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Landscaping With Native Plants: Creating A Sense Of Place

by David Salman, High Country Gardens Founder and Chief Horticulturist

While native plants have always had a small but devoted following, both the general gardening public and mainstream horticulture have overlooked our native flora for years. Why is this so? Perhaps because familiarity breeds contempt, and people equate the plants they see growing naturally in the fields and roadsides with "weeds". Perhaps it stems from our infatuation with the English garden—borrowing heavily from English plant lists has resulted in their overshadowing our own native species.

Liatris aspera, Customer Photo: D. Rizzio is a great example of landscaping with native plantsLiatris aspera, or Blazing Star, is native to a wide area in the mid-section of the US. Customer Photo: D.Rizzio

Whatever the reason for their omission, the past decade has seen an explosion of interest in native plants. As growers respond to this renewed interest by improving growing techniques and offering a larger variety of natives from all parts of the United States, these once-forgotten beauties are beginning to find their rightful home in our gardens and landscapes. Their use will create a more sustainable landscape that requires less maintenance and uses fewer chemicals and fertilizers.

We should start by examining the term "native" more closely. For many purists, "native" is defined as any plant found growing naturally within an arbitrary distance of their home. Others would consider "native" plants to be any plant found growing naturally within their state. But narrow definitions are limiting. Because plants don't read maps, decisions as to "native" or "non-native" based on these criteria can be artificial. I like to define "native" as any plant growing in North America.

Incorporating Native Plants in the Garden

Now that we have gotten the "is it native?" decision out of the way, we can move on to more important information. I find that using natives in the garden works best by grouping plants according to the regions in which they are found and then into subgroups according to their specific habitat within that region. For example, a certain group of plants could be referred to as Short Grass prairie natives. Within the Short Grass Prairie, there are numerous plant habitats such as riparian (streamside), limestone hills and outcroppings, sandhills, and many others. Data as to the place of origin (state, county, and altitude) gives the collector of native plants addition important information. By using this broad definition as to what is native, geographic and habitat information can then be used to decide how to group native plants with compatible companions in the garden.

Incorporating Native Plants for a Sense of Place

How we incorporate native plants into our home or commercial landscapes is open for interpretation. There are three predominant methods of landscaping with natives: "natural landscaping", "gardening with natives" and "habitat restoration" (which won't be discussed here).

One increasing popular style is termed "natural landscaping." This style is championed in the Southwest by authors Judith Philips (Natural by Design), and the husband and wife team of Sally and Andy Wasowski (Native Gardens for Dry Climates). In the Mid West, Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin has long championed restoring tallgrass prairie in commercial and residential settings.

Each region of the country has a certain look and feel to its native terrain. A natural landscape artfully incorporates the native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers of the area in such a way that it enhances the beauty of the building or home while blending in with its natural surroundings. When you stand in that yard and look around, you should be able to identify the region in which you are standing based on the plants that have been used. This is what is often meant by "sense of place."

On the other hand, the typical generic landscape of bluegrass and clipped Yew hedges fails to convey a regional feel and seems more like a national franchise than something with regional flavor. 

Because gardening with native plants means different things to different people, it is helpful to specify your aims. For native plant enthusiasts, this could mean re-creating a native-only grouping of species from their immediate area. Re-creating regional groups of native plants from different areas of the country is also popular. For example, in my rock gardens, I've planted small separate sections with groups of plants from Utah, Nevada, Eastern California, and northern Arizona.

Gardeners with shady properties often love to garden with woodland native species. Serious plant collectors will collect all the species within a given genus, or use plants of the same species collected from different locations as a way to study a given genus or species in more detail.

Other styles of gardening, like xeriscaping, use native plants as part of the larger objective, which is to achieve a regionally appropriate, low maintenance, low water use design. In xeriscaping, natives can be used exclusively or in combination with other "adaptive plants" (plants from other parts of the world that grow equally well in their new home.)

Muhlenbergia Pink Flamingo close-up of flower.Muhlenbergia Pink Flamingo is a naturally occurring cross between Gulf Coast Muhly and Deer Grass. Muhlenbergia Pink Flamingo and Blonde Ambition Blue Gamma Grass really highlight each other in the garden.


Conservation Through Propagation

However you decide to incorporate natives into your garden or landscape, their use has numerous benefits. Many native plants are incredibly beautiful and interesting to grow. Using them in our gardens helps us appreciate and understand our natural plant heritage.

Native plants are adapted to difficult growing conditions and are naturally predisposed to survive in their native habitats or similar environments. When well matched to their growing environment, their use will create a more sustainable landscape that requires less maintenance and uses fewer chemicals and fertilizers. Native plants also provide local birds, insects, and other animals appropriate food and shelter. Gardening with native plants can also help sustain the populations of rare or threatened plants that may be disappearing in their habitat due to human activities. This concept is known as "conservation through propagation."

For example, the spectacular Texas native, Salvia penstemonoides was thought to be extinct, but the plant was recently re-discovered and introduced back into cultivation by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. It is now becoming more widespread as gardeners have anxiously welcomed this beauty into their gardens.


Specializing in Natives

From the vast numbers of native species that can be found coast to coast, we need to distill out the most ornamental and adaptable species for use in our gardens and landscapes.

This has been a focus of High Country Gardens since its inception. This search has been facilitated by our location in Santa Fe, located as it is at the intersection of three different regions: the short grass prairie of the Great Plains, the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, and just to the north of the vast Chihuahuan desert of Mexico, west Texas and southern New Mexico.

Being located in a USDA zone 5/6 area, the attribute of cold hardiness has been at the top of our list of criteria when looking for outstanding plants from all three of these regions. We are also finding many excellent species from high altitude areas of northern Mexico, the Sierras of eastern California and the Great Basin area of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. Natives from the Midwest and the eastern United States have demonstrated excellent adaptability to our local growing conditions as well.

Learn More: The Best 'Tried and True' Native Perennials for Western Gardens

Learn More: Bringing Nature Home: The Importance Of Native Plants | An Interview With Doug Tallamy

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