11 Tips for a Native Garden with Curb Appeal
Some gardeners are afraid to grow a native plant garden, fearing it will look untidy. There are many ways you can help your garden look great, both up close and from a distance. In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen discusses 15 tips to help your native plant garden thrive and look spectacular in the process!
You can grow a native garden just about anywhere. But what if your garden is in front of your house where everyone can see it? You’ll probably want it to enhance your curb appeal, not only for yourself but for anyone else passing by to enjoy.
We all know that native plants are critical to preserving local ecosystems. They increase biodiversity and create essential habitats for native pollinators and wildlife. They provide benefits to you as well! Native plants are perfectly adapted to the environments in which they grow, requiring less supplemental watering. They reduce the need for pesticides or fertilizers that run into waterways.
Some gardeners avoid native plants, fearing they’ll look weedy or messy. With a bit of intention and application of the basics of garden design, your waterwise, pollinator-friendly, low-maintenance yard will be the envy of the neighborhood!
Native Garden Design Tips
Are you ready to create a stunning native plant garden? Let’s dig deeper into 15 tips for a vibrant and thriving native garden with eye-catching curb appeal.
Tip 1: Grow a Rainbow
One of the first things people notice about a flower is its color. A native garden shouldn’t be entirely flowers, but adding an assortment of colorful blooms is sure to get plenty of attention. If you want your garden to have a powerful “wow” factor, add lots of color. Growing various colors naturally allows you to grow an equally diverse assortment of plants.
Flowers come in a rainbow of colors, and there are plenty of native plants with brightly colored blossoms. You may not be able to grow every type of native plant in your yard because the conditions may not be compatible. But no matter what type of space you have, you will certainly have many options. Don’t forget about fall foliage; many trees and shrubs offer spectacular late-season leaf colors, too!
Looking for ideas? Check out some of these rainbow-colored native perennials:
Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Red Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
Blue Penstemon (Penstemon strictus)
Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans)
Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata)
Orange Hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum)
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense)
Smooth Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve)
Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
Yellow Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)
Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaries)
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)
Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)
Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
Tip 2: Plant for 4-Season Appeal
I will admit that when I see a field entirely full of sunflowers in full bloom, I think it’s an amazing sight. But since the sunflowers bloom all at once, that field isn’t too interesting at any other time of the year. For an eye-catching garden display year-round, consider the bloom time of your plants.
No matter how small or large your gardening space is, try to incorporate plants with showy attributes for each season. Flowers, leaves, fruits, and seed pods add interest and beauty to the landscape. You will have something to enjoy and appreciate every time you look at your garden.
The first green leaves unfurl early each spring, followed by small spring-blooming perennials. If you think spring is all about non-native bulbs like daffodils and crocus, add some native plant diversity, too.
There are spring-blooming native plants for both sun and shade that will help wake up your landscape and get an early start on the growing season. One of the easiest native plants to grow is the spring-blooming red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). If you have a moist, shaded garden, try the unique-looking Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).
This is typically the time of peak garden showiness. You can pack a lot of summer flowers into your yard. Some plants will bloom in early summer, while others won’t peak until mid or late summer.
You can even find native species that bloom throughout the entire summer. This is also when birds and butterflies are most active, so plant some flowers to attract them. Butterflies love butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), both of which bloom throughout the summer.
Don’t give up on the garden just yet. There are some spectacular fall-blooming native plants. Some species will spend their summers growing dense leafy vegetation and burst into full bloom as the summer flowers wind down.
Some grasses and shrubs also look stunning during the autumn months. A native fall garden wouldn’t be complete without a fall-blooming aster, such as the New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) or smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve).
In most regions, winter is a very slow gardening season. If all your plants have died back for the winter, leave some standing vegetation that provides structural interest throughout the coldest months.
Some tender perennials will completely die back to the ground, while more rigid plants and grasses will still look appealing, even after turning brown. And don’t forget about plants with evergreen foliage to keep your landscape looking alive all year long. You can maintain curb appeal throughout the winter with winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) and prairie dropseed grass (Sporobolus heterolepis).
Tip 3: Consider Mature Size
Gardens look best with plants of different sizes. But don’t just mix them all up together. For the best visual appeal, you’ll want to arrange your small, medium, and tall plants so you can see them all clearly.
