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Landscaping With Native Plants – Benefits & How to Plan Your Yard

When it comes to landscape plants, there are a few old standbys that gardeners everywhere seem to rely on. Japanese red maples, with their colorful leaves, are a favorite. Hybrid tea roses and yellow forsythia bushes add a splash of color. For ground covers, Japanese pachysandra and English ivy are popular choices.

Aside from looking nice, all these plants have one other thing in common: they’re not native to North America. They have their origins in Europe or East Asia – as you can tell in some cases from their names – and were imported to this country by settlers from other parts of the world.

Of course, settlers brought these plants here for a reason: they’re pretty. But this benefit comes with a cost. In some areas, these exotic plants aren’t well suited to the climate, so they require a lot of pampering: plenty of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and so on. All this makes more work for the gardener and uses up natural resources – not to mention money.

At the other end of the spectrum, some exotic plants grow too well. They quickly spread out of control, choking out the native vegetation – and the animals that depend on it. When nonnative species take over like this, they’re called “invasive.”

For gardeners who want to avoid spreading invasive species, but also want to save themselves work, native plants offer a great alternative. When you choose plants from your part of the country, you know they can grow well in your climate without a lot of outside help, which gives you more time to relax and enjoy your garden.

What Are Native Plants?

Native plants are not the same thing as wild plants. Some plants that grow wild, without being planted and cultivated, are actually species that were originally brought to the area by humans. Some were deliberately introduced into the area for human use, while others were brought there accidentally – for example, as seeds clinging to people’s clothing.

A generally accepted definition of native plants is plants that were observed growing wild in an area when scientists first began keeping track. This includes both plants that evolved in the region and those that were carried there by wind, water, birds, or land animals. If there’s any evidence that humans had a hand in introducing them, on purpose or by accident, they don’t count as native species – no matter how long they’ve been in the area or how far they’ve spread on their own.

However, even this definition isn’t as clear as it sounds. The United States is a big country, and plants that are definitely native plants in California don’t necessarily meet the guidelines for native plants in Virginia.

If you want to grow native plants, you need to decide how strict a definition of the term you want to use:

  • Native to the United States. This includes all plants native to any part of the country, even if they’ve definitely been imported in other parts. It doesn’t include any plants that are native exclusively to other continents.
  • Native to Your State. Again, this includes any plant that’s native to any part of your state, even if it’s been transplanted to other parts of the state. Many plant guides classify plants based on whether they’re native to a particular state, so it’s fairly easy to identify plants that meet this guideline.
  • Native to Your Region. This includes all plants that are native to a broad natural region, such as the Rocky Mountains. A single state, especially if it’s a large one, can span multiple regions, so determining whether a plant is native to your region gives you a better idea how it will do in your yard than just knowing whether it’s native to your state. However, this information isn’t always easy to find.
  • Native to Your Ecosystem. The narrowest way to classify native plants is based on the specific climate they grow in. For example, the tamarack tree (Larix laricina) is native to the Appalachian Plateau region of Maryland. However, even within this region, it grows naturally only in swampy areas. So if you live in a dry, hilly area, even if it’s part of the Appalachian Plateau, the tamarack isn’t native to your area.

Another point to consider when choosing native plants is that over the years, gardeners have taken native wildflowers and cultivated them to produce new strains. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to count these cultivated varieties as native plants or not. Some native plant guides include domesticated versions of native species, while others focus strictly on naturally occurring plants.

various conifers

Benefits of Native Plants

Native plants have many advantages over the more popular exotic species. Native plants:

