Native Garden 101

by Alexandria Yurosko, Marketing Content Manager

native gardenIf you've been following the Nature Center, you've probably heard or seen the term "native plants" once or a hundred times. As we head into our plant sale and gardening season, here are some native garden basics! Once you learn what to look for, it gets easier to spot native plants in your neighborhood and during your visits to NCSL. Hopefully, you will be inspired to create your own native garden at home.

So what is a native plant? By USDA definition, a native plant is a part of the balance of nature that has developed over hundreds or thousands of years in a particular region or ecosystem. More simply put, native plants are those that occur naturally in a region, without human introduction. Since the plant has been in the particular ecosystem for so long, it has developed positive relationships with other native wildlife and they depend on each other for sustainable food, shelter, and habitat. Native plants are already adapted to the area so this provides benefits to gardeners as they generally require less maintenance when planted in the right conditions.

Identify your garden location and plants

To start a native garden, first, identify which plants would be best suited to your growing conditions. Visiting our plant sale is a great place to start as we have experts on hand to guide you through our plant offerings and provide tips on what may work best in your particular set-up. It may help to watch your yard or outdoor space throughout the day to track sun and shade. Also pay attention after rain to see what areas seem to be wetter or where water pools. An online tool like Native Plant Finder may also provide some inspiration.

Prep the area

Rake through your soil to remove weeds, and add compost to add valuable nutrients to the soil prior to planting. If you are unable to compost at home, consider becoming part of our Rust Belt Riders program! Rust Belt Riders sells soil made from compost that you can purchase. This will ensure your plants have a healthy start!

Timing is everything

Ideally, you will plan your garden to be in bloom early spring through fall. This means that pollinators will have access to flowering plants and a constant supply of food during their most active seasons. It will also provide you with a gorgeous view for months on end! Our Bringing Nature Home series for 2022 features the topic "Will it Be Beautiful?" which provides guidance on the timing of blooms.

Crowded is key

While it may seem contradictory to what you are used to seeing in a picture of a neat and tidy garden, native plants should be planted closely together! When planted in closer quarters, the native plants will naturally crowd out weeds minimizing the need for fertilizers and even mulching! To start, give the plants space to mature and layer your soil with compost and an untreated mulch. Plant natives with a variety of heights to shade the ground. As your natives grow, you will be able to reduce or eliminate mulching completely.

Regular Pruning and Trimming

Just like in traditional gardening, regular pruning and trimming are essential for keeping a native garden looking manicured. Remove dead or diseased branches, shape shrubs to maintain their desired form, and cut back overgrown foliage to encourage healthy growth and maintain tidy borders.


Mulching not only helps to retain moisture and suppress weeds but also contributes to the overall neatness of the garden. Apply a layer of organic mulch, such as shredded bark or wood chips, around plants to create a uniform appearance and define pathways and garden beds.

Edge Garden Beds

Define the edges of your garden beds to create clean lines and prevent plants from encroaching onto pathways or lawn areas. Use edging materials such as bricks, stones, or metal strips to maintain a tidy separation between the garden and surrounding areas.

Regular Weeding

Keep weeds at bay by regularly pulling them out by hand or using natural weed control methods. Be vigilant, especially in the early stages of plant growth when weeds can quickly take over and detract from the manicured look of the garden.

Water Wisely

Native plants are generally more resilient and drought-tolerant once established, but they still require adequate water, especially during dry spells. Water deeply and infrequently to encourage deep root growth and reduce the need for frequent watering.

Seasonal Cleanup

Perform seasonal cleanup tasks such as removing spent flowers, cutting back perennials, and tidying up fallen leaves and debris. Regular maintenance throughout the year will help keep your native garden looking well-maintained and manicured.

Information adapted from Garden for Wildlife by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), Martha Stewart Gardening, and USDA