A couple weeks ago, I sat down at the dining room table with a cup of coffee, a scattered selection of colorful native plant selection guides and suggested garden designs, and my very rough sketch of my current garden layout. It was time to make a plan.
It sounds like a relaxing and pleasant task, but it surprisingly wasn’t. As I sat there, looking over plant lists with intriguing names like ‘Bottlebrush Grass,” “Joe Pye” and “Prairie Smoke,” I started to feel that familiar clench of anxiety build in my stomach. I looked at the suggested garden layouts with their colorful scattered blobs, and I started to feel overwhelmed. How many plants would I be looking to purchase? How much money do I really want to budget for plants? What do I do with the more ornamental plants that have established in my existing garden? Do I dig them up? Keep them? Toss them? Should I follow these suggested native plant gardens designs to a T or will I need to deviate because a native plant supplier doesn’t have the plant I want in stock? Then what do I replace it with? Should I buy plants that need sun when I know that area of garden will be shaded out in a few years? What if rabbits come and eat all my new plants?
Suddenly, I was stressed and annoyed – how do people DO this? It became clear that I needed a reset.
I got myself up, went outside, and decided to sit under a tree and LOOK at my garden.
What did I want to change and why? My primary objective is to plant more native plants in my garden. I want to be part of the solution to the challenges facing our ecosystems and I want to have the joy of seeing some great textures and colors in a little corner of my everyday world. Plus, if I’m out there trying to sell people on the idea of native plants, having experience actually growing them seems like a good idea.
What have I already done? I did get the results of my soil test back – I know that I have a pretty sandy soil with good drainage, neutral pH, without a huge need for any fertilizers (yay!). Plus, I mapped how light generally changes across the garden during the day, so I knew that in a couple areas I would need full sun plants and in other areas, part sun to shade.
What are some realistic expectations for my native plant project? When I looked at those suggested native plant garden designs, part of me just wanted to go all out. Get rid of everything and start over and follow a design to the full. That level of overhaul, however, is not something this mom of 2 young kids with a traveling husband and full time job can reasonably do and retain her sanity. I don’t want to have to babysit tens of new plants this summer. I like working in the dirt, but I have lots of other things I want to do, too.
A piece of advice from a coworker of mine popped into my head:
One thing that I wish people would realize when they start conservation projects is that it doesn’t need to be perfect – it just needs to be a start.”Tara Kelly – Landscape Restoration Specialist for the Washington Conservation District
A start. A start is reasonable. A start sounds comfortable. A start means not biting off more than I can chew or more than I can afford. A start hopefully means I discover joy versus stress or too high expectations.
Another comment from my neighbor across the street, who has a glorious garden of both ornamental and native plants, also crossed my mind. I had been talking about plant selection and ‘optimizing’ my garden space, and she looked at me confused and said, ‘But wait, why can’t you choose plants just because…you like the way they look?’
And in that, suddenly I remembered the key to native plants. They are NATIVE. They’ve evolved to be here and thrive here. They’ve been here a lot longer than we have. We are the invaders. So, as long as I am somewhat cognizant of not putting a plant used to wet soils and shade in the area of my garden where it’s sunny and dry, there’s a decent chance it will be ok.
And yeah, that means I can choose plants that I think look cool – I don’t need to follow those suggested designs exactly. I can choose a few tall plants, a few groundcover ones, some that bloom in the spring, or summer, or fall, or even not at all.
Plus, I don’t need to do it all at once. I can focus on one area right now and perhaps later this summer or fall, do another area as I feel inspired. And then plant some more next spring. And just keep building it, enjoying the process, and learning more about these super cool plants.
I went to the Landscape Revival native plant sale in Oakdale on June 4th. Aside from knowing it would be a great introduction to some of our area native plant vendors, I also know it meant I didn’t have to worry about the plants ever being treated with pesticides (no neonicotinoids, specifically) that could end up harming pollinators. All the volunteers there were wonderfully helpful and the native plant vendors were knowledgeable and friendly. I chatted a few up about the types of conditions I have in my yard, and then they directed me to the sections with plants they thought would work. And I got to look at fun pictures and descriptions and names and think about whether I’d enjoy seeing that plant (and hopefully the pollinators it attracts!) when I walked around my garden.
Not once did I end up referencing any of the proposed garden designs I had sat down with earlier that week. I just picked plants that I thought looked fun and pretty.
In the end, I bought 12 plants for $5 each. $60 dollars. That was the cost of my native plant adventure this spring. I came home and played around with placement – arranging my little new plants in different areas and thinking about how tall they would get and when I’d see blooms during the growing season.
Then I did it. I planted them. Mission accomplished.
Of course, the end of this planting journey is only the beginning in keeping these plants alive (I see you rabbits), but we will cross that bridge when it comes. I’m happy to bask in my current triumph.
I do think my experience is wholly mine, and that when approaching taking on new challenges like this, we all have different approaches and ways to process information and make decisions. While I didn’t really use the proposed garden designs in the end, they are super helpful references to keep around. To somebody else, they could be gospel.
I didn’t convert my full garden, but feel content to do a bit here and there. Others might want to just go all out. More power to them.
The most important thing? Making a start. And gathering the resources and confidence you need to do it.
Get planting out there!
Want to learn more? My colleagues at the East Metro Water Resource Education Program have compiled an amazing set of resources when considering native plantings (my favorite is the native plant selection guide). Want to know where you can find native plant nurseries around our area? Here’s that for you.
There are a host of wonderful local resources as well, including Blue Thumb, Wild Ones, and the University of Minnesota Extension (don’t forget your county Master Gardener groups!)
And I have to mention all the amazing folks you will find at your county soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs). Most SWCDs offer free site visits, so if you truly don’t know where to get started, they are a great first stop. They might even know of some cost-share opportunities to help you fund your project (like Lawns to Legumes!).