Native Plant Landscape: Using Wildflowers In The Garden

Native Plant Landscape: Using Wildflowers In The Garden

Growing wildflowers in a native plant landscape offers an easy-care solution to all your gardening needs. Nearly any spot in the garden is ideal for growing these native plants because they are already well adapted to your particular ‘neck of the woods.’ And if your space is limited, such as with urban dwellers, you can even grow wildflowers in containers.

Wildflower Gardening

Most wildflower and native gardens are planted in borders and beds, sometimes along tree or property lines. A quick scan of your property and surrounding landscape will enable you to see exactly what plants thrive in your area. These plants and others with similar attributes will be the ideal choices for your desired wildflower gardening planting scheme.

How to Use Wildflowers and Native Plants

Typically, you’ll find the most wildflower species growing within woodland environments, and these are often the more commonly planted. Woodland gardens are composed of native species that include a variety of flowering plants, grasses, shrubs, and trees.

Designing your own native plant landscape often entails carefully layered plantings, as found in their natural setting. This could include a grouping of small trees followed by shrubs and finished off with foliage plantings, such as ferns, and other wildflowers.

Many of these native plants thrive in partially shaded areas and can easily be incorporated into any shady areas of the yard that you may find challenging for growing other types of plants. In fact, placing shade-loving plants like anemone, bleeding heart, wild ginger, or hepatica beneath a large shade tree will create a lovely woodland garden for those with limited space.

Meadows or prairies are another way to enjoy the benefits of a native plant landscape, especially for those with wide, open spaces. In a native meadow garden, wildflowers bloom abundantly throughout the season. Most meadows include both native grasses and wildflowers. Some of the more commonly grown plants here include:

  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Butterfly weed
  • Blazing star
  • Joe-pye weed
  • Aster
  • Coneflower
  • Blanket flower
  • Daylily
  • Daisy

Natural prairie gardens may consist of nothing more than open grassland but if you mix it up by adding wildflowers, the result will be a pleasing blend of vivid flower colors popping out from the greens and golds of native grasses.

You can easily create either of these gardens by converting a treeless lawn into plantings of native grasses along with a variety of wildflowers, or whatever grows naturally in your area. Good choices to try may include:

  • Prairie dropseed
  • Switchgrass
  • Indian grass
  • Prairie clover
  • Goldenrod
  • Bluebells
  • Butterfly weed
  • Prairie onion
  • Prairie smoke

Growing wildflowers spread more naturally throughout the native plant landscape. They are also more trouble-free and easier to maintain than most other flower gardens. Whatever type of native garden you choose, mix in various heights, forms, colors, and textures. Choose wildflowers that bloom at different intervals as well as those with attractive foliage to ensure year-round interest.

Regardless of when, where, or what you plant, the site preparation should include manageable soil, suitable light, and a nearby water source. Once your plants have established themselves in the garden, nature will take care of the rest, allowing you time to sit back and take it all in.

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Why grow native plants?

  • Native plants are better-adapted to regional climates than most typical nursery plants.
  • Most native plants require less water than typical garden plants.
  • Once established, native plants are low maintenance because many of them are perennials.
  • Native plants are simply beautiful and unusual.
  • Regional native plants attract interesting species of native birds.

How do I know what native plants to use?

  • Establish plants from your nearest regional native seed/plant source.
  • Do not buy inexpensive cans of wildflower seeds from discount stores, catalogs, or greenhouses. These seeds may contain weedy species, filler, and plants that are not from the area where you live.
  • Collect seeds from native plant prairies near your home.
  • Visit a reputable native plant nursery close to home.
  • Ask the greenhouse owner where the native plants originated.

Could I dig plants from the wild?

  • In many states this practice is illegal.
  • Most mature plants do not survive the transplanting.
  • The conditions in the wild probably do not match the conditions in your backyard garden.
  • It is better to leave the plants where all can enjoy them.
  • Buy or collect seeds to get the best value for your landscaping.

How do I use native plants in my landscaping?

