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By David Salman, Chief Horticulturist

There is nothing more nourishing to our psyche than interacting with nature in our gardens and landscapes. Humankind is beneficially connected to plants in many ways, some of which we don’t fully understand. But in times of stress and uncertainty, our relationship with the natural world should be nurtured and encouraged.  Spring is upon us, and it’s time to put our gardening plans into action. There are three key concepts to focus on to maximize the benefits gardening can provide:

  1. Healthy, Living Soil – a healthy garden starts below the surface, and good soil is a gardener’s most important asset
  2. Plant For Pollinators – select plants that are best for supporting bees, birds, and other beneficial insects
  3. Balance Native and Old World Plants– help support native insect populations with native plants and Old World plants that provide abundant natural nectar

Let your enthusiasm for gardening become a restorative practive and a benefit for planet Earth. Jump to a section, or read on to learn about how to make the most of your garden’s resilience!

A pollinator garden featuring Agastache, Allium, and Echinacea.
A pollinator garden featuring Agastache, Allium, and Echinacea.

1. Healthy, Living Soil: The Foundation of A Resilient Garden and Landscape

The soil is a complex matrix of minerals and living organisms that create an underground ecology upon which plants are dependent. After WWII, as chemical companies moved agricultural chemicals into the home gardening world, the shift from traditional organic agriculture to a paradigm of chemical fertilizers, insecticides and fungicides has wreaked havoc on our residential soils. The result has been the wholesale damage and destruction of the once healthy, nurturing soils that we garden in, especially those upon which conventional turf lawns are planted. So it’s of utmost importance that we refuse to use these chemicals, which are unfortunately likely to be promoted in hardware store and big box store advertisements every spring.

Instead, let’s take a natural/organic approach to restoring the healthy, living soils that we depend on for beautiful plants, nutritious food, healthy water systems, and clean air. Living soils will

  • Sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the form of humus (the organic component of soil).
  • Filter rainfall and snowmelt to clean the water that flows down into our aquifers and into our waterways.
  • Grow robust plants that aren’t dependent on the continuous use of soil-killing chemical fertilizers.

Tips For Cultivating Healthy Living Soil

Use natural fertilizers, composts and mulches to feed the soil. In healthy, living soil, nutrients from organic and natural fertilizers are digested by the soil’s microorganisms, and released as usable nutrients for plant roots to uptake.

  • Topdress around your plants with a mix of Yum Yum Mix (specially designed for western soils) and compost in fall and spring. Use liquid seaweed and fish emulsion as well.
  • On newer plantings, use micorrhizal inoculants to insure your beneficial soil fungus population is robust and available to attach to plant roots. This will enhance water and nutrient uptake. If your home is in a subdivision, it’s highly likely that your soil has been damaged by compaction and construction machinery that has killed micorrhizal populations, so we highly recommend micorrhizal inoculants in these situations.
  • For non-xeric plantings, use plant-derived mulches like shredded leaves, coarse textured compost and ground-up branches and leaves to cover the soil. This provides a long-term source of nutrients for the soil’s microorganisms to feed on and create humus.
  • For xeric plantings, use gravel mulch, pine needles or other low carbon, slow-to-decompose mulch materials. Xeric plants don’t want highly enriched soils that traditional perennials need.

Shop Our Favorite Natural Soil-Building Supplies

2. Plant To Support Birds, Pollinators, and Beneficial Insects 

Plants and insects are dependent on each other. Planting the right mix of flowering plants will attract and maintain healthy populations of both pollinating and beneficial insects. In turn, healthy insect populations help to feed birds and wildlife. The larger the number of plant species you grow, the greater the diversity of good insects your garden and landscape will attract.

As natural landscapes across the country become developed into cities, towns, and neighborhoods, it means that habitat for birds, pollinators, and beneficial insects is disappearing. The plants that we grow in our gardens and landscapes can make a difference – it’s essential that we grow plants to help support healthy wildlife and pollinator populations.

Beneficial insects are the unsung heroes of our gardens. They feed on injurious insect pests and keep those populations at non-damaging levels. Plants that are especially valuable for supporting populations of beneficial insects are known as insectary plants. The perennials below, including soil-enriching legumes, are especially valuable.

Pollinating insects are essential for seed production and plant reproduction. Focus on planting a wide diversity of pollinator friendly and insectary plants. The plants below, as well as all the listed insectary plants, are excellent sources of abundant natural nectar.

3. Plant The Right Balance Of Native And Old World Plants

Currently the bulk of plants in the horticultural trade are Old World species. We need to plant many more native plants to help support a healthy pollinator population. Ideally, Native plants should make up 70-80% of our garden residents, and Old World species should be 20-30% of the total.

It’s important to educate ourselves regarding the origins of the plants we use in our gardens and landscapes. Native plants are found growing without human intervention in North America. Old World plants were brought to North America from other parts of the planet, including like Europe, Asia and southern Africa.

  • Native plants are essential food for native insects upon which the continent’s food chain depends. Over centuries, insects and in fact entire ecosystems of plants and animals have evolved together in a balanced, harmonious system. Native plants support the insects that feed the creatures on the lower rungs of the food chain such as songbirds, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals.
  • Old World plants are of limited value for feeding native insect populations. Because the foliage of Old World plants is mostly indigestible to native insects, the don’t support native insect populations. However, Old World plants are important sources of natural nectar for both native and non-native pollinators.

Why is it important to have a balanced mix of native and non-native plants in the garden?

For example, Honeybees are native to the Old World. Though diminishing, their large populations make them highly competitive with native bees when feeding on the same native flowers. Old World annuals, perennials, flowering shrubs, and trees are often the first choice of honeybees. They should be planted to pull honeybees away from native plants. This leaves nectar for native bee species that depend on or prefer specific native plant species. (Did you know that there are over 4,000 species of native bees in America?)

Explore High Country Gardens Native Plants