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How to get started with native plants in your yard

Purple new england asters are illuminated by sunlight.
New England aster (Photo by Chad Merda)

So you’ve made the decision to go native in your yard. Now what?  

Making the choice to add native plants to your landscape is an important first step. Once you’ve made your decision, there’s planning to do, then preparation, planting and, finally, enjoying your new outdoor space. 

Need some guidance to get your started on your way to a yard all aflutter with activity? Follow these steps on your native plant journey.  

Choose a spot in your yard 

First things first, you’ll have to select a spot in your yard for a native plant garden or a spot where you can incorporate native plants. It’s a good idea to start with a small spot, and then you can expand it year after year if you find you want more. 

If you are changing a large part of your yard over to natives, plan to work in phases. Start in one section of the larger plot and gradually add to it. When incorporating natives, you can use seeds or plant plugs, but keep in mind that seed will be more cost effective and less labor intensive, especially in a large space.  

Choose your plants wisely 

Once you know where you will be planting, you can choose your plants. You’ll need to select plants that will thrive where they take root, so take note of how much light the area gets throughout the day as well as the soil type and moisture level.  

You can find native plants to grow in full sun and full shade and everything in between, but a sun-loving purple coneflower won’t do well in a shady spot, and conversely a shade-loving wild geranium won’t thrive under the bright sun. Similarly, plants that love dry, well-drained soil won’t grow well in soil that retains a lot of moisture and vice vera.  

Another factor to consider is bloom time. Some native plants bloom in early spring while others will bloom from late summer into fall. If you want to see color in your native garden throughout the season, you will need to be intentional with your plant selections. 

You can research native plants online through native plant nurseries or native plant databases such as the one maintained by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center. Many of these online information sources allow users to filter by several factors to make it easier to find plants suitable for your yard and your preferences. 

Prepare the site 

Getting a site ready for planting is the most important step in getting started with native plants. You want to start in a spot that is free of weeds and other vegetation, so you’ll need to remove what is already growing in your selected location. 

You can remove existing vegetation by hand pulling, smothering or applying herbicides. Hand pulling might be effective for removing a small quantity of plants, but if you are removing grass or dense vegetation, consider smothering the existing plants. Simply cover the area with cardboard, newspaper or another material that will not allow light to penetrate. Without light, growing plants will die and seeds will not sprout. It’s best to begin smothering plants about two months before you intend to plant new plants or seeds.

Get planting! 

Once the spot you’ve selected is free of vegetation, it’s time for planting — provided the timing is right. If you’re getting started with seeds, you can plant in winter or spring. Make sure to check for optimal sowing time for the species you are planting for best results. If you’re using plugs or young plants, plan to plant at the same time you would plant your vegetable garden. You’ll want to wait until after the last frost date for your area. 

When planting, make sure to follow the species-specific guidelines for how deep to plant and how far apart to space from other plants. For denser growth, plant on the closer end of the spacing spectrum. For more space between plants, spread them farther apart. If your plugs or plants don’t come with planting guidelines, look them up online before you get started. 

Step back and enjoy 

Native plants require less care and upkeep than other plants, but you’ll need to put in a little sweat equity in the first season after planting. New plantings should be watered regularly until they become well established.  

You’ll also want to weed regularly. Weed growth will occur after soil is disturbed, so you will need to pull unwanted plants from your new native garden regularly in the first growing season.  

Be patient 

Your native garden won’t be lush and abuzz with activity right away. It can take years for native plants to put down strong roots and establish themselves, so be patient. If you are starting your plants from seed, it may take up to three years for the plants to flower because they are putting most of their energy into establishing their roots. Young plants may flower in their first or second year after planting, but they may not begin to spread for a few years.  

Early on, your garden may not look as full as you would like,but give it time. During this period, make sure to weed your garden regularly to remove unwanted plants that are competing with the native blooms. Over time, weeding will not require as much time because the native plants will begin to fill the space.  

You should also mulch your garden to protect the soil and prevent weed growth. A 2-inch layer of organic mulch is best, but be careful not to use more than that because it can smother the plants. 


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