Incorporating natives in the suburban landscape

Bee balm is a good choice for native landscapes, but needs good air circulation to prevent powdery mildew. (Photo: Kristof Lauwers, Dreamstime)
What is your definition and expectation of a “native” landscape? Does it match your clients’? Are you setting them up for success or failure?

Close your eyes. Imagine a swath of colorful native perennials greeting your client as they turn into their driveway. Perhaps it looks like this: Rudbeckia, Liatris, Monarda, Solidago, Helianthus all in full bloom, buzzing with bees and butterflies, lush with green growth; each perfectly positioned, naturally grooming themselves and rarely asking for a drink of water. Maybe that’s even how you’ve described a native garden to your client.

[Related: Landscaping with wildlife in mind]

Now open your eyes. What do you see? Leafless Rudbeckia, Monarda with a bad case of dandruff, and those thugs, Solidago and Helianthus, have taken over the yard. It’s currently in its “green” phase, and the homeowners no longer know what is a weed or what was even planted. To top it off, they were just notified that they’re out of compliance with their HOA rules regarding acceptable landscaping. Another prairie-style native landscape bites the dust.

Asking some simple questions during the design process will help create a primarily native landscape plan that fits the subdivision and mollifies the most stringent HOA.

What is the purpose of the garden or landscape? Who is the audience? A personal space tucked away in your client’s backyard is held to a much different standard than a front entry landscape located on the main street of your subdivision. In other words, if all the neighbors have lawns, you should probably have at least a token patch. This doesn’t mean the shrubs and trees can’t be native.

Who is going to maintain this landscape? What are the expectations over time? Listen carefully to your clients for clues regarding their personal preferences when it comes to the appearance of their garden. “Neat and tidy” have much different meanings than “loose and casual.” Your native plant selections need to reflect this.

What is your (or your client’s) definition of a native plant? Depending on who you talk to, a native plant may simply be found growing wild nearby and not currently listed on an invasive species list, or be limited to only those existing in the region prior to an established timeframe. Perhaps you’re open to improved cultivars; or you stick strictly to the straight species. Neither position is wrong, as long as you’re practicing “right plant, right place.”

Upon completing a design, review it for possible plant substitutions wherever possible. Make yourself a list of your favorite non-native plants, and research readily available native alternatives for your area. Plant breeders and marketers, such as Spring Meadow Nursery and Proven Winners, are well aware of the demand for natives in the landscape, and are working hard at making propagation easier and increasing consumer awareness.

[Related: Winter wonderland—Landscaping for Colorado winters]

Does that hedge really need to be Burning Bush? Waxflower would provide that same bright red fall foliage with the added benefit of early blooms. Give Kinnikinnik or Wintergreen a try instead of Vinca minor as a groundcover. Your clients will be pleased to know they are able to have a classic styled landscape composed almost entirely of native plants, and still keep up with the Joneses.

Danielle Andrus

Danielle Andrus was previously the managing editor for Colorado Builder, and is currently Editor for the Journal of Financial Planning.

Danielle Andrus has 190 posts and counting. See all posts by Danielle Andrus

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