Native gardens and landscapes benefit us on many levels. They are critically beneficial natural assets providing a large array of ecosystem services such as wildlife habitat & food sources, critical resources for pollinators, and most importantly, they provide a high level of biodiversity to protect the complex integrated web of all forms of life (including us). Native plants protect against soil erosion and provide filtration of storm water from runoff (reducing pollution), carbon sequestration and air filtration, and reduce heat sink effects of cities’ buildings, roads & parking lots.
Large native habitats and their density of native plants' deep root systems provide flood mitigation services by allowing the absorption and capacity to hold rainwater versus it running off hard paved surfaces and funneling into creeks and rivers at a rate faster than water can be carried down stream. Native plants are adapted to the periodic heavy rains and drought periods that North Central Texas experiences. So, native plants require less supplemental (city) water, less pesticides & herbicides, thereby making them excellent choices for all types of landscapes. Native plants can be used in any style of landscape design, whether formal or informal, and should be used in all types of green spaces, whether residential, commercial, public parks, roadside easements or out in the country tracts. Here are some of the basic ideas to consider when planning your own native landscape.
If you live in Tarrant County, Texas, you can get started with the Botanic Research Institute of Texas' (BRIT) handy online tool: Ecoscapes. This site provides a good introduction along with an easy to use tool where you can put in the exact address of your garden site. BRIT has embedded the Tarrant County soil survey data compiled by the Soil Conservation Service with a short list of native plants that are generally available in the commercial nursery trade to create the Native Plant Predictor Tool, resulting in a list of native plants for the specified location.
Soil: Generally, match the plant to the soil of its native habitat. Some natives tolerate a variety of soil types. Some will grow in sand, loam or clay, but they will really thrive if matched to their native soil. It is also important to look at your soil’s moisture or dryness conditions, such as if the area will be watered by a sprinkler system or not, if it will be occasionally flooded by a gutter downspout or, if it is a low spot that stays moist longer than other areas, or if it is a high spot that dries out fast. Before planting, determine which native plants fit the microclimate environment you have at each planting area in your landscape.
If you wish to plant with no bed preparation, the selection of natives is narrowed and critical since during the development and building at landscape sites, most topsoil was scraped off when the land was cleared for building and soils were likely heavily compacted by machinery and workers during construction. “Organic style” bed preparation is suggested; disturb the soil as little as possible and never under trees. One simple method of bed prep is to layout your new planting area with a border edging, lay down a layer of cardboard or several sheets of newspaper, wet the paper completely with water, then apply about 6” of shredded leaves and or chipped tree limbs you can get either for free or a for only a delivery charge from tree trimming companies. (They have to get rid of the chipped trees they trimmed either by giving them to you or paying to dump them at an environmental drop off site or the city dump.) Buy a package of earthworms from Marshall Grain and spread them over the leaves and wood chips. Water in the earthworms in the beginning to get them started and then wait at least two months, four months is even better, while you let the earthworms and other natural decomposers breakdown the paper and organic matter thus creating topsoil that will be looser / easier to plant in and have more nutrients than when you began. While you are waiting for Mother Nature to do the work of soil prep for you, you can be observing and evaluating the sunlight - shade growing conditions on the bed and start researching and learning about what native plants would grow well in your conditions. During this time, you can also begin planting by starting native seeds in seed flats, then bump them up to larger containers to be grown and nurtured until the bed is ready for out planting. Also, you can begin collecting cuttings of native plants from fellow native plant gardeners in the chapter to propagate natives not easily found in nurseries. Once your bed is ready (all of the cardboard and newspaper will be decomposed when you pull back the top layer of mulch), then you are ready to transplant hardened off container plants you purchased, or those you started from seed and cuttings at a fraction of the cost of buying potted plants.
Light: Be aware of the amount of sunlight (full sun ≥ 6 hours direct sun, part sun / part shade, dappled shade, or full shade) your planting site provides and match it to native plants that like that same level of sunlight in their native habitat. There are natives that fit all conditions.
Design: Start with the “bones”: large trees first. Next, place understory trees and shrubs (these typically attract wildlife). Then plan the position of evergreen plants in places where you want to see green all year ‘round. Use native grasses for focal points for their color, texture and movement to the landscape that are nice accents when placed in groupings. Place flowering plants where you will frequently enjoy their beauty and where they can benefit butterflies and bees.
One of the principles employed in a true native plant garden is the reduction of space devoted to lawns. Mowed lawns require a lot of water and maintenance and provide no habitat to wildlife. Alternatives include the planting of native grasses such as Habiturf and Thunder Turf for a low growing area, other taller native grasses for accents and contrast, perennial beds and groundcovers that offer a naturalistic look that benefit birds, butterflies, pollinators, etc. and take less water and require no mowing, edging, blowing or fertilization.
When planning beds, be sure to group plants that require the same growing conditions. Use selections that have the same soil, moisture and sun or shade requirements. Using several of the same plant together in a grouping has more visual effect than just using one alone.
Plant Material: Look for reliable nurseries that offer Texas native plants. Native plants that are local to the area are best. See the Where to Buy page on this website and in particular, the nurseries that participate in NPSOT’s NICE! (Natives Instead of Common Exotics) program. A good resource for quality native plant seeds is Native American Seed which originated in nearby Flower Mound, TX before growth prompted them to move their operations to Junction, TX. Try to install plants that are locally native to the ecoregion that you live in, whether it is Fort Worth Prairie, Western Cross Timbers, Eastern Cross Timbers or Blackland Prairie. Some of these can be found at local native plant sales that our chapter hosts each spring and fall. A good resource for learning more about native plants and which ones might best match your growing conditions is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website and their native plant database.
Planting in the fall takes advantage of autumn and spring rains. Native plants will put on a lot of root growth in these cooler months, establishing themselves before the summer’s heat and possible drought.
Maintenance: A native plant garden is earth friendly when maintained organically and is therefore healthier for you, your family, your pets and every living organism in the garden. You’ll need to water a newly planted garden as needed (i.e., if no rain) until plants are established, perhaps into the second year for trees. Once growing vigorously, native plant gardens may need little or no supplemental water. Mulching is essential. Light applications allow seeds to reach the soil underneath. Heavy applications minimize weeding, help retain moisture, protect roots from rapid temperature changes. And mulch slowly breaks down into useful organic material necessary for all plant life. Most native plants require no fertilization, but there are a few that will respond to light applications of organic fertilizer, if you feel you must use it. Consider using mature compost as a mild fertilizer. Think Mother Nature! How does she treat her plants in the wild? She uses the dead parts of the plant to rejuvenate (fertilize) on the spot. The ancient prairies and forests were constantly revitalized by their own dead plant material. As you tidy and prune your garden, break or cut up your trimmings and put them back on the ground. They will blend well with the mulch.
Instead of walking behind a traditional lawn mower polluting the air, you can spend time outside pruning and dividing native plants while enjoying their beauty and knowing you made your corner of the world a little bit better. You will be delighted as birds, butterflies and other creatures come your way, because they are attracted to native plants. You will have the time to enjoy your garden. You won’t have to worry when you travel. You’ll be glad, in this busy world, that you are on Mother Nature’s side, helping enhance the environment not just for aesthetics, but for the benefit of all forms of life.