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Helpful Tips and Information
Considering Landscaping with Native Plants?

Here are some helpful tips and information to get started.

Whether you are thinking about planting a small urban plot or a few acres with native landscaping, you may have some questions about getting started and what you can expect from your new landscape.

First, you need to decide what you want to do with your land. Are you going to incorporate some native plants into your garden? Restore an area to its original pre-settlement condition? Is your goal to attract wildlife or to solve an environmental problem such as flooding?

Next, consider the land and climate you have to work with. Is it a sunny or shady location? Is the soil wet (a low point on your land, or under a rain gutter spout), or sandy and dry? There are native plants that were originally found in sunny prairies, shady woodlands, or moist areas. It is important to choose native plants which will thrive on the current conditions on your site. These specific plant types will flourish without additional water or fertilizers once properly established, because they are well-adapted to your particular climate and soil.

To get started, it is a good idea to prepare the area to be planted following recommendations from the nursery or garden supplier you choose to buy from. Native plants take time to become established in the landscape. Depending on whether you use seeds or plants, the wildflowers or grasses may not be abundant for one to three years because the plant's energy is directed towards developing the roots. Working with nature takes patience, but it is well worth the wait!

You may encounter some polite curiosity' from neighbors who are only familiar and accustomed to the extremely manicured and defined lawn. You should talk to your neighbors about what you are doing, and about why landscaping with native plants will improve the environment in your neighborhood. Placing a border around the area you planted with native flowers and grasses will help define the landscape. You may also want to contact your local authorities regarding local ordinances and weed laws. (For more information about things local governments can do to promote the use of native plants, as well as model ordinances and techniques, be sure to look at our Tool Kit for Local Governments.)

Suggestions for native landscaping on residential properties:

  1. Draw your plan on paper
  2. Start out small, only do a little at a time.
  3. Tell your neighbors what you plan to do. Consider putting up a sign (e.g. Jane's Wildflower Garden) to define your natural area. This will help others feel more comfortable with a different approach to landscaping.
  4. Talk with local officials to find out if there are any local ordinances you should be aware of (e.g. restrictions on the height of vegetation). If so, will they help you get a variance?
  5. You may even want to register your natural landscape with the Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program of the National Wildlife Federation or with the National Institute for Urban Wildlife. There may also be other local associations available to assist you.

(Be sure to look at the resources section, and an informative brochure.)

Main information based on: 1. The Wild Lawn Handbook: Alternatives to the Traditional Front Lawn. Written by Stevie Daniels. 2. Wild Ones: Natural Landscapers, Ltd.

Native Plants Require Fire

Natural landscaping requires a different way of thinking about what native plants really need to thrive. If you want to encourage native plants, you must reestablish the ecological conditions under which they evolved in your ecosystem. The key condition to recreate in most ecosystems of North America is a pattern of regular burning.

As native plant communities evolved in North America, they were subjected to regular fires from the lightning that occurred during dry periods. Later, tribes which came to North America deliberately set fires in prairies and savannas to help them hunt, to increase their visibility to see those approaching their camps and to encourage plant growth of herbs and medicinal plants. Over thousands of years, these native plant communities have adapted to this periodic fire which was usually conducted before European settlement by Native Americans in the fall.

It is now in the genetic programming of these native plants to respond to regular burning with vigorous reproduction and growth. Without fire, native plants get shaded out by invasive brush species, but with regular burns their genetic memory gives them a competitive advantage over exotic weeds. For this reason, burns are needed to establish and maintain natural landscaping.

Of course, you must do it safely, and in the right manner. The appropriate conditions for conducting an ecological burn are written in a document called a prescription. When a doctor writes a prescription, it states the type, amount and frequency of medicine to take to restore human health. Similarly, a written burn prescription details the range of conditions under which a burn will restore the ecological health of the native plant community and can be properly controlled: wind speed, humidity, temperature, the crew and equipment required, burn window, etc. That is why it is called a prescribed, controlled burn, as opposed to a wildfire.

Properly trained volunteer stewards, as well as professional land managers, conduct prescribed burns over thousands of acres of prairies and savannas each year in North America. In fact, trained volunteer stewards do most of the burning in the Chicago area, now called the Chicago Wilderness by stewards, mostly because land managers can't afford to hire professional crews.

Prescribed burns reduce the fuel available for dangerous wildfires to ignite and rage out of control. Such a wildfire occurred in Yellowstone National Park not so long ago. Prescribed burning can make us all a lot safer by reducing wildfire hazards at the same time that it recreates one of the key ecological conditions for native plant communities to flourish in natural landscaping throughout North America.

To learn more about prescribed burning see the following publications: 

Pauly, Wayne. R., How to Manage Small Prairie Fires Pyne, S.J. 1982. 

Fire in America: a cultural history of wildland and rural fire. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. Wright, H.A. 

A. W. Bailey. 1982. Fire Ecology: United States and Southern Canada, John Wiley and Sons, NY.

Or call the Tall Timbers Research Station Fire Ecology Information Service at (904) 893-4153, which provides an extensive list of documents to the public on a fee basis.


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