  • Native plants can be used as a small “wildflower meadow”. Buy good quality mixed wildflower and grasses seed for this type of landscaping.
  • A border or grouping of “specimen” plants can be effective in a landscaping plan.
  • Mix native plants with other types of exotic, noninvasive perennials for an attractive and low maintenance garden.
  • Mix native perennials with shrubs or trees.

What are suggestions for sun-loving native plants in my backyard?

In eastern Kansas try plants noted with the letter E.
In western Kansas try plants noted with the letter W.

  • Ashy Goldenrod - Solidago mollis EW
  • Ashy Sunflower - Helianthus mollis E
  • Big-flower Coreopsis - Coreopsis grandiflora E
  • Black-eyed Susan - Rudbeckia hirta EW
  • Blanket Flower - Gaillardia pulchella W
  • Blue Grama - Bouteloua gracilis W
  • Blue Sage - Salvia azurea E
  • Blue Wild Indigo - Baptisia australis E
  • Buffalo Grass - Buchloe dactyloides W
  • Butterflyweed - Asclepias tuberosa E
  • Canada Wild-rye - Elymus canadensis EW
  • Dakota Vervain - Verbena bipinnatifida EW
  • Eastern Gamma Grass - Tripsacum dactyloides E
  • Gray-headed Coneflower - Ratibida pinnata EW
  • Hairy Grama - Bouteloua hirsuta W
  • Indian Grass - Sorghastrum nutans EW
  • June Grass - Koeleria macrantha EW
  • Large-flower Butterfly-weed - Gaura longiflora EW
  • Little Bluestem - Schizachyrium scoparium EW
  • Louisiana Sagewort - Artemisia ludoviciana W
  • Missouri Goldenrod - Solidago missouriensis EW
  • Narrow-leaf Purple-coneflower - Echinacea angustifolia W
  • New England Aster - Aster novae-angliae E
  • Pale Purple-coneflower - Echinacea pallida E
  • Prairie Dropseed - Sporobolus heterolepis E
  • Purple Poppy Mallow - Callirhoe involucrata EW
  • Rocky Mountain Zinnia - Zinnia grandiflora W
  • Rose Vervain - Verbena canadensis E
  • Rough Gayfeather - Liatris aspera EW
  • Serrate-leaf Evening-primrose - Calylophus serrulatus W
  • Shell-leaf Beardtongue - Penstemon grandiflorus E
  • Side-oats Grama - Bouteloua curtipendula EW
  • Stiff Goldenrod - Solidago rigida EW
  • Switch Grass - Panicum virgatum EW
  • Western Wheat Grass - Agropyron smithii EW

What native woodland plants are recommended for shady areas in eastern Kansas?

  • America Columbine - Aquilegia canadensis
  • Canadian Brome - Bromus pubescens
  • Drummond's Aster - Aster drummondii
  • Elm-leaf Goldenrod - Solidago ulmifolia
  • Golden Ragwort - Packera obovata
  • River Oats - Chasmanthium latifolium
  • Solomon's Seal - Polygonum biflorum
  • Wild Bergamot - Monarda fistulosa
  • Wild Ginger - Asarum canadense
  • Wild Sweet William - Phlox divaricata

How do I get started?

  • Check your city ordinances. There may be restrictions on height of plants in your front yard.
  • Get ideas from the references listed below.
  • Start small.
  • Encourage your neighbors to join you in native plant landscaping.

How should I prepare my yard for Native Plants?

The best preparation for native plants is to duplicate, as much as possible, the natural conditions where the plant grows. However, the soils, moisture, and micro-organisms in the garden will likely not be the same as a woodland or prairie. So, adjustments may be necessary to simulate a native plant’s acceptable growing conditions.

