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Using Native Plants in Your Garden

A garden with good Feng Shui needs to have harmony, balance, energy, and peacefulness. Using native plants, either alone or in combination with cultivars, can add those elements to your landscape. Good feng shui should awake all your senses. Also, native plants have evolved to live in harmony with each other and the environment. Their roots are long and deep to handle the vicissitudes of the changing climate.

Recent surveys show that gardening in the United States has soared to the forefront as a major hobby. Garden Centers are happily offering many exotic and non-native plants for us to purchase and grow in our gardens. With all those lovely non-native plants available, why should we even consider growing native plants and what is meant by “native plants”? As a definition, native plants are generally described as plants already growing in Minnesota in the 1850s before European settlement and before major changes to the habitats, such as plowing up the prairies and cutting down the forests to create farming sites, plus introducing plants from the settlers’ home country.

Native plants are the work horses in the garden. Once established they require less maintenance than the lawn with its Kentucky blue grass. Because native plants evolved and adapted to the local climate, geology, and underground water system, they are more drought tolerant and resistant to native insects and diseases. As a result, natives don’t need as much water, fertilizer, and pesticides compared to non-native plant species.

There are 3 major habitats that native plants fit into: woodland, prairie, and wetland. If you have those site conditions, the native flora will be right at home. Even if you don’t have those habitats, you can still grow native plants if you provide similar growing conditions. For instance the north side of your house or under trees can provide enough shade for you to grow woodland species. Some woodland species can tolerate morning sun (cooler sun) with afternoon shade. In that case the east side of the house would work. Prairie species need full sun, but they will also work if they have afternoon sun (hot sun) and morning shade. The west side of the house would provide that. If you like wetland species, but don’t have a wetland, you can create a rain garden with a deep swale for the plants to take advantage of the standing water after heavy rain falls. If your garden has squishy soil that doesn't drain well, especially after heavy rain storms, you can grow natives that tolerate moist to wet soil conditions. Some examples are: cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae), boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Joe-Pye-Weed (Eupatorium maculatum), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya). Always remember the adage of “right plant, right place”. For example if you put a woodland plant in an area that receives shade in the morning, but gets hot sun in the afternoon, the plant will not do well. It will become sunburnt and also weaken to succumb to insect pests such as whiteflies, mealy bugs, or aphids. Likewise, putting a sun-loving prairie plant in full shade will not allow the plant to grow well. It will weaken and die.

Native plants can play multiple roles in the garden. Because gardening with natives is lower maintenance (note that it’s not “no maintenance”), you can save time and money without having to expend extra time watering, fertilizing, and applying pesticides to the plantings. Instead, you can sit back and enjoy the various pretty flowers that bloom throughout the growing season. Not only that you will be attracting butterflies and birds to your garden. It has been shown by scientists such as Douglas W. Tallamy (entomologist and author of Bringing Nature Home – How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants) that native plants serve as food plants for insect larvae and provide nectar and pollen for butterflies, moths, bees, and other insects.

Compare that to exotic plants and cultivars that have less to no nectar and pollen to offer. Creating rain gardens with native plants to capture stormwater runoffs from roofs and driveways help to protect our lakes and rivers. By directing the stormwater to infiltrate into the garden we can prevent pollutants from washing into the watershed and to help replenish the underground aquifers.

To learn more about native plants for your garden, be sure to join the field trip outing to Natural Shore Technologies, Inc. (www.naturalshore.com) in Maple Plain on Sunday, July 13 from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. for a lecture on “Top 30 Native Plants for Your Garden” and a visit to the greenhouse to see the plants. There will be free time to purchase plants (cash or checks only) if you wish.


Shirley Mah Kooyman is a botanist with a specialty in plant taxonomy (plant names and identification), award-winning teacher, plant information specialist, and Vice-President of the MN Native Plant Society.

In February 2009 she received the Bruce Beresford Horticulture Educators Award from the MN State Horticultural Society. She worked at the Arboretum for 25 years and was the Adult Education Manager there for 2 decades. Currently she works as a Native Plant Specialist at Natural Shore Technologies, Inc. in Maple Plain.

She has lectured on numerous botanical and horticultural topics for the University of Minnesota’s Complete Scholar program, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Master Gardener programs, Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, local community education program, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, and the MN State Horticultural Society. She has traveled widely around the world to study the area’s local flora and garden designs.

Website for Natural Shore Technologies, Inc: www.naturalshore.com