Do I Need to Fertilize Native Plants?

Whether you’re starting a new garden or enjoying a well-established landscape, you know that plants require some regular maintenance. If you’re a fan of native plants, you may have wondered if you need to fertilize them on a regular basis like some of your other garden plants. In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen will help guide you through some tips for caring for your native plants.

Close-up of a gardener's hand holding a blue spade with white granular fertilizer near a flowering Asclepias syriaca plant in a sunny garden. It features tall, upright stems with broad, lance-shaped leaves that are arranged in opposite pairs along the stem. Common milkweed produces clusters of small, fragrant pink to purplish flowers atop the stems.


There are many wonderful reasons to garden with native plants. These are the species that occur naturally within a region, and for this reason, they are especially well-adapted to the growing conditions within this area. You may be pleasantly surprised to find out how many spectacular native plant species you can grow in your garden.

Native plants are low maintenance and beautiful, which are both excellent reasons to use them in your garden. Replacing your lawn with native plants, for example, requires less water, no extra fertilizer products, and fewer, if any, pesticides. By growing these plants in your landscape, you will ultimately save time and money and also benefit your natural environment. 

When plants are growing in their natural habitats, they obtain their nutrients from the native soil. The soil is always being exposed to the natural cycle of leaves and other vegetation decomposing into usable nutrients. Building a healthy soil system is one of the best things you can do for any gardening project because it means that your plants are part of a natural, thriving, and renewable ecosystem.

Keep reading for more information about gardening with native plants and building a well-balanced and sustainable soil cycle

The Short Answer

Native plants are perfectly well adapted to grow and thrive on their own in nature. If they can grow in the wild without any extra help, they should also be able to grow in our backyards, right? The short answer is that yes, you can grow these local plants without ever needing to add fertilizer, but it isn’t always quite as simple as that. For any plant to survive, it still needs nutrients, and you’ll somehow need to supply those nutrients, ideally by building a healthy soil system.

The Long Answer

Gardening with native plants has a great number of benefits. They: 

  • don’t typically need extra fertilizers or pesticides.
  • are low-maintenance.
  • are well adapted to natural conditions within their native regions.
  • provide nectar, food, shelter, and habitat for native wildlife.
  • attract valuable pollinators and other beneficial insects to your landscape.
  • increase local biodiversity.
  • are colorful and beautiful!

Native plants can support your edible landscape, thrive in your shade garden, feed pollinators, and increase curb appeal

Choose the Best Plants for Your Site

Close-up of blooming Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in a sunny garden. They feature bright golden-yellow petals surrounding a dark brown or black center, giving them their distinctive "black-eyed" look.
Choose native plants suited to your zone and landscape conditions.

You will, of course, want to select the plants that are best suited for your landscape. For the most trouble-free selection, pick the varieties most likely to succeed. How do you do this? Get a healthy head start by choosing the best plants for your garden:

  • Check out the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map and choose plants that are hardy in your zone.
  • Know the conditions in your landscape, including available sunlight, soil type, and moisture conditions. Then select the best plant varieties to match those conditions.
  • Place your plants well. Give your plants plenty of space and place them in situations where they complement each other.

The best way to help provide garden nutrients is to learn about each species you want to grow. Pay special attention to their soil and nutrient needs. If they thrive in poor or sandy soil, this is what you should supply for them. If they grow in organically rich, moist soil, plant them in an area prepared with this soil type. 

What Do Plants Need?

Close-up of blooming lavender colored Bee Balm flowers in a sunny garden. Monarda fistulosa are enchanting perennial plants that bear striking, tubular-shaped blossoms in shades of soft lavender to pale purple. These delicate flowers feature fringed edges and are arranged in dense, spherical clusters atop tall, sturdy stems.
Native plants thrive in poor soils and often don’t need fertilizers.

All plants need sunlight, water, and nutrients. Native plants, like all plants, require a little time and effort to help them look and perform their best. Basic landscaping maintenance includes routine tasks like pulling weeds. You may also need to water your plants, prune them, or thin crowded plantings

But what about fertilizing? Don’t all plants require fertilizers? Actually, no. Not all plants need extra fertilizers. The reason we fertilize is because we deplete the nutrients in the soil or we try to grow plants with high nutrient needs in low-quality soils. Landscaping with native plants reduces your need to fertilize

It’s important to note that many native plant species thrive in poor-quality soils, and using fertilizers can inadvertently cause adverse effects. An over-supply of nutrients can cause plants to grow weak, produce fewer flowers, and experience chemical burns from applied fertilizers.

