Landscaping & Gardening
A Guide to Achieving Your Gardening Goals
Customer studying her plant species list for one of our Summer Plant Sales
Recently, I was helping a customer and was reminded that a big part of the job is not just to not get the plants that they’re looking for but to help them accomplish some of the goals that they have set for their plantings. Over the years native plants have seen a tremendous burst in popularity and with that has come a spike in the demand for them. Still, many gardeners have struggled to find combinations that work for them reliably. There are loads of reasons for this but the one we’re going to focus on is a diminished selection of species for the gardeners to choose from out in the larger buying world. This is where help from us, and people like us, comes in.
Let’s paint a quick picture of traditional plant buying and selling. It’s usually by color, height or form, and length of bloom and the most common offerings of native species reflect this. The bright orange of Asclepias tuberosa, the grace of Sporobolus, and the purple spikes of Liatris have made them some of the most popular plants, native or not, to add to a garden. For many years the popularity of these species and a limited range of others have dominated the offerings of natives because they are not hard to grow and sell. Many have selections and variations in color but by and large, are really the same species just in a different wrapper. Only recently have other species started to be explored and grown as a result of a more sophisticated buying public.
When a gardener seeks out native species these days it is not just for the usual reasons, some may and that’s fine, but the importance of a healthier environmental impact is driving many to evaluate their spaces differently and they are finding it hard to find plants to meet their needs. Some species that were grown in the past simply are not performing in the wide range of conditions that they are being asked to grow in. Asclepias tuberosa, for example, prefers lighter, warmer soils and will fade away over time in heavier ones (usually). So what is the gardener to do?
Expand the pallet. Easy concept to think about but where to start is harder. We try to make as many species as possible available and for the gardener in the know utilizing them is a snap. What of the beginner? Who wants to have a pollinator garden or woodland planting or just some pretty flowers to make a difference or be different?
Here are the tips I offer to get people started…
1. Set your goals for your planting.
It can be as simple as a pollinator garden or as complex as trying to stabilize a shoreline. Be sure that the simplest path to your goal is possible with the budget you have and you’re not going to lose a ton of sleep over financing it. A budget of $2 to $4 per square foot usually will get the average garden space filled with more plants than you might expect. However, a budget like that is hard to scale up to say half an acre for most. Other forms of planting may need to be explored, but that’s a different conversation.
2. Take stock of your site.
What is your soil like? Is it sandy or loamy or clay? Knowing this will help you drill down to species that will not just grow in your garden but it will help you avoid purchasing species that may fail to shine. What are your light levels? This is sometimes hard to judge unless you live under the great blue sky or in the woods. We recommend gauging it a couple of times during the day to see if it changes and note the time. Some plants like it bright all day and others may thrive in the deepest of shade. Does your site get wet or does it stay dry? Know if it gets wet and for how long it stays that way. Many species are literally made to fit into this range. Take stock of human infringement like buildings, roads and such. Some species simply can’t handle them and no plant likes to be under eves of homes. Playing environmental detective has become part of my job description because of site “unawareness”. The more you know about your site the more people like me can help get you to a happy planting place.
3. Don’t worry about moving from one species to another.
Many species that grow very well in certain conditions grow poorly in others. That is not to say that a similar species from the same genus can’t be found to fill the role, it’s just not the one you might have picked in the first place. The milkweeds (and I know I’m referring to them a lot) are a prime example of this. Many gardeners know of butterfly weed or another “flashy” species but if they are not suited to your site switching to one that grows there is not bad if you’re looking for results rather than just color. Letting the color of the monarch be the orange is often more gratifying than a failing flower. This is by far the most common piece of advice I give when talking to gardeners about their plans. Shifting them to a more appropriate species or “cousin” to accomplish your goals is easily the most fun we have in the process.
4. Don’t be afraid to change your plans or take to a new direction.
If you’re working a project on your own or consulting with a professional, a factor that was missed can greatly impact the overall plan and give cause to change it. For example, if you live in the woods but want a prairie planting. The soils there and species you would be successful with would not match the look you’re going for. Or so you might think. Shifting to other species may preserve the overall idea and thrive without losing your vision. It just may not be the exact species you thought of at the start. Or maybe it’s a budget issue that would give you pause. Sometimes shifting to more aggressive species on a wider spread (on center from plant to plant) will preserve the project. Starting with smaller plants like plugs rather than gallons reduces costs as well. Frankly starting with a quote from a grower and then working with that grower to get you to your goal is the place to start. We often work with gardeners over a number of years until they finish the planting to their satisfaction. Most importantly, don’t get so locked in that the project sours you to the experience. Often a garden will change over time and watching it grow may offer you new opportunities for untold species.
5. Remember to have fun!
Native gardening and environmental planting opens so many possibilities to fun in the yard. The reason we grow so many species is that it offers our clients so many experiences that otherwise may have been missed if only the same plants were planted in all circumstances. From prairies to woods to wetland and beyond, a world is opened to you when you start from a better place when planning if handled ahead of time. The butterflies, birds and crawlers, and hoppers that are drawn to places that have species that are meaningful add dimension and the kind of experience that might have been missed otherwise.
Good luck and good plan(t)ing.