Cultivating native plants

Growing roots takes time and energy. Imagine the nutrients those strong roots gather to send to showier plant parts. The show is worth waiting for. Every native landscape is a work in progress. If a species fails to grow well in your planting, a flourishing species may expand in to the open space. Marvel at the workings of the community you help create.

1. Get to know your site. Several factors determine which species and preparation suit your site:

  • Sun exposure: How long is the site exposed to sunlight?
  • Soil type: Is soil sandy, clay, or loam? Consult your county soil atlas. To learn soil acidity (ph) and organic content, get a soil test from a local University of Minnesota Extension Office or Soil and Water Conservation District;
  • Drainage / soil moisture: Does the soil hold moisture? Is it dry, mesic (rain soaks in with low run off), or wet;
  • Existing ground cover: What stays? Perhaps the shade trees or shrubs. What goes? Weeds and problem exotics species;
  • Neighboring vegetation: Will your planting influence wild native plants, or be influenced by nearby weedy exotics?


2. Budget. A native planting is a long-term landscape investment; it can be built in phases. How much can you spend now?

  • Money may be needed for: site preparation, plant materials, and maintenance;
  • Budget your time and resources: Will you do site prep or contract it? Gather some seed or buy it all? Buy plants?
  • Consider options based on available money:
    • Plant the entire site with many different species or
    • Phased plan 1: plant the entire site with base species, add more diversity as budget allows or
    • Phased plan 2: plant many species on part of site, then use own resulting seeds/seedlings to expand planted area


3. Create a wish list of species for your site. Visit natural areas to see how local natives grow; consult planting and identification guides. To help you choose species, some producers provide a cultural guide, or species list which includes each plant's site requirements, bloom color and bloom time.

4. Shop for native plant materials. Look for sources selling seed and plants produced from seed of local origin. Some considerations:

  • Cleaned, local origin seed with a high percentage of pure live seed (PLS) may seem costly, but should grow best.
  • Plants, plugs or rootstock are often suggested for gardens, showy edges, woodland and difficult to propagate species.
  • Make sure plants are not dug from the wild. This depletes the resource and many species do not thrive after transplanting.


5. Prepare and plant the site.

  • Are there noxious weeds or problem invasive species? Seek competent advice on control techniques. Herbicides, hand pulling, weed wrench, cultivation or mowing may control weeds and their seeds long enough for natives to establish. Learn to look for woody exotic species too, such as Tartarian honeysuckle and European buckthorn.
  • Is existing vegetation relatively weed free? Consider interseeding (no till) or plugging plants into existing vegetation. Example: a thin lawn, or sparse old field. No till means fewer new weeds; soil is held while natives establish.
  • Do you have proper planting equipment? Ask seed producers about a Truax drill for large sites, hand operated seeders for small sites. Hand broadcasting is an option. Metal bars punch holes for seedlings. Use garden tools for potted plants.


6. Manage. "Low maintenance" does not mean "no maintenance." Mainly the first few growing seasons require maintenance. How will weeds be controlled? A few inches of wet chopped leaf mulch choke weeds and support seedlings on small areas. In prairie/savanna plantings plan to mow before weeds reach 6-12 inches or hand weed small sites. Long term either burn after the third year, then every 3-6 years as needed or mow on same schedule, removing clippings.

Practice patience and more patience. Every native landscape is a work in progress. The show is worth waiting for.

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