let nature and science be your guide

I was never a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. Then, I read a book about him. Learning about how his architectural designs were created to connect to the natural environment, I began to see the beauty in his work. I felt the same way about a yard with a naturalized landscape of native plants and ground covers. To my uninformed eye, natural gardens looked messy and haphazard. Plants crowded together, short blooms among tall stalks. I liked formal and manicured scenes. Symmetrical and tidy landscapes. Looking at yards filled with native plants, I wondered, “is it a weed or a flower?” I couldn’t tell. I thought, “Eh, not for me.” 

Like many suburban homeowners, I felt the pressure to maintain a manicured lawn. I applied fertilizer and attacked weeds. I spent hours mowing, edging, trimming and pulling all in the pursuit of a lush, green expanse of lawn, free from weeds.

At the same time, another thick expanse of green was growing. Where turtles once sunned on fallen branches and herons walked the edges looking for food, a floating mass of bright green took over. The neighborhood stormwater pond became infested with duckweed.  A tiny, free-floating aquatic plant, duckweed can serve as a valuable part of the ecosystem, but an infestation can damage the health of a pond by blocking sunlight and depleting oxygen concentration.

An infestation occurs when water has excessive amounts of nutrients that are found in lawn fertilizers and pesticides.  It’s estimated that 90% of products applied to lawns are washed off through rain and snowmelt.  Runoff pollution is carried into lakes, streams, wetlands and groundwater.  The EPA points to excessive fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides from agriculture, and residential areas as the leading cause of water quality problems.

I hate to admit that I never connected the relationship between my landscaping and water quality. But now I couldn’t ignore it. My yard maintenance directly impacts the water quality of my community. Planting for clean water with native plants is part of the solution. 

Native plants grew in this area before the land was used for buildings and suburban neighborhoods. Native plants include flowers, bushes, trees and ground covers that flourish without irrigation or fertilizer. They protect pollinators and feed wildlife. The long roots help flush out pollutants in runoff. Naturalized landscapes are a perfectly-calculated “mess” – designed with nature in mind. The disinterest I felt for native gardens is now a full-blown flora crush. I’m hooked. I don’t want symmetry in my yard, I want simpatico.

The best resource I’ve found for starting a native plant garden is an organization called Blue Thumb – Planting for Clean Water.  Their website is informative and easy to navigate. It provides a Minnesota-specific native plant selector tool and a list of places to purchase plants. Blue Thumb is listed as a resource on the Eden Prairie City Government website under Protecting Stormwater Ponds. 

The first step is finding out more about your soil. Is it clay, sandy, or silty? Maybe you are lucky to have loamy soil, a great mixture of all three. I have thick clay soil. It’s a tough soil to grow plants but the beauty of going native is there is a perfect plant for every spot. Lots of native plants thrive in the clay soil surrounding this area.  Determine if the area is sunny or shady, wet or dry.  Plants need at least six hours of sun if they fall into the sunny category. And consider tree growth to determine if your garden will become partial shade in a few years. Shade or partial-shade plants can thrive in areas with less sun. Native plants that do well in standing water are perfect for rain gardens and shorelines. Others prefer drier, well-drained soil.  The goal of native gardening is that it will eventually take care of itself. Selecting specific plants for specific areas will help ensure success. Native plants cost a bit more than non-native varieties. It pays to know what will have the best chance of survival.

It has been two years since I planted my first native plants. I’m still often stumped by the weed or flower question. It’s a learning process. Luckily, I have friends that know more about this than I do. My gardener life-line, Lisa, gets lots of photos with the question, “name that plant?”  My neighbor, Maureen, shares plants and advice from her native garden. 

I can’t wait to see the first sprouts of spring. More plants come up each season, filling in the spaces I once would have mulched and weeded. The seeds spread and root where the plants need to be. Butterflies and birds flit from plant to plant.  It’s wild, untamed and the best part of all is no chemicals are needed. Planting for clean water protects pollinators and prevents pollution. That is a beautiful thing.