  • Grow Well in Your Climate. Because native plants are adapted to your local climate, you know they can handle whatever it has to dish out – from periods of drought, to a hard freeze in the wintertime. They can also deal with common pests and diseases, and some of them have even evolved ways of protecting themselves from being eaten by larger animals. All this means that you can count on native plants to flourish in your landscape without a lot of coddling.
  • Are Low-Maintenance. Any plant that can grow on its own in the wild shouldn’t need a lot of attention to grow in your yard. They don’t need to be fertilized or sprayed for pests; in many cases, they don’t even need watering, except when they’re young. And because you can easily predict how big they’ll grow, you can space them out properly when you plant them instead of having to trim them down to size. All this helps keep maintenance to a minimum.
  • Require Less Water. Americans devote huge amounts of water to their lawns and landscape plants. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 30% of all the water used by U.S. households – nearly nine billion gallons a day – goes to outdoor use. This is a particular problem in dry climates like the Southwest, where thirsty cities and farms must compete for scarce water resources. Native plants, which can get by without regular watering, save you money while also protecting your area’s water supply.
  • Prevent Pollution. Traditional landscapes rely heavily on fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to keep them weed-free and healthy-looking. When it rains, these chemicals get washed out of suburban yards and run off into the local water supply, polluting drinking water, streams and rivers, and the plants and fish that live in them. Landscaping with native plants, which don’t need any chemical assistance, reduces this source of water pollution. And because native plants are low-maintenance, natural landscaping also reduces pollution and noise from gas-guzzling power tools like mowers and string trimmers – which, according to the EPA, account for about 5% of all urban air pollution.
  • Attract Wildlife. Native plants and animals are adapted to live together. When you grow native plants, you also provide a habitat for a variety of wild creatures, including butterflies and songbirds. These species also attract other pollinating insects – which, in turn, help to keep your landscape healthy by fertilizing your plants.
  • Save You Money. Native plants cost about as much to buy as nonnative ones – but once they’re in the ground, they cost far less to maintain. The money you save on water, chemicals, and equipment for your yard can go toward a family vacation, a dinner at a restaurant, or just beefing up your savings. According to The Lawn Advisor, a site devoted to lawn care, a professionally landscaped yard can cost as much as $5,000 per year to maintain. Investing that money every year instead, at a modest 5% rate of return, would add up to more than $60,000 after 10 years.
  • Look Unique. In a neighborhood full of tea roses and Japanese maples, a yard landscaped with native plants really stands out. For many people, that’s a plus – but if you’d rather have a yard that blends in with the rest of your street, you can look for native plants that look similar to the exotic plants your neighbors prefer. Just compare the pictures of native plants in garden guides or catalogs to the plants you’re used to seeing in your neighborhood, and select ones that look like they’ll blend in. No one will know your plants are different – they’ll just know that you somehow seem to spend a lot less time on yard work than everyone else.

How to Choose Native Plants

There’s no getting around it: Using native plants makes your landscaping plans more complicated. Instead of just driving to the nearest garden center and picking out plants that look nice, you have to do some research to find plants that are native to your area and fit into your goals for your garden. But the extra effort you put into planning your garden now will pay you back in the time you save on yard work every year from now on.

Evaluate Your Environment

The first step in planning your landscape is to take a look at what you have right now. This is the starting point for the dream landscape you’re trying to create. Walk through your yard and make notes about its features – both the ones you’d like to keep and the ones you’d like to change.

Along with these notes, include some observations about the natural conditions in your yard. That way, you can choose plants that will thrive in those conditions.

Some factors to look at include:

  • Climate. To pick plants that will thrive in your area, you need to know what the climate is like: hot or cold, wet or dry. A good place to start is the climate zone map created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which divides up the country into zones based on how cold they get in wintertime. In addition to temperature, consider how much rainfall you tend to get in your area. Some plants need lots of water, while others prefer almost none.
  • Sun and Shade. Note which parts of your yard are sunny and which are shady. Some plants prefer full sunlight, some like shade, and others do best in part sun and part shade. Don’t forget that the position of the sun changes throughout the day, so observe your yard at different times of day and note how the pattern of sunlight changes. If some areas are sunny in the morning but shady in the afternoon (or vice versa), include that information in your notes.
  • Soil Texture. Different plants prefer different types of soil, so the more you know about your yard’s soil type, the better you can select plants. There are three basic types of soil: dense clay, loose sand, and soft, crumbly loam. Here’s one way to test your garden soil: Take a handful of moist soil and squeeze and roll it between your hands to make a ribbon shape. If you can’t make a ribbon, the soil is mostly sand; if you can make a ribbon at least three-and-a-half inches long that doesn’t break apart when you hold it up, the soil is mostly clay; and if you can only make a short ribbon that breaks apart, your soil is close to the ideal loamy texture.
  • Soil Acidity. Soil also varies in pH, or level of acidity. You can get a rough estimate of your soil’s pH by adding either baking soda or vinegar. If a tablespoon of wet soil fizzes when you add a pinch of baking soda, your soil is very acidic; however, if a tablespoon of dry soil fizzes when you add a few drops of vinegar, the soil is alkaline. If neither test has any effect, then your soil is close to the mildly acidic level most plants prefer. If you want a more precise estimate of pH, you can buy a soil testing kit online or at your local garden center.
  • Drainage. Most plants tend to prefer well-drained soil. If your yard has poor drainage – that is, if it tends to form pools or puddles of water in certain places – then you need to look for plants that can handle wet soil.
  • Terrain. Look at how flat or sloped the land is in different places. If there are large rocks or other obstructions, take note. All these features help determine how easy or how difficult it is to put plants in the ground and tend the plants once they’re in place. Steep slopes, in particular, are a good place for easy-care plants, like ground covers or low-growing shrubbery.