Resource Books

  • 100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants: For American Gardens in Temperate Zones by Lorraine Johnson, Firefly Books, 1999.
  • Butterfly Gardening: Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden by Xerces Society, Smithsonian Institution, Sierra Club Books 2nd edition, 1998.
  • Gardening with Prairie Plants by S. Wasowski, The Univ. MN Press, 2002.
  • Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers by H. R. Phillips, The Univ. NC Press, 1985.
  • Growing Native Wildflowers by Dwight R. Platt and Lorna Habegger Harder, Kansas Native Plant Society, 1997. For more information or to order, visit [www.kansasnativeplantsociety.org] or contact Dyck Arboretum at (620) 327-8124.
  • Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American Woody Plants by William Cullina, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.
  • Natural Landscaping: Designing with Native Plant Communities by John Diekelmann, Robert M. Schuster, Renee Graef (Illustrator), University of Wisconsin Press 2nd edition, 2003.
  • The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada by William Cullina, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
  • A Practical Guide to Prairie Reconstruction by Carl Kurtz, The Univ. of Iowa Press, 2001.
  • The Prairie Garden by J. R. Smith with B. S. Smith, The Univ. WI Press, 1987.
  • Restoring the Tallgrass Prairie by Shirley Shirley, The Univ. of Iowa Press, 1994.
  • The Tallgrass restoration handbook for prairies, savannas, and woodlands by S. Packard and C.F. Mutel, Island Press, 1997.

Resource websites

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KNPS is funded entirely by membership dues and donations.

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"What a weekend! This really summarizes my experience at my first Annual Wildflower Weekend. I have met so many wonderful folks. Add to that everyone's great interest in native plants and the joy everyone had in learning new things, including me, and this experience could not have been better. To stand on a prairie with so many fellow grassland enthusiasts through rain, cool weather and even a distant funnel cloud on the final day, was simply amazing and I thank everyone for their kindness and making me feel welcome."

Wildflower Gardening - How to Use Wildflowers and Native Plants - garden

Now more than ever, many of us are conscious of how much our wellbeing is connected to the natural world. With less travel and limited socializing during the coronavirus pandemic, we’re all seeking more of a connection with nature. Escaping to the outdoors, we're revived by the sights, soothed by the smell of flowers and trees. We're reminded that every living thing depends on another.

After being cooped up all winter, you might be thinking about how to support more of that beauty and interconnectedness this spring where you live. From city balconies to backyard gardens, any square foot of space can be transformed into an oasis for wildflowers and the species that depend on them. For an example of just how important these plants can be, consider the Northern Great Plains, an expanse of about 180 million acres covering five U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.

It's a deceptively complex region: Vast prairies that look quiet and almost monochromatic from afar support nearly 1,600 species of plants, which in turn provide a habitat for birds, mammals, and insects. In the spring, wildflowers provide a burst of color, attracting pollinators such as bees and butterflies, which are responsible for one in every three bites of food we eat. And while we might only notice them during bloom time, those flowers are helpful year-round, providing far more than their lovely fragrances and vibrant colors.

"Wildflowers provide a lot of benefits, even when there's not a flower present," says Clay Bolt, a natural history photographer and communications lead for the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Northern Great Plains program. Their root systems, along with those of other grassland plants, extend deep into the soil, storing water and nutrients while holding on to carbon that would otherwise be released into the air. He likens grasslands to an inverted forest, where much of the growth is underground and invisible.

Historically, humans have used a wide variety of flowering prairie plants for food, treating wounds, and healing other ailments. One of Bolt's favorite wildflowers, the purple coneflower, is a type of echinacea, a genus long used as medicine by Native Americans that has become a common cold remedy.

Yet too much of the Northern Great Plains grasslands are being lost—about 550,000 acres in 2018 alone, according to WWF estimates. Bolt and his team at WWF, in partnership with Air Wick ® Scented Oils, are working to conserve and restore this crucial habitat with a goal of reseeding 1 billion square feet of degraded wildflower and grassland habitat over the next three years.

"It's not an overnight process," Bolt says of the restoration effort, but he adds, "As wildflowers begin to bloom and as grasses are returned, that makes way for naturally occurring species to return as well." Among the species that could make a comeback, Bolt says, are American bumblebees, monarch butterflies, lark buntings, and pronghorns.

Bolt is working with ecologists to determine the right mix of species to replant, prioritizing diversity. Seemingly small differences among different plants can be significant: Some birds, for example, need shorter grass species to thrive others rely on taller ones. "The greater diversity of plants that you have, the more successful the individuals," he says. "All of these plants network together through fungi in the soil. It creates a network where these plants share resources."

