Pro Landscape Designer on the Benefits of Native Plants

Designing with native plants benefits you, the earth and the wildlife. Rebecca Sweet of Harmony in the Garden shares tips and suggestions for smart plant selections.

Designing with Native Plants
by Rebecca Sweet

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, while I’m brainstorming ideas with a new garden-design client,  “No, thanks—I’m not really into the native look,” or “I’d love a native garden. You know, one that’s no maintenance” or, my favorite, “Natives? Um, I don’t think so. I want more than just grasses.”

Poor native plants are so misunderstood! While they are not a no-maintenance solution (is there really any such thing, anyway?), they are so much more than “just grasses” and they fit into just about any garden style you can dream up.

Benefit #1 — Drought Tolerance

Here in the arid West, one of the top reasons for growing natives is their drought tolerance. Western natives have acclimated to our rainy winters and bone-dry summers, learning to thrive on very little supplemental water. Therefore, our natives tend to peak in the early spring, putting on a show that would rival any summertime garden. In our hot and dry summers, however, they often go dormant and turn subtle shades of gold.

native plants

The native-plant garden of Renate Kempf in California’s Bay Area. Kempf worked with a garden designer to replace her lawn and swimming pool with a garden of drought-tolerant native plants. Photo credit: Rebecca Sweet

While these colors play into the classic characteristics of the Western landscape, this summer dormancy counts as one of the reasons many gardeners shy away from using natives in their own gardens. They’re afraid of having a garden that looks dead in the summer, or a garden that looks wild and unkempt.

So, what’s a gardener who hankers after native plants to do for a lush and colorful year-round garden? Or what to do if you want to capture a particular style, such as contemporary, cottage or Mediterranean? With careful plant selection, and by implementing a few design techniques, you can have a garden that’s filled with natives that bloom for several seasons and that suits your design aesthetic.

Benefit #2 — Long-term bloom

For example, for Westerners who covet a cottage garden’s prolific, billowing flowers, consider the hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea). This slowly spreading two-foot beauty provides months of deep magenta spires for hummingbirds and pollinators alike. It’s a great alternative to the more commonly used Penstemon hybrids. Cleveland sage (S. clevelandii), with its delightfully scented foliage and whorls of lavender flowers, is another native perennial that will provide you cut flowers from spring to fall.

Natives are also right at home in a contemporary garden. Massed along an angular wall, California gray rush (Juncus patens) adds a strong, sleek vertical accent with its tough and wiry gray-green stems.

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Gray rush (Juncus patens), a western U.S. native, looks sleek and modern hugging the wall. Photo credit: Rebecca Sweet

For those wanting a colorful Mediterranean garden filled with spicy oranges, reds and yellows, check out the fall-blooming Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’, or consider the red-and-yellow “Mexican hats” of Ratibida columnifera. To help temper these hot colors, try native Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Margarita BOP’—a lavender alternative that will provide months and months of blue-purple blooms.

Benefit #3 — Food Source for Local Wildlife

Need more convincing? Natives are a vital source of food for local wildlife. No matter where you live, urban sprawl is a real concern as it slowly (or sometimes quickly) displaces natural habitats. Planting natives in your garden provides essential food and shelter for displaced wildlife.

Months of colorful blooms, less water usage, increased wildlife in your garden—what’s not to love about native plants?

Landscape designer Rebecca Sweet strives to create gardens that reflect each client’s personal style. She can be found online at harmonyinthegarden.com. This article appeared in expanded form in the November/December 2011 issue of Horticulture.

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