Spring 2019 Conservationist

Dig In With Natives

by Jayne Bohner, Communications & Marketing

Here at the Forest Preserve District we’re all about native plants. We grow them, plant them, spread them. We even sell them. But what’s so great about native plants, and how can we take advantage of that greatness in our own backyards?

In a nutshell, natives are grasses, flowers, shrubs and other plants that have been growing in an area for centuries (not the same exact individual plants, of course, but the same species, reseeding or otherwise spreading year after year). As a result, here in DuPage, native plants are well-adapted to hot summers, hungry insects, droughts and far-from-perfect soils.

Many plants you’ll find at local garden shops are not native. Most are “cultivars” specifically bred for certain characteristics. Others are technically “native” but to other parts of the country or world. Some people prefer these types of plants, thinking natives will create unruly gardens, but many natives come in equally attractive colors with similar-looking leaves and sizes. And because natives are at home in DuPage, they’re ideal lower-maintenance options for today’s manicured landscapes. With some research you can create attractive tiered clusters of colors and textures that bloom throughout the growing season year after year.

Plant a patch of Virginia bluebells next to wild geraniums and meadow anemone, and in spring you’ll have low-growing blankets of blues, pinks and whites. Group rough blazing star with wild bergamot and butterfly weed, and you’ll get 3-foot-tall summertime stalks of magenta and purple poms next to wide bobbing clusters of orange blooms. Taller elm-leaved goldenrod and Short’s aster planted with little bluestem will give you sprays of white and yellow next to waves of purplish bronze come fall.

Whatever you plant, don’t forget the mulch. For those who prefer a “landscaped” look, a 2- to 3-inch layer can give any garden that finishing touch. Mulch also forms a barrier that helps beat back weeds before they have a chance to sprout.

More importantly, mulch limits evaporation, which means less watering, especially during summer’s long dry spells. As it decomposes, it releases lots of rich organic material into the soil. It’s also a welcome mat for earthworms, which pull that organic material underground, breaking it into smaller pieces that really get your garden growing!

Ready to get started? Visit dupageforest.org/native-plant-sale for a copy of our plant guide, and see our calendar of programs and events for our lineup of gardening programs that’ll get your creativity growing, too! 

Flower Swap

Just like cultivated plants you'll find at most garden shops, natives come in a variety of colors, textures and predictable sizes. Thinking about making the switch? Try some of these substitutes below.

If You Like For Their Try This Native Plant Instead
Pansies Burst of early spring color Celandine poppy
Daylilies Vibrant oranges Michigan lily
Hostas Tolerance for shade Wild ginger
Dianthus Sprays of five-petaled flowers Prairie phlox
Bachelor's buttons Cornflower-blue blooms Tall bellflower
Snapdragons Exotic flower heads Obedient plant
Astilbes Feathery plumes Queen of the prairie
Hibiscus Tropical flare Swamp rose mallow



Let It All Soak In

Even native plants need watering, especially the first few seasons as their roots start to take hold. Save water — and money — by using a soaker hose instead of a sprinkler. On hot days a third of the water from a sprinkler can evaporate. Soaker hoses release less water and do so at ground level, limiting evaporation. After you plant, put the hose in place, cover it with mulch, and you’re set! © GrowOrganic.com