Getting Started with Natives

First, pick your spot and determine the environmental conditions. Is there sun all day? If not, is there morning sun or afternoon sun? Is the area moist or dry? And what are the soil characteristics? We seem to have lots of clay in our area so that our soil requires extensive amending. Soil pH is a critical factor for native plants and you would be wise to have some soil testing done by the county ( The most important thing to keep in mind while you are planning is to match your plant selections to the microclimatic conditions.

Watering Tip: While you will need to water your new plantings, after a year or so they should be fine on their own except during severe drought. Don’t defeat the purpose of planting natives by putting them somewhere that will require life support! Trying to get shade plants to grow in a sunny dry spot will be frustrating and expensive. If in doubt, buy one plant of a given species and try it out. Move it if it is unhappy!

Second, in preparing a bed for planting, you will likely need to amend the soil. Although it certainly may seem like a good idea to prepare an entire bed all at one time, restricting your efforts to the area immediately around planting holes works well. Over time, you will find that the whole bed ends up with improved soil, but the effort is spread out. Many amendments are available for purchase, but Nature’s Helper® seems to be the most popular in our area. You may want to mix it with a clay breaker soil conditioning product. Leaves also make a great soil conditioner. They can be composted (chewing them up with a mulcher or lawn mower helps speed the process) or piled directly on beds in the fall and turned under in the spring.

Third, design planting area:

  1. There are few straight lines in nature and, when laying out your beds, a curved edge can easily be created by using a garden hose.
  2. Instead of lines of plants, envision patches with uneven numbers of individual plants (3 or 5 works well) and resist the urge to place them exactly the same distance apart. Nature is not neat.
  3. Clustering plants of the same species together, instead of scattering one here and one there, will also allow butterflies and other wildlife to find them more easily.
  4. Consider that you are designing self-sustaining, evolving plant communities  – make your design in part from observation of nature,  part use references, and part intuition and creativity.
  5. Most native plant gardeners accept that Mother Nature is happy about mixing all kinds of colors in ways that we might not find acceptable in our living rooms.
  6. You may want to consider height, blooming times, and colors in your design. NC Native Plant Society offers an online source for this information. Cross reference with names of natives adapted to our area. Try  Alicia’s Sample Design: Native Garden Design for Sun 
  7. If your beds are large, and you don’t want to tend a vast area of perennials, you will want to put in a backbone of shrubs. Shrubs, especially tall ones, can be used as a backdrop by placing them along a property line or to make a transition from woodland to a perennial bed. Shorter ones can be scattered throughout beds, with perennials growing between them. Timing: Fall is the best time to plant shrubs, but you will want to wait until spring to plant perennials.
  8. Mulching will help to keep the ground moist, as well as preventing the soil from developing a crust that will shed water.
    • If you don’t have leaves or are committed to buying mulch, make sure you choose environmentally friendly mulch products. Pine and hardwood mulches are good in our part of the country, but please do not buy cypress mulch. Cypress swamps are in serious decline and these magnificent trees are best left in the swamps where they grow.
    • The only caveat about mulch is that it may prevent your perennials from spreading by seeds since seeds need to come in contact with soil in order to germinate. Therefore, when your garden is at an early stage of development or when you want additional free plants to expand (or to give away), you might want to move the mulch away from the plants after they have gone to seed.
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