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Using native plants in the garden decreases inputs and maintenance

Written by Natasha Wheeler

Worland – “Why grow native plants?” asked Jenny Thompson, small acreage coordinator with University of Wyoming Extension, during WESTI Ag Days in Worland on Feb. 20.

“It’s easier to maintain a garden with plants that are already adapted to our climate rather than trying to fix everything so that it works for us,” she continued.

Native plants usually require fewer inputs, support local pollinators and can be blended into the landscape for a natural beauty in the garden.

Wyoming conditions

“In our area, some of the conditions our plants need to be adapted to include cold temperatures, soils without a lot of organic matter that tend to be alkaline, dry air and the wind, which dries plants out. A lot of our native plants also tend to have a silvery color or mechanisms to bounce off light,” she continued, explaining that ultraviolet rays from the sun can be hard on plants at high altitudes.

Compared to other places in the United States, plants native to Wyoming are typically more short-lived with the ability to reseed themselves.

“As a result, things change, and plants don’t stay where we put them. The landscape is pretty dynamic. That’s something to keep in mind so our expectations are in the right spot,” Thompson said.

Wyoming plants also often have taproots, which can be harder to transplant than those with fibrous root systems. They are also often more resistant to drought, storing water and nutrients within the taproot to survive hard seasons.

Considerations

“Some of our plants don’t play well with others. Even though they are great in many ways, some of them are fairly aggressive. We don’t want them in our garden landscapes because when they are taken out of a tough environment and put in a garden with extra water, they can really go nuts,” Thompson warned.

Many Wyoming plants are also sensitive to overly enriched soils because they are not adapted to dense organic matter.

“When we are reading gardening books from England, they talk about amending the soil and adding organic matter, but our native plants aren’t used to all of that nitrogen,” she commented.

Because they are adapted to our arid environment, native plants may also require very little watering, although Thompson recommends some extra care when plants are first put in the ground.

“Most plants need some extra care, at least for the first year, to make it through,” she mentioned.

Landscape design

Thompson also recommended a number of steps when creating a garden landscape, stressing that individual taste is the ultimate driving factor of design.

“The principles of garden design are the same, whether we are working with plants from the East or the West. We should group plants together that need similar amounts of water. We want to make sure plants are hardy enough for our site, and we want to choose plants that are happy with the conditions we have,” she suggested.

Thompson uses a variety of plants in her garden to maintain year-round interest.

“Our seasons are so short, and I want to enjoy the whole thing before winter comes,” she explained.

She also noted, “We want to consider how much maintenance we want to do because that will influence what kind of garden we want to have.”

Basic principles

Sharing some basic design principles, Thompson explained that growers might want to consider different plant heights and seeding patterns.

“If we see our garden from the front, we can put the short plants in the front and the tall plants in the back, so we can see everything,” she commented. “If we’re interested in having patterns with a natural look, we should clump plants instead of planting them in rows, which will help the ornamentals look more natural.”

Creating uneven borders and transition zones between different plants will also add to a more natural looking garden.

“The first thing I do for a landscape project is look at what’s out there. What buildings are there? What soils do I have? I want to measure the site and be sure to get the utilities marked,” Thompson said.

Purpose

Considering the purpose of the garden can also influence the design and help homeowners implement elements that fit the desired outcome.

“We may want a place to sit and barbecue with the family, a place for the kids to play or a vegetable garden. We might also want paths or a way to get through the landscape we are creating,” Thompson added.

Thompson uses rough sketches to design her landscapes before she purchases materials to have a visual plan for her layout.

“I look at how big plants get and how hardy they are. Then in the spring, I go out, mark off the entire area and kill any existing weed plants,” she explained.

The next step is to work the soil and add any necessary amendments.

“We want to install all of the hardscaping, edges and permanent stuff first,” she suggested.

Native plants

Then, the interior of the design can be filled in with desired plants, such as Pasque flowers, columbines, purple prairie clover or narrow-leaf coneflowers.

“Pasque flowers are the first thing to come up in the spring,” noted Thompson. “Columbines reseed and cross with each other.”

Purple prairie flower attracts pollinators, and narrow-leaf coneflowers are drought resistant.

Growers who want to create natural gardens in Wyoming may also discover other native species in the University of Wyoming document B-1255, Plants with Altitude – Regionally Native Plants for Wyoming Gardens.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..