Monday, July 27, 2009

Even native plant gardens need maintenance

Even native plant gardens need maintenance. All too often I see native plants advertised as "low-" or "no-maintenance". Although it is true plants native to your area will require less maintenance than conventional, generic plants (that is, those not suited for a particular climate or locale), they do require some maintenance in a garden setting. As I often remind people, it is "xeri-scape" not "zero-scape".

Inherently, periodic care, cultivation or just maintenance defines a "garden" and distinguishes it from a natural area. Perhaps instead of "maintenance free", native plant gardens should be thought of, and referred to, as "less resource intensive". This is probably a more accurate, and appropriate descriptor, since, in their native environment, native plants do not need soil amendments, fertilizers, pesticides, protetction from hot summers or cold winters, and additional water (once established), but they do require care.

I think that the lack of attention people pay to native plant gardens does a disservice to promoting native plants as landscape alternatives, especially when the aesthetic is a departure from the accepted norm. The norm being the French or English garden of a manicured lawn, and a few specimen trees. As I have mentioned in past posts (read: ranted), native plant gardens need to be thoughtful and consider the same design elements as any landscape. Having a native plant garden is not an excuse to to have an unkempt garden.

Maintenance for a native plant garden may be for a variety of reasons including: aesthetics, "tidiness", to promote undergrowth, to deadhead and prolong the bloom (though this is not very effective in our climate since we do not water), to maintain diversity of plant species and structure, or so some flowers don't set seed.

As far as letting flowers go to seed or restricting them from seeding, I do a combination. I like to leave a lot of seed heads on plants for birds, and insects but not necessarily all of them. For example, showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosus), three-vaned fleabane (Erigeron subtrinervis), and hairy golden aster (Heterotheca villosa), and others are prolific seeders, and without management they would probably end up dominating the garden. So, in certain areas of the garden I cut them back to limit their spread. However, they are easy to grow, beautiful flowers, so I many places I am not too disappointed if they take over. Others, like blue flax (Linum lewisii) and bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), I manage more intensively (see "What is a weed" and "Shades of blue" posts for more information).

Seeds of blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata), and many aster and erigeron species (I can't necessarily tell many of them apart), get eaten by pine siskens late in the winter. Some seeds, like balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and narrow-leaf collomia (Collomia linnearis), get eaten almost immediately by beetles and shield bugs.
This evening I did a lot of, what I call "non-technical" pruning. I cleared out several paths (see photos above and below) that had be overgrown by flowers, and reshaped many plants to provide depth, and diversity to the landscape. To me, this is the fun part of gardening- reshaping and redefining spaces. Plus it is fun to just experiment and "putter" about the garden.

Below is an example of hairy golden aster stems, flowers and seeds I use as a mulch. I placed the seed heads and flowers of hairy golden aster cuttings over soil in a area I just planted as a base layer of mulch. This will help hold in soil moisture, retard weed establishment and seed the area with hairy golden aster. I will add a thin top coat of shredded bark mulch to complete the planting. I have tried this a few times with hairy golden aster and it works well.
After pruning, you are left with a lot of trimmings (see photo at the top of the post) and what to do with all the plant material can be an issue and daunting. Any leafy plants, I just compost, but plants with tough or nearly woody stems I just add to the brush piles in the yard we keep for wildlife. Apart from the benefits to many wildlife species, brush piles are wonderful features in the garden to contain the surprising amount of biomass even a small xeri-scaped yard can produce.


  1. Hi Dave and thank you for this post! You are absolutely right about many people paying no attention to maintaining native plant gardens. I think I need to go to the garden and do some work myself!

  2. Hi Dave, found your blog a few weeks back and just love it. I aspire to have our little Aussie garden as wildlife-friendly as yours. Our tiny mammals are so endangered here! We have all native Aussie plants, some indigenous to our area and gradually increasing those. Will definitely add the brush pile. Any simple ideas for frogs?

  3. Nice blog, Dave. Here in Florida the developers bulldoze away all the natives and put in plants from Hawaii and South America. We have an active native plant society that tries to educate the public about the value of natives. Did you use natives in the pocket garden? Could you post a photo of it?

  4. Hi Sue,
    Thanks for the comments. As far as bulldozers and development- the same thing happens here, too. Our new developments, look like ones, in Missouri, Maryland, Michigan, and all the other states (even ones that don't begin with "M").
    Yes, all the plants in the pocket park are native to the Missoula area. Great idea about the pictures I need to take some! Look for some pictures on the blog or Twitter soon!
    Thanks again,

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  6. Hey Dave,
    Did you ever get pix of the pocket garden?
    Wanted you to know that I have started a blog, too, and have told folks about you there! Here's mine:

  7. Hi Suzanne,
    Thanks for the reminder- I am working on a post about the pocket park now, look for it soon. I'll check out your blog, thanks for sedning the link.