Urban Sites, Native Wonders
By gardening with native plants, I bring color and life to city spaces.
As a young adult with autism, I live in a group home in the city. When I moved into the home in 2009 it had no trees, few bushes, and no native plants. Nonnative hostas abounded. I knew a bit about gardening since I had kept a garden at my parents’ house, and I had learned about native plants from a personal care attendant and from books and guides I had read.
I started a native garden at the group home by planting a few red columbines (Aquilegia canadensis), which are native to Minnesota, and wood poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum), which are native to states east of here. While those were getting established, I got to know and love Out Back Nursery in Hastings, which specializes in native Minnesota plants. Tom [Tennant], the owner, hired me for a summer because of my strong interest in plants. I learned a lot about natives, including that compass plants can live for 100 years, and more about weeds than I care to admit. (I weeded pots.)
As my knowledge and access to plants expanded, my garden grew. I got permission from my program director to plant a small tree, an Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus). A friend, Ruth, gave me bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), which is now a large clump that blooms every spring. I planted wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum).
At the time there was a sickly boxelder tree in our backyard, so a backyard tree would have to wait. However, opportunity arose when that tree was cut down a few years later. I was able to get a blue beech (Carpinus caroliniana) sapling from Out Back. Blue beech is one tree you don’t see that often. It’s also called American hornbeam or musclewood as its bark looks like rippling muscles. The fall color is a brilliant red to orange, and the tree is now more than 12 feet tall.
Planting a native landscape has its ups and downs. You have to see what works and what doesn’t for your situation. I tried hepatica (Anemone acutiloba), but it failed, becoming squirrel food. I had to take out the wild bergamot and cup plants, which attract stinging insects, because of bee sting liability. I now focus mainly on shade natives of the eastern deciduous forest, especially ferns, which don’t draw stinging insects and are good fillers in a landscape.
Ferns are also great because they can support wildlife like toads, which use them for shelter, and ruby-throated hummingbirds, which use fern parts as nest liners. Some of the ferns I have are cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum), lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), bulblet fern (Cystopteris bulbifera), and maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum). I also have a few nonnative ghost ferns. I tried common oak fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris), but it was too fragile and didn’t survive.
Besides the ferns, I also now have eastern cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum), American spikenard (Aralia racemosa), and smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) that I rescued from a woodlot that was being developed. I have also planted wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), southern blueflag iris (Iris virginica), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), and a prickly wild rose (Rosa acicularis) that suckered profusely. I put in some nonnative berries, Hinnomaki red gooseberries and royalty raspberries, to provide fresh picking.
This year, I expanded my native gardening to a new place, a plot at Merriam Station Community Garden that I rent for $25 a year. I wanted to help the bees and plant rare and almost gone plants, so at the community garden I grow plants of the tallgrass prairie, which once covered 400 million acres of the Great Plains.
My prairie plants include my two favorite natives—wild bergamot and Maryland figwort (Scrophularia marilandica)—as well as milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), three species of blazing star (Liatris spp.), smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), several ornamental native grasses, and three kinds of Silphium: cup plant (S. perfoliatum), compass plant (S. laciniatum), and prairie dock (S. terebinthinaceum). For eating while I watch the insects, I have nonnative honeyberries.
At least twice a week during the growing season, I get a ride to the community garden and stay for about an hour, eating berries and watching bees and butterflies.
Perennials like prairie plants take a while to get established. As I watch them grow I keep in mind the gardener’s saying, “The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap.”
All in all, I hope I can continue to protect the little oases that I have created. I don’t own the property, but I feel blessed to have created these patches of urban jungle.
The native plants in the gardens that I tend have created a sense of place, peace, and tranquility, and they help wildlife by creating habitat. In my neighborhood I’m the only one doing what I’m doing, but I hope more people will join me in planting natives.
Native Plant Reading List
Alex’s recommended books for your native plant journey:
• The Midwestern Native Garden by Adam Branhagen (Ohio University Press)
• Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy (Timber Press)
• Native Plants of the Midwest: The Best 500 Species by Adam Branhagen (Timber Press)
• Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota by Lynne M. Steiner (Voyageur Press)
To find accurate photos and identification tips for native plants, visit minnesotawildflowers.info.