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Garden Stars of the Year: How to Win with Native Plants

Shumard Oak
Fall color on a shumard oak (Quercus shumardii).

By Lisa Brunette

It's been an intense year of mulching and planting. We covered the bulk of the 1/4-acre in sheet mulch in 2019. But we also had opportunity to put in seeds, seedlings, and young plants in some of the areas that had been sheet-mulched in 2018 and were ready to work. While it was too early in the lawn-conversion process for us to sow any annual vegetables or herbs this year, we did put in three perennials: asparagus, horseradish, and rhubarb. I'm sad to report that while the asparagus patch and horseradish plot are alive and well, the rhubarb didn't make it. Ah, well. The real stars of the garden this year are the Midwestern natives.

Milkweed Seed Pod 2019
Milkweed vine seed pod.

Our twofold mission is to plant both natives and 'human use' flora, and the native plants have not disappointed. While the rhubarb gasped and expired, and the blueberries* have continued to struggle, the natives have taken hold and flourished, pretty much without exception. As an added bonus, we've been able to obtain many of them for free - either as volunteers or gifted starts and seeds.

Milkweed on Rose 2019
Milkweed vine seed filament on rose. 

Welcome Your Volunteers

The volunteers came of their own accord. Like the milkweed vine seed in the photo above, they were brought in on the wind or carried by birds or animals. Sometimes that means they were actually, um, pooped out, but that's part of the life cycle process; in fact, some seeds are designed to be distributed this way and won't germinate unless they are subjected to scarification or acidification first, to mimic transport through a bird's digestive tract or the frost and thaw cycles a seed survives through during the winter before germinating in the spring.

Sycamore 2019
A volunteer sycamore (Platanus occidentalis).

Receive Your Gifts

The gifted native plants were surprisingly easy to find. The first batch came from a seed exchange hosted at a local brewery. We also joined and attended several Wild Ones garden tours, plus a seed exchange, a fantastic source for seedlings and seeds. Just starting out with a blank canvas at first, we could not bring anything to offer in exchange, but there are always so many seeds and seedlings on hand, and none of the Wild Ones members minded. Besides, our turn to donate came sooner than expected...

Swamp milkweed (Asclepius incarnata) blooms, popular with bumblebees.

We picked up the above swamp milkweed in early summer as a tiny seedling gifted at a Wild Ones event, and over the course of the year, it exploded into a sizable bush that attracted pollinators in droves. Another tiny Wild Ones seedling, anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), took immediately to a site with poor, rocky soil, bloomed its head off, and likewise drove the bees mad with love.

Hyssop 2019

Encourage Self-Sowing

The next step with these now-established natives is to let them self-sow. I'm hopeful this happens with minimal intervention, though I have helped things along by spreading seeds around, like with this old field goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), another freebie. All three plants picked up as free seedlings at Wild Ones garden tours exploded with growth, so I was able to collect their seeds and offer them back to the community at the fall seed exchange.

Field Goldenrod Seeds 2019

Take in the Fall and Winter Beauty

While a garden in summer delights with its color and scent, sights like the seed heads above in winter bear a quiet, elegant beauty. My brother and I often hike during these "off seasons" for just this reason; besides, forest vistas are more impressive with the leaves off the trees, and we often have the trails to ourselves. It's also a good idea to leave your garden in as natural a state as possible through the winter, saving the cleanup for spring. That way you provide food for fauna through the cold, lean months, and beneficial insects have shelter.

By the way, if I haven't convinced you yet on the virtues of milkweed vine (aka, honeyvine), let me tell you that a cheer went up, loud enough to attract our neighbors' attention, when we discovered a monarch caterpillar in the leaves of one this fall. 

Monarch caterpillar 2019

Planting in fall and winter is best for native plants, as it more closely mimics their behavior in natural ecosystems. You can plant seeds anytime from November to February for most native Midwestern plants. I picked up 12 packets of seeds at an exchange in late November, and due to the rush of work and holiday activities, I didn't have a chance to put them in until this week (between Christmas and New Year's). But with 2-3 months of freezes and thaws ahead, that should stoke them pretty well.

Last year I didn't know enough about how native seeds work, and I waited until spring to sow them. Only two came up: hibiscus (Hibiscus lasiocarpos) and common milkweed (Asclepius syriaca). Neither of them bloomed this year. I've heard that seeds can sometimes take more than a year to germinate and am hopeful this spring brings better results.

Score Big at Native Plant Sales

While growing from seed is highly rewarding, for trees and shrubs, it's nice to have an established plant to give you a head start. I took advantage of numerous fall native plant sales sponsored by Forest ReLeaf, the World Bird Sanctuary, my local garden center, and for fruit and nuts, the Missouri-based Stark Bros. Non-profits are awesome sources, as it is often their mission to educate and encourage the public about native plants, and local garden centers and suppliers can help guide you with the best natives for your zone and topography.

Elderberry 2019
An elderberry bush from Stark Bros.

One of the tactics I've employed to good effect is to pay attention to how flora behaves in natural ecosystems and try to mimic them. On my hikes in Missouri and Southern Illinois, I make note of where natives are doing well and why. For example, I know from hiking around the Meramec River that elderberries grow in the moist, forested areas where pawpaws thrive. At Dragon Flower Farm, we've created a shady woodland like their natural habitat in a wet area where drainage is a problem between our house and the neighboring building, set only a few feet apart. A crop of native sensitive fern do well there, so we've added pawpaws, elderberry, and a companion, indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa).

Indigo bush 2019
Indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa) is not only lovely but a nitrogen-fixer that's great for the nearby fruit bushes and trees.

Record Your Plantings

In order to gauge your progress and keep track of what's going on, you might want to make notes. I like to keep a journal where I staple or tape in the pot tags from everything I plant. Staples or tape allow me to read both sides of the tag, where good info like companion plants and growth size are often listed.

Plant journal sp2019

A plant journal might be too old-school for you. You could also try taking a photo of the plant in its place with the tag posed so you don't forget what's planted where, as below.

Plant Tag Photo 2019

In 2019, we planted:

  • 23 packets of native seeds for grasses and flowers, 
  • 24 native seedling starts for grasses and flowers,
  • 8 native shrubs, and
  • 6 native trees

Thanks for your interest in our Dragon Flower Farm project, and we hope this post is useful for anyone getting started on the native plant journey. Please tell us about your own experiences in the comments below.

*While blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) are native in origin, most planted in gardens are cultivated varieties that differ from their wild ancestors.