Healthy Soil

Close-up of a gardener digging the soil in the garden with a small shovel. The gardener is wearing white gloves and a plaid shirt. The soil is black, loose, slightly lumpy.
Build healthy soil to eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers.

If you’re willing to put in some time to build healthy soil, you won’t need to fertilize your native plants. Like any other plant, they still need nutrients to thrive. So the question then becomes, how do you provide nutrients without the need for extra fertilizers?

Soil is the foundation of life and good health for most plants. Plants that grow in soil depend on a healthy soil system to grow well, flower, and reproduce. Without healthy soil, your plants won’t be able to develop a strong and healthy root system. 

So, how do you know if your soil is healthy? Depending on where you live and what type of soil is on your property, you may want to do some soil preparation before starting any sort of garden or landscape project. 

Unless you are growing plants specially adapted for either sandy or clay soil types, you’ll probably need to improve your soil quality before most plants will grow well. Sandy soil generally needs some type of natural compost to help boost nutrients and moisture retention. Clay soil, on the other hand, can benefit from soil amendments and help to improve drainage.

To better understand your soil type, we recommend performing a soil test. The Epic Gardening soil test kit will give you an easy-to-read PDF with a breakdown of the macro and micronutrients in your soil, along with clear amendment recommendations.

Improving Soil Quality

Close-up of farmer's hands holding fresh black soil against blurred background. The woman is wearing a white sweater. The soil is black, loose, slightly moist.
Improve soil with compost and mulch for healthier plants and gardens.

One of the easiest ways to improve soil quality is to use compost and mulch. You can enrich your soil before you add new plants. You can also enrich your soil periodically after your plants are in the ground. In some situations, you may want to do annual soil maintenance, while in other cases, you may only need to do soil maintenance once every few years. 

Mulching with organic and biodegradable mulches will help improve your soil quality and soil structure, and it has other benefits as well. Mulches help retain soil moisture, suppress weeds, help control pests, and protect your plants from temperature extremes. Mulch also helps keep your garden looking great!

Plants that love nutrient-rich soils will most benefit from an annual side dressing of organic, nutrient-rich compost. This will offer them a slow and steady supply of nutrients without overdoing it.


Close-up of making compost in a sunny garden. There are kitchen scraps, ashes and an overturned black plastic bin on the black soil. A small black spade is stuck into the soil.
Homemade organic compost enriches soil.

Organic compost is one of the best, highest-quality soil amendments you can use. You can buy organic compost at most garden centers, or you can make your own. Incorporate compost into the soil at the time of planting, or use a side-dressing technique to work it in annually around your established perennials.

Compost will enrich your soil, eliminating the need for fertilizer in a native plant garden. It can be used together with any of the other mulches listed below for even more benefits, like reducing weeds and preserving soil moisture. 


Soil regenerated dead leaf mulch. Close-up of a thick layer of dry leaves from various plants lying on the soil. The leaves come in a variety of shapes from oval to lobed and in different shades of gold and brown.
Dry leaves make excellent mulch, mimicking woodland conditions and enriching soil.

Leaves are a surprisingly good mulching option, particularly in a natural woodland garden. Simply leaving your leaves on the ground will simulate natural conditions for woodland plants.

You can also use chopped, shredded, or partially composted leaves for your other flower beds. Leaf mulch breaks down quickly, helps build healthy soil structure, and even attracts beneficial earthworms. Add a layer of leaf mulch on top of your organic compost for a great combination.

Pine Needles

Close-up of a woman's hands mulching a garden bed with pine branches. Pine branches are characterized by their distinct evergreen foliage, consisting of slender, needle-like leaves arranged in clusters along woody stems.
Any pine needles serve as natural mulch for trees and shrubs.

Pine needles are a good mulching option in some situations. If you already have pine trees in your yard, you can leave their needles on the ground to provide a natural woodland mulch.

