If you are looking to protect the environment, support wildlife and pollinators, and require less inputs for your landscape, consider planting native plant species. Native plant species have different meanings for some people. Usually native plants are considered to be present prior to European settlement of North America. Typically these plants occur within a 100-mile radius of your area.
Before the design process begins, start by identifying landscape goals. Often native plants are chosen to reduce fertilizer and pesticide use, remediate flooding and/or drought issues and provide habitat for native wildlife. Another goal may be to replace exotic plants that are struggling in your landscape. There are many alternative native plant choices that will work better with your site conditions.
Maintenance for native plants is often lessened. They typically do not need soil amendments unless, for example, the species grown specifically requires high organic matter. Fertilizers are usually unnecessary because plants are adapted to Illinois soil fertility. Additionally many of them have extensive root systems that allow them to survive during drought (once established) while others will tolerate wet feet and could survive temporary flooding. Keep in mind that just because plants are native doesn’t mean they will be free of pest damage. However, many times insect or disease problems are minor and do not necessarily require treatment. If plants ever become unsightly, many can easily be cut to the ground for rejuvenation. Examination of existing site conditions will assist in narrowing down proper plant choices.
Selecting native plants begins with and inventory and analysis of the site followed by the design process. Determine soil conditions, sun exposure, and aesthetics and curb appeal. A tall-grass prairie may not be the best choice for the front of your home, so low-growing species may be the best option. The backyard may be more appropriate for taller prairie plants or even a woodland garden. A simple concept is to create a layering effect with plant material by including native trees, shrubs, vines, groundcovers and perennials. Woody plants alongside herbaceous perennials will add dimension to your landscape and create multi-season interest with their interesting branch structure, evergreen leaves, and persistent berries. On the other hand perennials offer longer lasting blooms.
Make sure to research native plant lists. Some plants will easily spread and become naturalized, while others will remain in place. This means you may have to dig up seedlings, deadhead or remove mature seed pods before they spread seed. Some seed heads can be left standing to feed wildlife and other ones that are cut back can be shared with friends. Keeping plants in their intended place will maintain the integrity of your design. In general, it is best to leave perennial stems standing over winter because they are nesting sites for native insects.
To get you started a list of native plant species that are well-behaved has been compiled below. For trees consider, white oak, bald cypress, redbud, downy serviceberry or smooth sumac. For shrubs, contemplate red chokeberry, New Jersey tea and common witch hazel. Some top picks for perennials include prairie dropseed, wild geranium, blue flag iris, prairie blazing star, false sunflower, butterfly weed and purple prairie clover.
For a more extensive plant list, please visit go.illinois.edu/conservationathome.
Nancy Kreith is a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.