and webinars and plant sales happening throughout the state.
Native Plants for Your Landscape is a free MDC publication for Missouri residents. The 12-page booklet outlines where and how to plant natives. Find it online at short.mdc.mo.gov/Zc8 or request a free print copy by emailing email@example.com.
If you have a larger property, consider ordering bare root seedlings from MDC’s George O. White State Forest Nursery. They start taking orders on Sept. 1 and ship the following spring. Learn more at mdc.mo.gov/seedlings or check out the Seedling Order Form insert (between pages 16 and 17) in the September Conservationist.
Learn directly from Daniel and Ross’s expertise. They partner with Deep Roots Kansas City to hold Natives at Noon, a once-a-month workshop series on native plant topics. Their archived workshops are online through the Webinars tab at deeproots.org.
Deep Roots and other partners are presenting the 2022 Plan It Native Conference on Sept 12-16. The virtual conference will offer more than 20 live, interactive sessions and three keynote speakers, plus an in-person exhibit and field trips in and around Kansas City for those living nearby. Learn more at planitnative.org.
If you’re ready to buy more native plants right now, check out the schedule of native plant sales happening in September. There are at least six sales happening this month, with plants supplied by Grow Native! professional members. Find the full schedule and details at grownative.org, under the Events tab.
Also In This Issue
This Issue's Staff
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Associate Editor - Larry Archer
Photography Editor - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Staff Writer – Dianne Van Dien
Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Marci Porter
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Circulation Manager - Laura Scheuler