Lupinus perennis production field

Native Landscapes with All of the Benefits and None of the Headaches

Feb 08, 2019

                                                                                                                                 -Vince Gresham
     (Click here for a PDF version of this article)

When I started my small native landscape project in my backyard in South Bend, Indiana, I did not have much of a plan. I liked native prairie plants. I liked the butterflies and the birds that were drawn to them. I didn’t want to spend all of my Saturdays mowing. I had worked on large scale native restoration projects in parks, so I thought I knew a thing or two about how to use natives. 

I started with one flat of 50 plants and a bunch of seed. I couldn’t wait until my prairie grew into the inviting and attractive butterfly garden I envisioned, complete with a short winding trail. I was anxious to use my prairie to demonstrate to my neighbors the beauty and value of all things native. I looked forward to coming home from a day’s work to take a relaxing stroll through the prairie.

That is not how it turned out.

It’s not that the prairie didn’t grow; it was thick with more than a dozen species of native plants, hosting butterflies, bumblebees and hummingbirds, but none of that was enough to make the prairie as inviting as I had envisioned. The overall feel of the prairie was just… off. 


There were a few attractive and inviting places along the path, but most of it felt oppressive or claustrophobic. Almost every plant stood at least five feet tall. A walk through the trail was like a walk down a narrow hallway with collapsing walls. I had to weave over, under, and around the Monarda and Ratibida that were falling onto the path. And even though the prairie seemed packed with natives, closer inspection revealed big gaps at ground level. Weeds were beginning to exploit those gaps. 

My prairie was not the shining example of native landscaping I had hoped it would be, but native plants are not to blame for my results. The blame lands firmly on my design. I had approached the project in about the same way I had large scale restoration projects in parks, where I sowed mixed seed over large areas. That approach was designed to quickly improve the overall ecological value of many acres at a time. Viewed from a distance in parks, this approach can create visually appealing landscapes, but it creates a much different experience in a backyard. I wish I had understood that when I planted my prairie. I wanted it to feel “natural,” so I was focused on avoiding the typical mulched landscape approach, where each plant stands like an island in a sea of mulch. I thought these two approaches were my only options, until last year when I was lucky enough to attend the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association IMPACT conference and get an amazing glimpse into what I should have done. The keynote speaker, Thomas Rainer, who co-authored “Planting in a Post-Wild World” with Claudia West, laid out a strategy that could have prevented the mess I had. I recently picked up their book to get a more detailed look at their approach. 

Rainer and West appreciate the value of native plants and they pair that appreciation with advanced design knowledge to create inviting landscapes that look and feel natural. Whether you are a homeowner looking to start a small landscape project, or a seasoned landscaper who has struggled with strategies for incorporating natives in your work, Rainer and West’s book is well worth the investment.

Here are just a few ideas from their book that I will be incorporating into my landscape at my new home.

>”Plants are the best mulch.”  IMG_7422
This was the title of Rainer’s presentation at the conference. I was right to avoid the old practice of scattering plants around a landscape and surrounding them with wood mulch. It requires too much maintenance and is not visually appealing. I just didn’t know what I should do instead. A careful application of the right ground cover is one important key. If a landscape has about 50% groundcover, it not only helps suppress weeds, but it provides the support under the more showy species and allows them to stand up and be more visible in the landscape. It is also used to create space between the edge of the landscape and the taller plants, so that a person can walk along and enjoy it without feeling crowded, viewing the plants from a comfortable distance. The Monarda and Ratibida would not have been falling onto my path if I had set them back a bit, separated from the edge of the trail by Juncus tenuis or Sporobolus heterolepis.

>Consider the plants’ sociability and structural adaptations.
When I planted my prairie I used, almost exclusively, plants that Rainer calls “design layer” plants. They are the showy native plants that typically contribute the most color and variety. They are an important part of the design but they create problems when crowded into a landscape. First, when too many are clustered together, the individual plants cannot stand out to be appreciated as easily. In addition, these plants don’t have the right structure to completely fill the space. Many design layer plants are relatively bare at their base. Plant two of them a foot apart and you’ll have a gap in the middle because they are not full at the bottom. If there is bare soil in that gap, weeds will find it. The old strategy was to fill that gap with mulch. The new strategy should be to fill those gaps with plants that are adapted to function as effective groundcover.

These roles of ground cover and design layer can be further understood by looking at a plant’s sociability. In its natural habitat, does the plant tend to grow individually, or does it tend to grow in large clumps? People often try to group plants that are not meant to be grouped. Plants that tend to grow in individually or in very small groups in the wild, like swamp milkweed, should be planted individually or in very small groups in a landscape. Rainer and West explain these different degrees of sociability and provide examples of plants at each level.

I left Rainer’s presentation inspired, but I lacked a list of plants that can specifically serve these different roles in a  landscape. The book is not specific to any one region in the US, and Rainer encouraged people to find the plants that best fit their site and region. I’ve been working on such a list for Northern Indiana, and many of these species are appropriate for most of the Upper Midwest. This list was developed using plant information from the Cardno Native Plant Nursery Resource Catalog, along with years of field observations of plant growth and habitat. This list is not comprehensive, but provides a good start for a variety of site conditions.

Native plants are becoming more popular with landscape designers, who recognize their beauty, their ecological significance and their hardiness. Some designers may have the knowledge to avoid the kind of mistakes I made in my prairie. For the rest of us, “Planting in a Post Wild World” is a great, comprehensive guide.  When used with the plants on the attached list, the strategies in the book can help create an inviting, natural-looking, ecologically productive, native landscape.

design elements

Ground cover Elements
>Approximately 50% of the area of the landscape
>Spreading, or clump-forming to suppress weeds
Design Elements
>25-40% of the area of the landscape>Many of the most well-known species in prairies are in this layer
>Provides much of the color and changes through the growing season
Structural Elements
>10-15% of the area of the landscape
>Tend to have stems that endure the cold months, so are a more permanent part of the landscape

Plant List