How to Get Started With Native Plants

A bee visits a bluebonnet at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas, where bluebonnets are native to the area. jmtimages/Flickr

Native plants often get a bad rap when it comes to the home landscape.

For many homeowners, the perception of native plants is that they are rangy and weedy. That meadow of wildflowers waving in the wind is a beautiful sight, but the individual plants aren't pretty.

Besides, as the thinking goes, who wants the naturalized look of a meadow in a stylized subdivision of manicured lawns and tightly clipped shrubs?

That's just the type of thinking that Andrea DeLong-Amaya, director of horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, is trying to change.

"Native plants will work in any situation," she says. "You can even use them to make a formal garden."

The key, she said, is not the plants themselves. "It's how you design and maintain the space."

Yaupon Holly, Ilex Vomitoria
Yaupon holly is native to the Southeast, and though it might not seem possible at first, it can be sculpted into a more formal planting or left to its own devices. Gabriela Beres/Shutterstock

Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitora), pictured above, is a perfect example of the kind of plant that will work just fine in a formal setting, she said. It is native to the Southeast and ranges as far west as central Texas and Oklahoma. The trees usually grow 15-25 feet tall in nature, but they can be clipped and maintained as a hedge, says DeLong-Amaya.

She says the perception that native plants create an unkempt appearance is changing, but admits it's still hard to convince people that native plants don't have to be messy. Here's a guide for how you can go native and create an attractive, low-maintenance and budget-conscious landscape.

What is a native plant — and what isn't?

purple loosestrife
Purple loosestrife may look lovely, but it isn't native to the U.S. It's now considered one of the most prevalent invasive species in the U.S., covering about 400,000 acres of federal land, including wetlands, marshes, pastures and riparian meadows, according to the National Wildlife Refuge Association. natalia deryabina/Shutterstock

First, it's important to define what the term "native plant" means. "Native plants are ones that evolved in a particular area without human intervention," says DeLong-Amaya. "That area could be a county, an ecological region, a state or a region of the United States. The more narrowly you define that area, the better a plant will do in your garden."

Importantly, she points out that some plants that grow in the wild may not be native to that region and may not even be native to the United States. That's because they are native to another region or country and by whatever means have been introduced to and naturalized in the new area. One example is kudzu, which is native to Asia but has become known in the U.S. as the "Plant That Ate the South." Other examples from Asia are purple loosestrife (pictured above) — which is a big problem in wet areas — Hall's honeysuckle, nandina and privet.

A plant native to another country is not considered a native plant in an American garden. Another example is Fatsia (Fatsia japonica). This shrub is native to Japan and Taiwan but is popular among gardeners in the Southeast because of its tropical appearance and cold tolerance.

How do I get started growing natives?

Education, education, education, says DeLong-Amaya. "Learn as much as you possibly can."

She is quick to add, though, that education about native plants is a life-long process and no one can ever learn everything. Education also includes trial and error, she adds. She encourages people to begin the learning process about native plants by:

  • Joining a local native plant society.
  • Attending the society's plant swaps or sales.
  • Visiting local garden centers and asking questions.
  • Attending classes or lectures at a nearby botanical garden and studying their collections.
  • Visiting natural areas and making notes about the plants you see, the growing conditions (amount of sun, whether the plant is growing on a slope where the roots would get good drainage or is it in a low area where the roots stay wet) and the growth habits of plants you like (do they send out long roots that sprout suckers 20 feet from the mother plant?).

Doing all or some of these things will help a gardener understand not only what a plant looks like but how it will behave in her garden.

Choosing plants for your garden

sugar maple, Acer saccharum, in Ohio
A sugar maple shows off its fall colors in Ohio. James St. John [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website offers information about more than 7,000 plants native to North America. The site will aid gardeners in their education about native plants and help them make final plant selections. One of the most popular functions of the site, said DeLong-Amaya, is the ability to search for plants by states.

To search your state, go to the "Recommended Species Lists" section and click on "View Recommended Species page." Click on your state in the map on the right side of the page. From here you have two options:

  1. Browse through all of the species that will be shown for the state you searched, or
  2. Use the "Combination Search" to look for a type of plant (shrub, tree, fern, vine, etc.) that meets your sun and soil conditions and those that match your interests in bloom time and color as well as your preference for annuals or perennials.

Other information that is available in the databases includes lists of native plant suppliers and organizations and such detailed information about each plant as its beneficial uses for wildlife.

Growing native plants

lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina
Native plants also offer an often overlooked characteristic in the garden — texture. These lady ferns have plenty, and when the are planted in the right place, they will reward you with solid performance. Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

Native plants are hardier and require less maintenance and costs that many non-natives. For example, natives have adapted to a region's soil and its periods of drought or sustained rain, temperature spikes or plunges and have developed a natural resistance to native pests and diseases. As a result, after siting a plant properly according to its sunlight and other cultural needs, gardeners do not have to drastically amend their soil to accommodate natives and they can water them less and spray for pesticides less often than would be required for many non-natives.

"But, there is a misunderstanding that native plants don't need maintenance because they are tough," said DeLong-Amaya. They still need to be pruned and deadheaded to avoid a rangy look, and garden beds still need to be weeded, she said. And, she added, they will still need to be watered during periods of extreme drought.

For the needs of individual plants, it's best to consult local sources or the native plant database mentioned earlier on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's website.

Benefits of a native plant garden

Native plant gardens create habitats for wildlife beyond attracting a variety of migrating and year-round resident bird species. They also become havens for reptiles such as lizards and turtles and important sources of flowers that will be pollinated by flies, bees, beetles and other creatures.

In doing all of these things, the plants also create a special benefit to the gardener: they connect people to the land and promote regional identity and pride. "A garden in Michigan can look like Michigan and a garden in Texas can look like Texas, said DeLong-Amaya.

And who in Texas would give a garden of bluebonnets a bad rap?