Gregg Treinish, a National Geographic Explorer who organizes citizen science expeditions through his nonprofit group Adventure Scientists, works to protect wildflower habitats by documenting them. Wildflowers both support, and are supported by, insects that are important to the larger environment, he notes: “You've got this entire base of the food chain reliant on these intact and healthy remote ecosystems. They're also indicators for the health of these ecosystems.”

Treinish says volunteers are often struck by just how much biodiversity they can discover after being trained to spot it. In 2017, volunteers with the group identified 126 wildflower species and 70 types of butterflies in subalpine meadows across five western U.S. states.

"Those numbers really surprised me," Treinish says. "I look over a meadow and I see grass, and I see some flowers. But you've really got to stop and look to see the incredible diversity that's there." Studying what species are present in these habitats, he adds, lends a better understanding of how wildflower diversity shifts over time, which has long-lasting implications for birds and other animals that rely on butterflies as food sources.

You don't need to travel to the Great Plains or remote areas of the West to see how native wildflowers change a landscape for the better. Without much effort, you can make a difference at home: In a backyard or community garden, simple plots can quickly become thriving ecosystems.

"You'd be surprised—even in a big city—how much wildlife you can get, because these places become like an oasis," Bolt says.

Here are some tips for bringing the wonder of wildflowers closer to home:

Plant flowers native to your area. Installing native plants not only supports pollinators and other species in your region—they're easier to grow, too, because they're already adapted to your climate and don't require loads of fertilizer or pesticide. Local garden centers, university extension programs, and nonprofit organizations can be great resources for finding the best plants for where you live. The U.S. Forest Service cautions against picking or digging up wildflowers on public land, however, which does more harm than good.

Aim for a diverse mix of flowers. One of the mistakes people often make when they plant flowers for wildlife, Bolt says, is they buy plants that bloom all at once: "In a healthy environment, you have plants that grow throughout the season." By thinking over the course of a year, you’ll be rewarded with a burst of colors and scents that unfold over the course of several months. In addition to planting a range of flowers that flourish at different times, think about complementary species too. Flowers and other plants can help control pests in a vegetable garden, Treinish notes: "If you think about it as an ecosystem and try to mimic what we see in natural ecosystems, that really works best."

Be active in your community. You don't need your own big plot of land. All you need is a pot, a window box, or another small space to plant wildflowers. But no matter how much space you have, also consider seeking out a community garden or local nature reserve where you can volunteer and help support the planting of native species. Bolt also recommends paying attention to policies that affect natural ecosystems, such as the U.S. Farm Bill, which funds grasslands conservation programs.

Pay attention to the environment. For Treinish, tending to the garden is not just a utilitarian pursuit. "It's my meditation," he says. No matter where you decide to plant, make it a habit to visit regularly and watch what's happening. Which plants are thriving? Which ones are having trouble? What insects and birds do you notice? What do the flowers smell like? "It sounds crazy, but I know every single individual plant in my garden by spring," Treinish says.

Learn to grow Florida’s native wildflowers

Watch these videos and you’ll know how the Sunshine State got its name, when to plant wildflowers from seed, how to prepare a site for planting and much more.

Native Florida Wildflowers (Part 1)

All about Florida wildflowers and how to establish a bed (Part 1).

Native Florida Wildflowers (Part 2)

All about Florida wildflowers and how to establish a bed (Part 2).

Protecting Florida Wildflowers

Wildflowers in Florida’s natural areas.

Landscaping with Wildflowers

Great native plants for your landscape.

Wildflower Meadow - A Pasture Perfect Meadow Garden

This was Larry Weaner’s dream job, the one he’d been preparing for all his life. The owner of a large country place near Allentown, Pennsylvania, wanted a landscape that would be beautiful, easy to maintain, and wildlife-friendly, and he was giving Weaner free rein. The designer would draw on his decades of experience creating natural gardens and his lifelong affinity for nature—a love that went back to his boyhood in urban Philadelphia, 60 miles away. There, the closest wilderness was a little neighborhood patch of scruffy woods, which he explored microscopically until he knew every rock and tree. The site was long-neglected, resting in a valley of former farms, patterned with corn and hay fields, hedgerows of Norway spruce, and volunteer trees. The owner wanted to bring out its bucolic history and rustic character and play up its natural attributes, preserving big trees and luring back indigenous wildlife and birds that once thrived there.