Generally, place your smaller plants towards the front of the garden plot and the taller plants towards the back. If you have a flower garden plot that can be seen from all sides, keep your smaller plants around the edge and the tallest plants towards the middle.
For visual appeal, this allows you to see many plants simultaneously. For practical purposes, it also helps keep the smaller plants towards the outer edge, where they will get plenty of sunlight and not be shaded out while surrounded by taller plants.
Tip 4: Create Groupings
Cluster together several plants with similar characteristics. A group of yellow flowering plants together will have a greater impact than single yellow flowers scattered in different areas. You can group plants by color, size, or blooming time. Plant several butterfly-friendly plants close together to help the butterflies find them, or grow a few hummingbird favorites nearby to attract these beautiful birds.
You don’t have to put all similar plants together, but if you arrange them into little clumps, you can help them stand out – power in numbers. Try some creative groupings. You can incorporate a small rock garden, for example, along a drier edge of your plot, and then all your xeriscape plants would go into this area, making an eye-catching display.
Tip 5: Maintain Clean Edges and Borders
Clearly defined borders can make the difference between an unruly and tidy-looking garden. There’s no reason why a native garden can’t look neat and organized. Keeping edges clearly defined signals to observers that this is an intentional look maintained with care. How can you achieve it?
Maintain defined borders by keeping tall, sprawling plants toward the back of your beds and mowing or trimming those that stray into pathways. Compact, clumping, or low-growing plants are ideal for edging. Despite their short stature, ground covers have a lot to offer. As their name implies, ground covers cover bare ground with a living carpet. They can also provide erosion control and help retain soil moisture.
If volunteer seedlings pop in pathways, transplant them elsewhere in the garden. Keep up on the weeding of invasive species that may encroach. Consider marking beds and borders with hardscape elements like rocks. Even the wildest, most billowy plants are tamed by a clear, maintained border!
Tip 6: Spread the Word
If native gardens are unusual in your area, spread the word with an attractive sign that tells neighbors why your garden is different. Sometimes, a lack of understanding is the only barrier to getting more people on board with an eco-friendly gardening style.
Remember that native plants are region-specific. Just because one species is native to parts of the United States doesn’t necessarily mean it is native to your area. Always research before planting!
You can work toward and display your wildlife habitat certification or install a pollinator habitat or native plant garden sign. Many have QR codes linked to websites inviting passers-by to learn more about their actions to make gardens both aesthetically pleasing and earth-friendly.
When neighbors and HOAs know the why behind your garden design, they are more likely to be open-minded about a non-traditional look.
Tip 7: Add Shrubs
If you think a shrub is simply a bushy woody plant with green leaves, think again. Plenty of native shrubs have beautiful flowers, fruits, or seed pods. In the autumn, some native shrubs display spectacular fall foliage. Incorporating shrubs into your landscape adds diversity, color, structure, and year-round appeal.
For smaller areas, look for more compact shrub species. You can add several varieties or taller species if you have a larger plot. Shrubs can play a useful role in creating a privacy hedge or windbreak. They provide structural habitat for birds and insects, and the flowers and fruits attract wildlife. If you have the space for at least one shrub, it can boost your garden’s curb appeal.
Tip 8: Diversify Texture and Structure
The prettiest gardens have a balanced diversity of colors, bloom times, foliage types, and heights. There are many ways you can add diversity to your landscape.
Grow plants with different structural attributes. Wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees work together to create an appealing habitat. Try to include different leaf shapes and flower types to appreciate the natural beauty available. Include smaller and low-growing plants and taller, more dominant plants. Do you have room for shrubs or small trees? Include some woody plants for year-round structure.
Tall grasses like northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) have graceful foliage and uniquely shaped seedheads. Ferns like the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) have large, appealing clusters of elegant foliage. Flowering shrubs such as the American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) add vertical height and interesting fruits.
Add wildflowers like the prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) with its tall spikes of feathery blossoms. Develop a diverse collection of wildflowers with uniquely shaped leaves and flower forms to give your garden pizzazz.