summer garden backyard

Outline Your Goals

Once you know where you’re starting from, think about where you’d like to end up. Brainstorm a list of all your different goals for your garden, including activities you’d like to do outdoors and particular features you want your garden to have.

Possible goals include:

  • Relaxing outdoors
  • Entertaining guests
  • Growing fruit or vegetables
  • Making your own compost
  • Having play area for kids or pets
  • Having a place to grill
  • Enjoying beautiful views
  • Attracting birds or butterflies
  • Having trees for shade
  • Requiring low maintenance
  • Using less water (xeriscaping)
  • Absorbing excess water (rain garden)

Once you have a list of goals, start thinking about places where you might like different garden features to fit. Try sketching out a “bubble diagram” on a piece of paper with circles for the different features you’d like to have, such as “patio, “butterfly garden,” or “swing set.” This isn’t an exact blueprint – just a rough diagram of which part of the yard can house each feature or activity. Connect the bubbles with arrows showing how people will move from one area to the next.

Compare your bubble diagram to the notes you made earlier about the conditions in different parts of your yard. If you see that you want to put a flowerbed in a moist, shady area, you know you need to find some native flowers that like shade and moist soil. You can always change these plans if you have trouble finding suitable plants, but they’re a good starting point.

Find the Right Plants

Once you know both what you have and what you want, you can start making a list of plants that fit your goals and the conditions in your yard. For instance, if you have dry, sandy soil and you want a butterfly garden, then you know you need to look for flowers that are native to your area, are attractive to butterflies, and can grow in sandy soil.

A good place to begin your search for native plants is at a local garden club or botanic garden. You can also search online to look for a native plant society or wildflower society in your state.

If you can’t find any help close to home, there are several online resources that can help you find native plants that fit your needs:

  • Native Plant Information Network. Run by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the Native Plant Information Network offers a searchable database of more than 7,000 species native to North America. You can perform detailed searches based on where you live, the type of plants you want, the light and soil conditions in your yard, and special features such as height, bloom time, and color. This makes it easy to fine-tune your search to find the exact plants that meet your requirements. When you click on the listing for a specific plant, you can see detailed information about the plants’ appearance, ideal growing conditions, and, in some cases, suppliers that offer them for sale.
  • Native Plant Library. American Beauties Native Plants, a nursery specializing in native plants, has a list of all its plants that you can search by location and type of plant. You can also do more detailed searches to find plants with specific features, including height, spread, soil and sunlight preferences, and types of wildlife they attract.
  • PlantNative. This organization aims to promote the use of native plants in landscaping. The PlantNative website includes lists of regional plants sorted by state and, for some states, by region. Each lists includes for trees, shrubs, and perennial plants that are native to the area. For each plant, the list provides details like height, sun and moisture requirements, and notable features such as flowers, fruit, or colorful foliage.
  • USDA PLANTS Database. The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains an extensive database with information on thousands of plants, both native and nonnative. If you click on “detailed search,” you can find plants by area, type, and ecology – where and how they grow. You can also identify plants that are labeled as invasive, noxious (harmful), or endangered.

