Looking back on my efforts to replace large sections of lawn with native plants, I can think of three things that I sure wish some gardening wizard had told me in advance. Although everyone’s planting experiences will be, to some degree, unique to their situation, I thought it would be useful to pass along my bits of wisdom in hopes they will be helpful to others.
1. Diversify your plant species.
Don’t depend on just a few species of grasses or flowers to make up the bulk of your planting area. If you rely on just a few species and one or more of them turns out to be problematic (too aggressive, too floppy or weak-stemmed, ugly, etc.), you are headed for problems. It is darned hard work to get rid of something planted in volume once you decide you are sorry you planted it. A naturally-occurring plant community can have 100 species or more. So follow Nature’s example and diversify, diversify, diversify.
2. When you select species for your planting area, take into account Nature’s amazing ability to spread seeds far and wide.
Although some species are very slow to spread, many of them are aerial acrobats that make you wonder how they do it. Don’t select any plant species that you aren’t willing to have appear in all your other planting areas. The only alternatives are to be a determined weeder or to have done your homework ahead of time and select species that self-seed poorly. Otherwise you are headed for a losing battle of trying to keep plants in their assigned locations. This concept may be something we gardeners love to do, but Nature is totally oblivious to it.
3. There is no such thing as “done.”
I once read a description of a gardener who took 13 years to get her native planting established. I naively thought “That is not going to happen to me. I will be done in 2-3 years.” Although I knew that native plant communities are dynamic, I didn’t fully appreciate what that means, nor did I understand just how much fun “dynamic” would be. I still had the traditional gardener’s mentality of getting a flower bed “done,” a fixed end product so to speak.
If native plants had a mantra, it would be “Change!” Once your initial planting is done and plants start coming up, the changes begin, no matter how much planning you may have done. Some plants come up, last long enough to encourage you, and then totally disappear because they aren’t happy where they are. Some plants love their site and can’t spread fast enough. Some plants don’t like where they are and happily move to a location they like better. Proportions and locations change, and you never know exactly what the next year will bring. Eventually a large planting will stabilize, and I now understand why the woman’s garden took 13 years.
However, the change never totally stops. So take advantage of this dynamic process. There are always opportunities to try adding a few new species each year. Tennessee has such an abundant wealth of native flowers and grasses to try. You will make your planting better and have more fun at the same time.
In a natural setting, new species often occur in areas of disturbance that create openings, for example a downed tree that suddenly lets in sunlight. Find areas of disturbance in your planting area, e.g. bare ground where other plants have failed or where you have ripped out weeds or some plants you wish you hadn’t planted. Use these areas to introduce new species. Then you have the fun of anticipation, waiting to see how the plants will adapt and change. Each year comes with its own special surprises, and you get to look forward to what the next growing season will bring.