Tip 9: Give them room to grow
Placing small new plants close together to fill in the available space is very tempting. This may look great initially, but as the plants grow, they quickly become too crowded. Overcrowded plants will compete with each other for light, moisture, and soil nutrients. They will soon get in each other’s way and won’t be able to develop their true natural beauty.
When you add new plants to your garden, consider both how tall they will eventually become and how wide they will grow. A plant that grows two feet wide will need at least a one-foot radius of space around it. If you want to create a pathway or add stepping stones to access your garden, you’ll need to leave enough room to move through the space so you can interact with your garden without stepping on anything you’re trying to cultivate.
Tip 10: Incorporate Hardscape
Hardscape elements give your informal native garden an intentional look. There are plenty of interesting non-living materials you can easily incorporate into your garden for curb appeal. Use pebbles or river rocks to create a rock garden. Use a few large landscaping rocks for dramatic effect.
Add a bench or gazebo if you have the space and want to spend lots of quality time enjoying your garden. Install a trellis, arbor, or fence to support beautiful vines. Consider a strategically placed seating area to view all of the pollinators your garden supports!
One benefit of using non-living materials in your garden is that they provide winter interest in those cold months when vegetation has died away. You can use a bird feeder, bird bath, bird house, or bee house to provide additional wildlife habitat and make your garden more interesting. If you’re feeling creative, make or buy some garden art for a rustic look, folksy look, or serious artistic effect.
Tip 11: Perform Regular Maintenance
While native gardens require less water, fertilizer, and weeding to thrive, they don’t look great without regular maintenance. You can expect to spend some quality time in your garden each season. If you enjoy the gardening process, most of your regular maintenance probably won’t feel like a tedious chore. Plus, the more time you spend working in your garden, the more time you get to enjoy it directly!
Your regular gardening maintenance tasks will vary depending on the season, the types of plants you grow, your landscape, and your climate. You can expect to do some regular weeding and perhaps annual mulching.
If you grow vines, shrubs, or small trees, annual pruning keeps these plants looking their best. A late winter cleanup of debris and dead plants helps prepare your garden for fresh spring growth. Finally, many perennial plants spread over time. Thin and divide larger clusters every few years or whenever they overgrow their allotted space.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I grow a native garden in raised beds?
Absolutely! If you are gardening in a challenging landscape, have poor soil, or have limited space, raised beds can be an ideal solution. You’ll have to choose plants best suited to growing in raised beds. Compact plants and those with some drought tolerance are ideal candidates for raised bed gardening. With raised beds, you can grow a micro-garden on your patio or use several raised beds to create an entire landscape. You can enjoy some of the same benefits of growing native plants regardless of how you grow them.
What is the best way to find plants for my native garden?
A local native plant nursery or regional seed company are easy ways to find plants indigenous to your region. Many native plants, particularly perennial wildflowers, can easily grow from seed. If you have friends or neighbors who are cultivating native plants, ask if they have any extras to share the next time they divide their plants. Some garden centers sell native species, and specialty nurseries will have an excellent assortment of potted plants ready to be transplanted. Do not dig native plants from the wild, however, as this is destructive to the native habitat and may not be permitted.
How long will it take for my new native plant garden to start looking amazing?
If you are starting an entire garden plot from scratch, it won’t look amazing immediately. Seeds take time to germinate. Young plants require time to fill in and start flowering. Even potted plants and divided transplants need time to adjust and reach their full size.
The first year of your native plant garden will be the year it’s just getting started. Plants will start small, but even by the end of the first year, they will have grown noticeably larger. The second year after planting, the plants will look larger and fuller. Many species will wait until their second year to begin flowering. By the third year, your garden should look amazing. Stay on top of regular maintenance tasks so your plants look their best.
Gardening with native plants is rewarding because you know these plants will benefit bees, birds, and the ecosystem. But this isn’t just a feel-good act. Native plants also look spectacular. Many are remarkably easy to grow, hardy, and tolerant of the local environment because that’s where they are best adapted to thrive.
When starting your new garden, learn as much as you can about the growing conditions in your yard, and then make a plan. Choose plants that will thrive in your landscape. Incorporate a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and plant types. Create additional visual appeal by adding additional non-vegetative features and attracting birds and pollinators. Finally, take good care of your garden to help your plants stay healthy and beautiful, and you will have created a garden you can be truly proud of.