Getting Started on Your Native Plant Journey
2. Assessing Conditions
One of the beautiful aspects of utilizing native plants, is that if you site them correctly, you should not need to do much of anything (no fertilizing!) except for the occasional pruning.
Because of this, the onus is on you to do some advance planning and carefully choose which plants are best suited for which area. Certain plants are very limited in their scope of where they will flourish, and others are more forgiving. However, even the more forgiving plants will not thrive as well as they would otherwise have done if planted in optimal conditions. By this I mean that you may not get as many blooms, in the case of flowering plants, or you might not get as much fall color in the leaves, or you might not have as much height or growth.
To assess your garden, you will want to consider your zone, your hours of sun, your soil type and your soil moisture. In addition, you certain established trees or plants may positively or negatively influence how well your newcomer plants will do. For example, The black walnut tree produces a compound called juglone that can certain plants are sensitive to. Another consideration is cedar-apple rust fungus, which can flourish when, you guessed it, cedar and apples are planted too close together. Other plants will help each other and benefit from being planted in close proximity to one another.
1. Designing the Garden
Getting started can be the hardest part, so you may want to keep things simple and start small. That is the beauty of this process is that it is an evolution that will enhance your understanding of the natural world, and bring new life to your garden.
To fully reap the benefits of your new native garden, you will likely be doing both some problem solving and wanting to place your plants in an area where they can easily be observed and enjoyed.
To get started, do an informal survey of your garden and see if you have any problems to solve. Do you have ugly areas that need softening? Do you need a focal point when sitting outside? Would you simply like to reduce your lawn footprint?
Take photographs of the areas in question, and then put pen to paper and mark out your house and garden and some spots that you might want to start with.
You may be tempted to draw a box, but consider doing an irregular, kidney bean shaped planting bed if breaking up a lawn. For a larger area, you could keep things looking tidy with a small picket fence around a geometric shape, or utilizing some small boulders or pottery for accents.
3. Plant Selection
Your new native ecosystem may include just flowering plants, but consider also incorporating grasses, groundcover, shrubs, small trees and at least one canopy tree, space permitting.
Your choices will have varying benefits for the ecosystem, so it will be worthwhile to familarize yourself with the concept of a "keystone" species, such as the oak tree (benefiting nearly 500 other native organisms), as extensively documented by popular author and entomologist Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware.
Including keystone species in your garden will greatly enhance the ecosystem and give you a rich, balanced environment to enjoy. Tallamy points out that one clutch of baby birds requires 6-9,000 insects to reach adulthood. That is a lot of work for the parents if there are no native plants nearby from which to obtain caterpillars and butterflies.
To get started, head over to the Native Plant List, for ideas. This is a work in progress, and overtime you will find additional plants. First choose your region, then type of plant or garden, then filter your results by light and soil.
Learn your Eco-Region
Study this mid-Atlantic map to find your eco-region. If you are on the border it is probably safe to pick either region for the purposes of this guide. This will help you determine which plants will do best in your area, whether mountains, foothills or coastal.