Landscaping with Native Plants

Working With Nature

The Arboretum’s Ecological Gardening Program creates curated landscapes that feature native plants. Native landscapes are more sustainable, conserve resources, and provide diverse habitats and food sources for local insects, birds, and other wildlife. Native grasses and wildflowers evolved with the local climate and soils to better tolerate the harsh conditions we sometimes face in the region. Landscaping and gardening with native plants is relatively easy, extremely rewarding, and requires less maintenance than more well-known nonnative plants.

The Ecological Gardening Program seeks out uncommon native plant species that are not traditionally found in the nursery trade. The Conservation team uses our in-house nursery to grow locally collected grass and wildflower seeds. These plants are showcased in our garden spaces or offered in our Spring and Fall Plant Sales. In addition to providing native plants to the public, the Arboretum offers classes and volunteer opportunities to learn more about these important species. Interested participants can learn how to establish and care for a native garden, identify native plants, and propagate native vegetation. Ecological Gardening volunteers work with staff to enhance the beauty of the Arboretum’s native gardens.

native gardens & landscaping resources

Whether you’re new to native plants or a seasoned gardener looking to brush up on the basics, here are a few resources to help you start or update your own native garden. Start with the tips below and then use the Bloom Chart and Species Information sheets to decide which plants would work best in your space.

Native Gardening Tips

While native species are very resilient and require relatively less upkeep and resources than a traditional garden, all gardens need to be managed. Diligent watering and weeding is essential for success, especially in the first few months after planting.

Starting a native pollinator garden doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Research what is native to your area, assess your yard, and choose a variety.

When flowers bloom at different times, it provides bees and butterflies with a food source the entire year. This can be achieved by planting species that bloom after the others have faded. Use the provided bloom chart to assist in developing a garden that blooms year-round.

Did you know that different species of pollinators have favorite colors when it comes to flowers? Bumblebees prefer blue and purple flowers, while other bees like yellow or white flowers. If you want butterflies, plant bright colors like orange and pink. Hummingbirds enjoy red flowers. The more colorful your garden, the more wildlife will visit!

Arrange your natives in groups to create clusters of color that are more easily managed and can be refreshed as needed. Having groups of different species can also improve overall growth and deter pests. More plant species will result in more pollinator species, so be sure to provide a diverse supply of nectar and pollen.

Grasses provide height, layering, structure, and insect refuge. They can also be used to create a natural and neutral edging that prevents the spread of unwanted species into your garden space.

Plan your garden for the size of the mature plant, not the size it is now. If given the right resources, the tiny plant you put into the ground will grow to its full width and height.

Don’t be afraid to dig up a plant and move it, or scrap it altogether. A species that prefers full sun won’t grow well in partial shade. Sometimes choosing another species is your best option.

Have fun and learn about new plants that are native to your region. While some natives are easy to take care of, some may have rhizomes, stolons, or produce a lot of seed. This can result in one species that outcompetes the others and can dominate your garden. Plant accordingly and keep these ambitious members in check! Many cities have Native Plant Societies that are a valuable source of information on native species.

Pinch back the terminal growth on newly planted annual and perennial plants to get shorter, more compact, well-branched plants with more flowers. Remove flowers that are spent, a process called “dead heading”, to promote more blooms and to collect seed if needed.

A good mulch will retain valuable moisture needed for plant growth, suppress unwanted vegetation, and improve overall gardening success. Mulches are usually applied 2-6 inches deep, depending on the material used. This practice supports sustainable gardening by enhancing the soil’s water retention capabilities, minimizing the need for pesticides, and contributing to the overall environmental benefits of a native garden.

Something will grow in that empty patch of disturbed soil, and it will most likely be a weed. Gaps must be filled immediately with desired plants, seeds, or mulch.

Cutting back plants or mowing in the dormant season rejuvenates grasses and wildflowers, and don’t forget to keep the edges of your garden neatly delineated. The best time to cut plants back to the ground is late winter, as solitary bees overwinter in aboveground dead stalks of grasses and flowers.

Native species will benefit from a more subtle, slow-release, organic style fertilizer. Commercial chemical fertilizers may promote weed growth over desired plants. Organic or liquid compost lightly mixed into the topsoil prior to planting will create a healthy soil and set your native garden on the best course for long-term success.

Be careful not to work in wet soil or walk through your garden bed more than necessary, and do not till your soil unless under extreme circumstances. These actions can cause the soil beneath to compact, making it difficult for roots to grow and for oxygen to permeate through the soil.

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The Houston Arboretum & Nature Center is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization which depends on donations to support nature education and conservation programs for Houstonians of all ages.

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