Q. I want to grow a native plant garden. How do I start?
This is quite a complex topic, so it is difficult to give a short answer. Important points to consider are:
- What are the the geographic location and the USDA zone in which your garden is located? These factors will determine which plants are native to your area and which can be grown in your garden.
- What are the environmental conditions in your garden? Is it sunny or shaded? Is the soil sandy or heavy? Is it flat or on a slope? Is it dry or wet?
- Are you converting an existing flower garden into a native plant garden, or are you starting from scratch in a vacant plot? Interestingly, many native plants, particularly meadow plants, grow better in poor soils. Conversely, woodland flowers prefer rich, moist soils.
- If you are converting a vacant lot or a field, then you will have to deal with the problem of weeds and how to eliminate them. Some experts recommend clearing the area of weeds by applying herbicides before planting. Others prefer to avoid herbicides and recommend covering the area with a tarp or thick plastic sheet and leaving it in place for a year (or even two years). Clearly this requires a great deal of patience! Some gardeners recommend introducing the new plants slowly over time, small area by small area, into the existing plant population.
We highly recommend that you take the time to study and learn about native plants and their culture before starting on your project. Numerous books have been written on the subject. Some recommendations are:
- Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded by Douglas Tallamy, 2009
- Landscaping with Wildflowers An Environmental Approach to Gardening by Jim Wilson, Houghton Mifflin, 1992
- Gardening with Native Wild Flowers by Samuel B. Jones Jr. and Leonard E. Foote. Timber Press, 1990
- The Native Plant Primer: Trees, Shrubs, and Wildflowers for Natural Gardens by Carole Ottesen, Harmony Books, 1995
Many websites also discuss this topic, for example Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. The New York City Parks Department publishes a Native Species Planting Guide for the NYC area. Growing Native Plants From Seed is provided by Cornell Plantations and the Finger Lakes Native Plant Society. Also see the University of Vermont extension's Successful Wildflower Meadows, the USDA Forest Service's Gardening with Wildflowers, and the New England Wildflower Society. Almost every state has a native plant society. These can be located through the American Horticulture Society website.
An excellent way to learn about native plants suitable for your location is to visit native plant gardens in your area and to note which plants are growing well and would be suitable for your garden. Some possibilities are:
- NYBG's Native Plant Garden. This new garden specializing in native plants of the Northeast has over 400 species of native plants. A wooded area features spring ephemeral flowers and ferns. There is a bog area and a large prairie meadow.
- Wildflower Island at Teatown Reservation, Ossining, NY
- Garden in the Woods, Framingham, MA, run by the New England Wild Flower Society. Forty-five acres of rare and common plants growing in naturalistic settings
- The Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College, Valhalla, NY
For tips on a variety of gardening topics, see our Plant Information Guides.
- Courtesy of NYBG Plant Information Service