FAQ Starter Guide

new to native plants & natural design?

Nobody can do the work for you, unless you’re ok paying them for their expertise (which we hope you are — sometimes that’s the best way to get a solid start). Begin by noodling around at the following links, learn, explore, follow the trail, get empowered through knowledge. When you DIY it takes time – perhaps even up to 75% of your total time planning and installing a new natural garden bed. That’s actually awesome! You’re going to be able to make an even bigger impact for your community. And no matter what, you should always be gardening locally — that not only means your ecoregion but your site, as well as including a majority of native plants while choosing species based on sociability (as well as suited to the site and ecoregion).

What's Native to Me? Where can I Research plants?

Zipcode searches at Xerces Society, Pollinator Partnership, PP Region Guides, Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation.

Prairie Moon Nursery —- species lists by site condition and seed germination codes

MOBOT —- Missouri Botanical Gardens plant profiles

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center —- plant profiles

BONAP —- Biota of North America Program for deeper plant and region research

Illinois Wildflowers —- in-depth plant profiles and insect + bug visitation lists

USDA Plants Database —- more maps, just like BONAP, with plant profiles and deeper information

EPA Ecoregion Maps —- stop gardening by hardiness zone

In Canada? — ecoregion and plant lists

Bplant —- plant profiles and discussion of ecoregions

Regional flora guidebooks

Flickr —- type in Latin plant names to see images of plants at various stages)

iNaturalist —- post pics for flora and fauna i.d.

Where Can I find Nurseries and Seed Sources?

Plant Native

Xerces Society

RNGR

Izel Native Plants — purveyor of plugs from regional wholesale growers east of the Rockies.

Native plant society sales, local university extension sales, farmer’s markets, some big box and local retail nurseries, and hundreds of mom & pop native plant nurseries around the country.

How do I Design a natural garden?

What about
management?

There’s seasonal management you might perform like clockwork, and there’s management you do at varying times based on specific goals — such as encouraging more flowers, reducing grass competition, getting after a weed species, improving habitat, etc.

In general, you’ll mow or cut down in spring after soil temperatures are firmly in the 50s or a week or two past the time you’d do a first lawn mow (but you don’t have any lawn, right?).

Luckily, many of the above links and books and classes offer management advice that’s responsive to the site needs and not like traditional mow-and-blow landscaping where the same acts are performed at the same times on every site everywhere in the city. But ultimately, management, like planting, is highly local — which is as it should be if we’re gardening in sync with nature, sustainably, and for wildlife. 

How do I remove my lawn?

There are several methods based on time, cost, physical ability, and site variables (such as weeds) — all have their pros and cons. Luckily, we wrote a post on how to eradicate lawn.

The five main methods are:

  1. Sod cutter
  2. Solarizing
  3. Smother with cardboard
  4. Herbicide
  5. Stressing the lawn (scalping, no water or nutrients, power raking) and planting directly into it with aggressive plant species.

What are the best tools to use?

For many folks the best tools to use are the ones you find most comfortable. And there’s always a different tool for a different job, from trenching to digging trees to planting plugs. But here are our most commonly-used tools (many of which you can find at our affiliate link):

  1. Mixing drill — has more torque than household drills so the motor won’t burn out in clay soil. Use for plugs.
  2. Solid steel auger bit — 36″ long shaft with 3″ diameter bit.
  3. Soil knife — A.M. Leonard is our go to, especially the deluxe version.
  4. Gloves — Wonder Grip insulated (even in summer) and waterproof.
  5. Expandable hose — no hose lasts for more than a season or two, so might as well get something lighter and more compact.
  6. Fire hose nozzle — Bon Aire is a solid nozzle and lasts forever.
  7.  D handle spade or transplant shovel — the kind that are waist high.

I don't live in Nebraska. Why prairie my lawn?

Prairie. Meadow. Savanna. These are interchangeable terms we all make synonymous in our heads. But there are two main reasons why prairie / meadow gardening is right for you and your lawn:

  1. Just about every state recently had or does have prairie / meadow / savanna. From the Palouse in the Pacific Northwest to the Piedmont in the mid Atlantic, to Long Island’s Hempstead Plains and the Gulf Coast savannas, to California’s Carizzo Plain and the Midwest’s tallgrass — prairie is everywhere.
  2. Meadow is an early succession landscape, as such it heals a site and prepares it for future ecosystems like woodland edge or woodland. Besides, if you plant a bunch of young shrubs and trees in a lawn, it will be a long time before they mature, so what should go under and around them in the meantime? Probably plants that create a rich tapestry of ecosystem function and that will in turn actually help trees be healthier — because few if any trees evolved in a close-cropped lawn. Also, soft landings are important for insect and bug larvae.

What's your elevator pitch design advice?

First, keep the average height of all plants right around 18-24 inches.

Second, use a matrix design with grass or sedge appropriate for the site and region.

Third, have no more than 1-3 species blooming at one time, and make sure to have a continuous bloom succession from spring through fall.

Fourth, plant flower species in repeating masses and drifts of 3, 5, 7, 21 — whatever scale you need to suit the space and the species sociability and habits.

Employ cues to care to show further intention and be welcoming to humans: benches, arbors, fountains, sculptures, wide paths, signs, stone walls, etc.

Know any good elevator puns?

Since riding on elevators started to make me nervous I’ve taken steps to avoid them.

Elevator jokes work on so many levels.

And yet elevator puns really push my buttons.

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Front yard meadow bed full of diverse native plant flowers and grasses in the foreground, contrasting with the background of suburban monoculture lawns and hard concrete surfaces like streets, sidewalks, and driveways. We can do better for the health and resilience in the places we call home.