Many native plants have the ability to tolerate adverse weather and poor soil conditions because they naturally have genetic characteristics to withstand this environment. Many native plants have a very extensive root system to search out moisture and soil nutrients. Some plants have 2/3 of the plant underground. After a meadow planting of native wildflowers is established, the only maintenance needed is mowing once a year in the spring or burning it in late April (if permitted). Compare this to the number of times a lawn was mown last year!
Establishing a meadow or prairie garden entirely comprised of indigenous native plants is not a short term project. Re-establishing a landscape to its original state takes a dedicated effort and patience. This is a long process that will take between five to eight years to achieve the desired finished landscape. The proliferation of naturalized European weeds has made this task a longer and bigger challenge than it could have been. The project requires that all undesirables be totally removed before replanting or seeding can begin. Wise advice is to dedicate a whole season to soil preparation. Herbicide application, tillage, or a smothering fabric may be necessary. This starting-over process is necessary to introduce the right plants or seeds. The fall of the first year is ideal for seeding native plants. Native plants are classified as “cool season” plants and have the ability to start growing early in the spring before “warm season” weeds germinate. The spring of the second year is the preferred time to install grown plants. Delaying establishing the garden could mean another crop of “weeds” sprout. When selecting the plants for a native prairie garden, choose a ratio of 50% flowers and 50% grasses to produce a stable colony. In these groups, a minimum of four species of grasses and twelve species of flowers should be selected. To have a full season of interest choose at least four spring, four summer and four fall-blooming plant types.
For gardeners with moist or wet sites, several native plants can be grown effectively that naturally habit this environment. The tallest on the list and a butterfly attracting plant is Joe-pye-weed which reaches over six feet (two metres) and has a delicate pink flower. A relative is boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) which is shorter and has a very attractive white flower. Turtlehead and cardinal flower are highly recommended for wet locations along ponds or streams. The native shrub called button bush also attracts butterflies and can be grown in standing water. The flowers on this plant look like golf balls on short stalks.
Many gardeners have clay soil to cope with in the garden. Ken Parker of Sweet Grass Gardens suggests that clay soils should not have to be amended. With the proper plant selection, clay soil can grow satisfactory plants. He recommends only loosening the soil. Gardeners working with clay soil should consider the following plants. Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) has yucca-like foliage with a white spiky flower. The flowers also attract butterflies. The cup plant (Silphium perfoliatrum) is named for an interesting characteristic. The leaves clasp the stem and create a reservoir for birds and butterflies to drink trapped water. The cup plant is over 6 feet (two metres) tall and should be at the back of a planting. The compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) is related to the cup plant and is also great for clay soil. The compass plant is named for the tendency of having lower leaves that point north and south. It might be worth growing this plant just to see if this is true. The best butterfly plant for clay is the yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata). The flower petals droop on this 60 cm plant. Prairie vervain (Verbena stricta) is a dry prairie plant that can be grown in droughty clay soils. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a tough, durable plant that is very adaptable. It is tolerant of moist to dry locations that are in full sun to part shade. Black-eyed Susan’s can be introduced into the garden successfully either as plants or seeds. The last suggestion for a group of plants that grow and flower well in clay soil are the many species of fall-blooming asters.