Mother Earth Living

Garden Spaces: Grow a Native Plant Garden

Grow a low-maintenance native plant garden full of hardy plants. Learn the basics of native garden designs and how to spot edible native herbs in the wild.
By Kathleen Halloran
October/November 2009
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Sage makes a beautiful addition to any native landscape. Plant Salvia nemorosa ‘Amethyst’ or S. nemorosa ‘Cardonna’ for extra color.
Photo by zorani
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When I discover an undemanding plant that thrives in my toughest garden spots, I’m usually not surprised to learn how it comes by its easygoing nature: It’s a native.

The value of native plants is especially evident in difficult climates and in the most challenging areas of your landscape. I live in Texas, where heat, drought and wind extremes challenge all life forms who dare call it home. But in all regions, native plants often can stand up to the worst you throw at them. Many are tough, drought-tolerant, heat-resistant, cold-tolerant and low-maintenance—qualities that make them perfect for that patch of horticultural challenge known as The Hell Strip.

That’s the epithet given to the long, narrow strip sandwiched between the street and the sidewalk, usually a rectangle of grass or weeds. Subject to all manner of abuse, these neglected strips are hot and dry in summers, not only because they’re in full sun, but also because they pick up reflected heat from both sides.

Our low-growing, native plant garden strip combines native herbs, wildflowers and ornamental native grasses for a tough but beautiful tapestry of color and texture. Once established, it will be more drought-tolerant than the turf grass it replaced. As a bonus, the variety of native plants attracts more butterflies, dragonflies, hummingbirds and other native wildlife than a boring strip of grass. You can use this native planting along the street or for any other difficult site, such as along a driveway.

Native Garden Design and Plants

• Garden Spaces: 11 Native Plants for a Low-Maintenance Garden
• 10 Wild Edible Plants 

Prepare the Site: Drought-Resistant Landscaping

Prepare the soil by removing any grass or weeds, roots and rocks, and digging in some compost. Generally speaking, native plants do fine in native soil, but compost will improve almost any soil’s texture, particularly if it’s compacted from constant trampling; your plants will do best in a soil that drains quickly but retains the water and nutrients they need, adding to their drought tolerance.

Just remember, the hard work of preparing a garden bed is always rewarded in the end. At this time (while preparing the garden bed), when you’re turning over the soil, add whatever other amendments your soil demands. If you’re uncertain about your soil, have a chat with a county extension agent in your area, or perhaps another gardener in the neighborhood.

The word “native” embraces a continent that includes many different climates and conditions, so search the Internet to discover your best choices. While there are many tempting plants in the native palette shown here, choose the ones best suited to your weather and your soil. Gardeners from all regions blog about their growing experiences with specific native plants; you can glean important advice from their reviews.

Did you know? The definition of a “native” plant is subjective, of course, depending on the location of the reader. In this article, we focus on low-maintenance plants that grow wild in North America. Some have naturalized here, and some were here before European settlement. Many introduced species are part of the natural matrix of plants, and only some are a pestilence.

Native Plant Garden: Pick the Plants

The garden illustrated here would do well in my Zone 8 area of Texas, but among the hundreds of native grasses and sedges, possibilities abound for every location. Native grasses are increasingly available in local garden centers. I like to mix small, clumping native grasses with native flowering herbs for a carefree, long-lasting display. In late summer, the grasses’ wispy plumes add visual interest and spiky contrast to other plants, and the effect lasts into the winter.

Please note that some native grasses have a tendency to self-sow too enthusiastically. A hell strip is a relatively contained space with definite boundaries, which makes it less likely that its plants will be too invasive. Still, it’s best to avoid species that have the potential for invasiveness in your area (again, check with your county extension agent or local nursery owners for advice). Remove the dried seed heads to prevent reseeding, weed out new seedlings as they appear, or use the plants’ aggressive nature to your advantage by transplanting the seedlings and expanding the garden strip.

Check the Rules

Before you dig out the grass along the street, call your local utility companies to make certain you know the location of underground lines or pipes. Also check with city officials. Some municipalities have weed laws, height restrictions or setback rules that could limit your plant choices.

Many cities have come to appreciate the environmental and economic benefits of natural, native landscaping. If you keep the native plant garden weeded, tidy and watered until it is established and flourishing, it’s hard to imagine your neighbors complaining.


Kathleen Halloran is a contributing editor and freelance writer living and gardening in beautiful Austin, Texas. 


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