Garden Talk: Native Plants

Air Date:
Heard On The Larry Meiller Show

On this edition of Garden Talk, Judith Siers-Poisson learns how to incorporate native plants into a garden, and why it’s worth the effort.

Featured in this Show

  • Before Planting Prairie, Choose Location Wisely

    Interest in using native plants in home gardens just continues to grow. It’s no surprise, since they have a lot of qualities to recommend them, including the ability to deal with weather extremes quite well and the support that they provide for pollinators and other types of wildlife.

    Like so many undertakings, though, it makes sense to think it through first to get the best results when planting a native landscape. Neil Diboll, the president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wis., said, “It’s kind of like building a house. The foundation is essential. You can put a $10 million house up, but if the foundation is no good, the whole thing will fall down.”

    Diboll said that the equivalent in planning for the landscape is site selection and site preparation.

    “So, you want to make sure you select a site that’s going to be workable,” he said.

    While the impulse is to jump in and plant, Diboll said that shortcutting the prep stage will cause problems later.

    While native plants are often very hardy, different species do have different preferences for growing conditions. Diboll said that checking the soil type and quality is a good first step. Possibilities include sand, loam clay, gravel or peat.

    None of these soil types mean that a native landscape is not possible. It means that the gardener will need to choose the correct plants for those conditions, and may need to amend the soil to improve it.

    “You can just will plants to grow where you want them to,” Diboll said.

    Another element of soil quality is how much or little drainage is present. The types of native plants that will thrive in a consistently moist location will not be those that will do well in an area that dries out completely other than when it is raining.

    Just like with a vegetable garden or flower bed, the presence soils nutrients and the pH level of the soil are important to determine. Because a native landscape will likely be in place for many years, it is even more important to make sure the soil is as healthy and balanced as possible before planting. University of Wisconsin-Madison soil testing labs can do testing for home gardeners for a small fee.

    Light requirements vary considerably for different types of native plants. While prairie plants want and need full sun, woodland plants thrive in partial sun since they are used to being under a canopy of trees ensuring success, he said.

    Light is one aspect of the orientation of the site. For example, a southern exposure will be the hottest location, with the most sun exposure. A western exposure will be the next sunniest location, with the several hours of afternoon sun available. A northern exposure will be the coolest, and an eastern one will be “the sweet spot where you can grow just about anything,” Diboll said. Eastern exposure provides morning sun, and often dew that the early sun will warm and evaporate, but won’t scorch the leaves. That eastern exposure is the Goldilocks spot, Diboll said, because it’s “just right.”

    Another aspect of orientation, though, is wind. Diboll explained that while a southern exposure might have stronger sun, the western exposure includes hot summer winds out of the west. Those winds can dry out plants and create a hotter microclimate than a gardener might realize.

    Choosing plants according to the growing conditions will go a long way in longterm success in a native landscape. Diboll said that there are many resources available on the Prairie Nursery website.

Episode Credits

  • Judith Siers-Poisson Host
  • Judith Siers-Poisson Producer

Related Stories