Pine straw can also be used around native trees and shrubs and berry plants, like raspberries and strawberries. Some people find it looks too coarse for flower beds. However, it’s really a matter of personal preference. Pine straw does break down quickly, however, and should be renewed or alternated with other mulches.


Close-up of young potato bushes mulched with straw. Potato bushes feature lush, green foliage with deeply lobed leaves that emerge from thick, upright stems.
Wheat straw is effective for quick decomposition mulching around plants.

Straw (wheat straw) makes a good mulching material, especially in places where you need mulch that breaks down quickly. Spread straw around your plants to help insulate them in cold weather or preserve soil moisture in warm weather.

Since straw decomposes fast, you’ll probably want to refresh your straw mulch each year or alternate with different natural mulches. If wheat straw contains seeds, however, be prepared to remove young wheat plants as they sprout.

Wood Bark

Young fir trees grow in a garden bed with wood bark mulch. Wood bark mulch is a natural ground covering material composed of shredded or chipped bark from various tree species. It appears as coarse, irregularly shaped pieces of varying sizes and colors.
Wood chips and bark mulch are durable and decorative.

Bark mulch is a great option, particularly if you want to use it for decorative purposes and walkways. Wood chips and bark usually last a few years before they need to be renewed.

If you are using wood mulches around your perennial plants, you may want to mix wood bark with other organic mulches to provide the most nutrients. Don’t use dyed, colored, or treated mulches if you want to avoid unwanted chemicals in your organic garden.


Close-up of male hands holding Grass clippings on a blurred garden background. Grass clippings are finely chopped, vibrant green plant material resulting from mowing laws or grassy areas.
Use grass clippings cautiously due to potential chemical contamination and smothering.

Grass clippings are easy to come by and can help, but be careful when using grass clippings. If you are using grass that has been treated with chemical pesticides or fertilizers, you may be introducing unwanted chemicals into your native plant garden. You also don’t want to apply a thick layer of grass clippings to most areas, because they clump together and will tend to smother everything underneath.

Do not use grass that has flowered or gone to seed in a native garden. The result of this is a garden full of grass, which is not what you were going for.

Create a Sustainable Habitat in Your Yard

Close-up of a gardener digging a Blue phlox plant in the garden. Blue phlox is a charming herbaceous perennial known for its delicate, star-shaped flowers. The plant forms clumps of slender stems adorned with lance-shaped leaves that are dark green and glossy. Blue phlox produces clusters of fragrant, five-petaled flowers in shades of soft lavender-blue.
Establish a strong foundation by mulching and managing weeds.

Once you have identified the plants you want to grow, placed them in their ideal habitats, and prepared your soil in advance, you have already given your plants a wonderful foundation for healthy and vibrant growth. It may take them a few years to fully incorporate into your landscape, start flowering and producing fruits, and start multiplying, but laying this early foundation is critical for success. 

Now that your plants are established, manage your garden by pulling weeds and addressing any potential problems early. Add organic and biodegradable mulches around your plants to improve soil texture, improve soil quality, boost nutrients, reduce weeds, preserve soil moisture, and protect your plants. It won’t take a lot of time each year to maintain a healthy perennial native plant garden, giving you more time to enjoy your wildflowers. 

Final Thoughts

Native plant gardens typically do not need any extra fertilizer treatments. They are perfectly adapted to their natural, local growing conditions. Just remember these simple guidelines.

  • Choose plants native to your region.
  • Learn about the plants you want to grow.
  • Match your soil to the plants.
  • Prepare the soil in advance.
  • Use mulch to improve soil and site conditions.
  • Enjoy your thriving garden!
View of English Cottage garden styles. Close-up of an old English cottage with old wooden doors, abundantly covered with climbing Clematis in bloom. Around the house there are flowering hydrangea bushes and an apple tree with ripe fruits. On the porch there are two flowerpots with African daisies in bloom and begonia in bloom. There is a wreath of fresh carnation flowers hanging on the door.

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A wildflower meadow in full bloom covered in a variety of wildflowers, including poppies, daisies, cornflowers, and black-eyed Susans. The flowers are in full bloom, and their colors are vibrant and eye-catching. There are also a few green plants and grasses scattered throughout the field.


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