If you can’t find any plants in these sources that meet your needs, you have two options. One is to try and change your site. For instance, if you have very dry soil, you could add lots of organic matter to the soil to make it hold moisture better.

The other option is to revise your goals. For instance, if you can’t find flowers for your area that attract butterflies, you could grow shrubs that attract songbirds instead. You can also try moving the feature you have in mind to a different area. If a butterfly garden doesn’t fit the conditions your backyard, see whether it could work in the front yard instead.

Plan Your Garden

Once you’ve decided which plants you want in your garden, you need to figure out where to put them. Earlier, during the brainstorming stage, you thought in general terms about which parts of your yard you wanted to have native plants. Now it’s time to figure out where within those areas the plants should go.

The simplest way to do this is to work from big to small. Find spots for the biggest plants first, and then fit the smaller plants in around them.

On a piece of graph paper – or in a layout program on your computer, if you have one – sketch out a scale-size plot of your yard, including the outlines of any permanent structures such as the house, a shed, or a swimming pool. Then, start adding in the locations of plants in the following order:

  1. Trees. First, draw a circle on the map for each tree you already have in your yard that you plan to keep. Then, draw a new circle wherever you want to plant a new tree. For each circle, decide which type of tree from your list of native plants would be the best fit. The trees you pick have to be small enough to fit the spot when they reach their full size, and they also have to be okay with the sun and soil conditions in that part of the yard. You also have to decide whether you want evergreen trees that provide shade – and block the view – all year round, or deciduous trees that provide shade only in the summertime. If you’re planting trees like birches and alders that tend to grow in small clusters in the wild, experiment with your plan to see if you can plant them the same way in your yard to give the landscape a more natural look.
  2. Shrubs. Once you have your trees placed, you can see which parts of your yard are going to end up in shade and which will be in full sun. This narrows down your choice of shrubs for different parts of the yard, since you have to put sun-loving shrubs in sun and shade-tolerant ones in shade. Start sketching in the locations of shrubs for your yard, filling in the spaces between trees and other areas, such as lawn, paths, and flower or vegetable beds. Select the shrubs for each spot based that you think would work best in that area, based on their type (evergreen or deciduous), height, color, and the kids of wildlife they attract. If you’re not sure how many shrubs to plant together, a good rule of thumb is to create clusters with an odd number of plants.
  3. Smaller Plants. Herbaceous, or non-woody, plants are the last to go into your plan. As with your shrubs, you should pick herbaceous plants for different parts of the yard based on their need for sunlight, as well as their soil and moisture preferences. Some plants tend to spread out and fill in the available space, so planting batches of these is good for filling a space quickly and creating a background. Other plants don’t spread out much, but look beautiful when they’re in bloom, so you can use these as accents, scattered here and there among the spreading plants. Remember that many herbaceous plants go dormant during either a summer drought or a winter freeze, so plan your landscape so that there will always be some green, thriving plants in each part of the yard to provide interest at any time of year.

Search for Sources

After you’ve planned out your garden landscape, you still have to buy the plants you want to use. If you’ve consulted a local garden club or native plant society for help in choosing native plants, it can probably also help you find suppliers for those plants. Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens can help you find a native plant organization in your area. It also has links to nurseries that offer native plants for sale.

Another good place to look is PlantNative. If you live in Oregon, you can buy plants native to your area directly through the PlantNative site. If not, you can search the site’s Native Plant Nursery Directory to find nurseries in your state that sell native plants. Then you can search the websites of the nurseries (or call them) to see if they have the plants you want.

pink lilac shrubs

Final Word

If turning over your whole yard to native plants sounds like too much work for you, remember that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. After all, there’s no rule that says native plants and exotic ones can’t sit side-by-side in the same yard. So instead of remaking your whole landscape from scratch, you could change one little section at a time – or even just one plant at a time.

If your Japanese red maple dies, replace it with an American hornbeam tree. Remove one of your tea roses and plant a native Virginia rose. Pull out a patch of English ivy and replace it with Virginia creeper. In this way, you can gradually incorporate native plants into your yard rather than changing everything at once.

Do you use native plants in your yard?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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