How to Incorporate Native Plants in Your Landscaping

A home with colorful native plants around the exterior.

Everyone knows incorporating native plants in the landscape is good for the environment. The plants supply food and shelter for birds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife.

Native plants are also good for the wallet. They increase your property value, especially when planted and maintained properly. Here are some tips on how to incorporate native plants into your landscaping plans.

Understand Your Area

Before deciding what to plant, you need to know how many hours of direct sunlight, if any, your space has. Full sun is eight or more hours a day, part sun is four to six hours, and shade is four hours or less.

Healthy soil is also a key to success. Does it stay wet or is it dry? Is it sandy or dense? If you are uncertain about the quality of your soil or its nutrient values, it is a good idea to have your soil tested. The test results provide remedies for any deficiencies.

Next, measure your space. For planting native trees or shrubs, determine the plant’s mature height and width. You do not want your shrub growing into your house or encroaching on a sidewalk. If you are planting native perennials or annuals, their size will help you decide how many plants you will need. Most plant tags give the mature size of plants along with spacing requirements.

Last, assess the watering capabilities of your landscape. Access to water is crucial and you may need to reconfigure your irrigation system to ensure your sprinklers will reach your planting area.

Select Your Natives

Pink flowers with a few bees in the middle of them.

For a lot of people, selecting plants is the best part. It is your chance to pick native perennials with colorful blooms. Select your native trees and shrubs for their beauty, shade qualities, maintenance needs, or other benefits, like creating a natural windbreak or privacy screen.

Most garden centers and home improvement stores sell native plants. Your state or region’s native plant society also provides great info about natives and usually lists where you can buy or order them.

What is a native plant?

There is quite a bit of discussion about what a native plant is. Some enthusiasts say only straight species count as natives while others consider varieties or cultivars in the category.

Varieties and cultivars are hybrid versions of straight species with improved characteristics such as disease resistance, bigger and longer-lasting blooms, better heat or cold tolerances, or other attributes.

Inside info: A cultivar is a plant created by selective breeding or hybridizing. A variety is a variation or change in a plant that occurs naturally.

How to Incorporate Native Plants in Your Landscape

If a plant fails to thrive or it is not what you expected, practice some tough love. Remove plants that are not working to create new spaces for natives.

Group vs. Specimen Plantings

Group shrubs to form a hedge or use specimens singly as a central focus. The latter are usually native trees or shrubs that demand attention because of their flower power, fall color, or striking winter berries. For instance, flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) meets all those attributes with spring flowers, red leaves in the fall, and red berries in the winter that are devoured by squirrels and robins.

Create Shade

If your patio or deck sits in a sunny area and gets uncomfortably hot in summer, create shade with a tree. Consider a specimen with multiple seasons of interest. Some trees can be planted in containers and placed on your deck or patio to provide seasonal shade.  

Invite Pollinators to Your Garden

Border home, deck, or patio with fragrant native perennials, such as garden phlox (P. paniculata) or coneflower (Echinacea spp.). These species also make great additions around rural mailboxes and flower beds.

Different types of native perennials and annuals planted together create an active pollinator garden for butterflies and bees. Coneflower and milkweed are good plants to start with. You can also train native vines, such as the hummingbird magnet coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), to grow around a mailbox post, pergola, or arbor.

Consider Fragrance

Just like perennials, shrubs have specific bloom times, such as spring, summer, and fall. A few shrubs, such as the native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), bloom in the winter. Group fragrant native plants where you can enjoy their scents, such as along pathways or by a window you keep open on nice days.

Create Privacy

Create privacy screens or hedgerows by planting evergreen natives in your landscape. You can also choose deciduous shrubs like oak leaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) for a dense, flowering hedge with year-round interest.

Mitigate Landscape Problems

Consider the climate and drainage properties of your landscape when selecting landscape plants. Natives like buttonbush, dogwood shrubs, hardy hibiscus, and cardinal flowers thrive in wet areas or occasionally wet areas. On the other hand, the American hornbeam or musclewood tree handles areas that flood and stay wet for several days.

Other plants have special properties like preventing erosion. Native sedge (Carex spp.) perennials are versatile grass-like plants that are good for controlling soil erosion in almost all landscape situations, from sun to shade, wet to dry, while aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica) controls erosion on slopes.

Native Plant Maintenance

Native plants need regular watering if there is no rain, especially during their establishment phase. Deadheading perennials (removing spent flowers) prevents plants from self-sowing, which can contribute to a messy look. Deadheading also encourages perennials to keep blooming and tidies up your landscape.

Allow trees and shrubs to assume their natural shape. Shrubs are naturally rounded, fountain-like, columnar, upright, or vase-shaped. Trees can be columnar, weeping, pyramidal, fastigiate (narrow with upright branching), vase-shaped, open irregular, or spreading. Once you start pruning trees and shrubs, they become a maintenance issue that you must keep pruning to maintain. Practice selective pruning, such as removing an errant branch, rather than cutting back for size. Reduce maintenance and select plants that naturally grow in the form and size you want.

When to Incorporate Native Plants

A home surrounded with native plants in terrace levels.

The best opportunity to incorporate native plants in your landscape is with new home construction. This type of property is a blank slate, ready for your imagination or the assistance of a landscape designer. Tell the pro you want native plants.

The next opportunity arrives after a few years when you realize certain plants are doing their job and some are not. Maybe a plant cannot thrive, causing you to worry. Maybe the plant does not live up to your expectations. Remove the plants that are not working and replace them with native varieties.

Road repair, sidewalk installation, and plumbing or sewer problems may also present an opportunity for landscape renovation. Many times, this type of construction or repair work severs the roots of trees and shrubs, causing them to die. Consider moving perennials and small trees to a holding bed or stow them in nursery pots until you can return them to your landscape.

Start slow

Remember, you do not have to change your entire landscape all at once. Start with an area you would like to improve. Completing smaller sections gives one a sense of accomplishment and spurs you on to the next project to incorporate native plants throughout your landscape.

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

About the Author: Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp award-winning garden writer, editor, and speaker. Known as a hortiholic, she frequently says her eyes are too big for her yard. She blogs at

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