Roll Up Your Sleeves: How to Grow Native Plants in Your Garden

Three different kinds of flowers: small, bright orange flowers; bright pink flowers with a yellow butterfly perched on top; and a light pink flower with a bumblebee on it

If you’re gearing up to add native plants to your yard this spring, then congratulations! You’ll make your space more beautiful, with the added bonus of being hospitable to the butterflies and other pollinators (like bees, beetles, and birds) around you. 

Before you start (literally) digging in, take a moment to plan the layout of the garden (or a small strip of land along a fence—the pollinators will appreciate that as well). While doing this, take the following into consideration:

  • Do you already have natural features in your garden (trees, rose bushes, other annual or perennial plants)? There’s no need to get rid of them; think about planting around the existing landscape in your yard.

  • How would you describe the area where you wish to plant? Is it sunny or part shade? Wet or dry? Determining this early on in the process will allow you to focus on the species you need. Take note of the moisture and sun exposure each species requires. In general, prairie plants tend to love full sun, savanna plants tolerate some shade, and woodland plants do best in part to full shade. 

  • Are you planting a large area in the middle of your front lawn, or a modest strip along a fence or by the garage? This might influence what kinds of flowers you choose. For example, unless you are planting really large areas, do not plant species that can grow over six feet tall (prairie dock or compass plant come to mind). They might visually dwarf the area you are working with (if you do want to create a screen, go for the tall giant ironweed, sneezeweed, and big bluestem). When planting in a circle arrangement, plant the shorter species on the outside so they're visible in front of the taller species. 

    1._butterfly_weed_asclepias_tuberosa_by_i_redlinski.jpg

    A large cluster of plants with tall stems topped by small orange flowers
    Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Photo: Iza Redlinski.

  • Draw the plan on a sheet of paper. This can include the flower color, height, and time of blooming. In this case, a little planning goes a long way. By thinking ahead about some of these factors, you can plan for a garden that lasts throughout the growing season and brings new surprises. It also provides nectar sources for pollinators throughout the whole season.

  • Start slowly. Do a few species during the first year, and add more as time goes on. This will allow you to get a sense of where you have “blooming gaps” and understand the true conditions in your garden—it might appear wetter or drier than you previously thought, and the plants might help you determine that.

  • Do cluster flowers and grasses. Groups of five or more individuals of the same species are more successful in attracting pollinators.

  • Consider certifying your native garden for wildlife, pollinators or specifically monarchs. This simple sign indicates to the public that you are doing something for the environment and might be a great conversation starter and first step in convincing your community to do likewise. This also puts your garden on a map, quite literally, making it easier for native habitat advocates to push environmentally-friendly legislature. You may also consider setting up a rain barrel to conserve water.

  • Pick your native plants by going to local native plant sales. If you need few ideas, you can see what grows in our Rice Foundation Native Gardens or check out our guide to monarch butterfly and garden habitat creation.

Take pride in your native garden. It might not be the showiest the first year around, but you won’t have to plant it annually. Every year the plants will become more robust, blooming more fully. Soon you will find your garden abuzz with insects and birds that rely on these prairie, savanna, and woodland plants.