The mowed edge of a meadow runs up to a split-rail fence and hillside of purple coneflowers, rangy yellow cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), and other native wildflowers and grasses. (Photo by: Rob Cardillo) SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THIS GARDEN

The landscape Weaner designed showcases his expertise with native (and extremely local) plants as well as his holistic design philosophy. Weaner says his key tenets are:

  • A garden should not be just about beauty but also about experiencing nature.
  • You don’t have to compromise aesthetics when you use natives.
  • Bring together plants that know how to get along in nature, and they will intermingle gracefully in a garden.

Weaner estimates 80 percent of the plants he used here are native to the Allentown area, and the other 20 percent are native to the East and Northeast. The natives, chosen carefully, not only cut down on maintenance but add an aesthetic and emotional element. “They’re real plants, not just showpieces,” he says. “And real plants have autonomy.” They stand up to the onslaughts of invasive weeds.

Weaner’s plan divides the property into three main sections. Outlying areas were left in their original condition, mainly as farm fields. Closer to the house, seasonally changing sustainable meadows replaced rundown pastures. Directly around the house and the comfortable outdoor living spaces, colorful low-care, native perennials, shrubs, and trees surround and immerse the residents in nature at close range.

Like a path trod through wildflower fields, a walkway of Pennsylvania bluestone leads to the back door. Tall Phlox paniculata are at left, black-eyed Susans are at right. (Photo by: Rob Cardillo) SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THIS GARDEN

Converting the pastures to beautiful sustainable meadows took several years. The first major steps were to mow the pasture short and kill unwanted grasses. Weaner started entirely with seeds—no growing plants—sowing with a machine that creates furrows and deposits seeds in shallow trenches, avoiding the tilling and composting that encourage weed growth. His seed mix included native grasses such as Indian grass and wildflowers such as bee balm, Joe Pye weed, New York ironweed, and Penstemon digitalis. He chose different species for the site’s different habitats. Little bluestem grass sprouted in dry areas and blazing star claimed the wetter ground. The result is year-round, ever-changing beauty: muted browns and reds in winter, vibrant greens in spring, kaleidoscopes of wildflowers in the summer, and autumn colors from the grasses.

Once established, the meadows are relatively easy to maintain, even at a not-insubstantial 30 acres. To keep woods from encroaching, the meadows are mowed once at the end of each winter and occasionally burned off. Weed control takes about a day each year. Weaner warns that invasive weeds are relentless they may be relatively easy to pull out or hoe in a small back yard, but in an acre-plus meadow, the plants must have the moxie to fight off weeds by themselves.

The pool is shaped with several jogs to accommodate a shallow play area, a lap lane, and a hot tub. Weaner wanted to create a sense of traveling a path while swimming, ending with a clear view from the hot tub into a meadow. There’s a diving rock at left. (Photo by: Rob Cardillo) SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THIS GARDEN

Closer to the house, the landscape appears more arranged. Midsummer sweeps of purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, and many other perennials (as well as native shrubs and trees) casually complement the wild style of the surrounding meadows. Behind the house, a terrace, paths, a pool, and other hardscape give close-up looks at the plantings and views of the meadows. The terrace nudges right into the surrounding wildflowers. It is made of local bluestone running through it is a pathway vein of nonlocal stone, selected for its lighter color that’s not as hot on bare feet walking from the pool.

A wildflower meadow stretches all the way to the doors of the house. (Photo by: Rob Cardillo) SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THIS GARDEN

With some of the landscape a decade or more old, it is now easy to see nature’s handiwork embellishing Weaner’s design and plantings and welcoming back great blue herons and other long-lost wild creatures. Weaner takes special delight in one section of the garden: There, the purpletop, pagoda dogwood, and fragrant sumac—species that have crept out of the meadows—intermingle so naturally and robustly that they look like they must have been part of the original, inspired design.

Love Pennsylvania gardens? Check out Garden Design's self-guided day trip to 3 must-see Philadelphia-area gardens.

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