How to Start and Continue Using Native Plants in Our Gardens


Julie Siegel is a collaborator and contributor to City Grange. This is part 3 of a series on native plants, written by Julie Siegel. Read part 1, here and part 2, here.- LaManda

One part of gardening’s many appeals is that it can remind us that life is always in flux. If you like fluidity and being constantly reeducated and inspired by nature, community and yourself: garden!

Plants have evolved to adapt to countless changing conditions and model survival, beauty, wonder, and life that is affected by humans, but not human. Gardening provides clues to life’s greater truths and mysteries. As with most things, human beings respond differently to reality and surprise in the garden. This is why it is vital to not only know how you deal with these elements, but, as well, to have trust in the establishments where you get your plants and information.

We live in a non-native environment, so it’s fine to integrate native and non-native plants. Planting in the solid shade of a north-facing brick wall when leaves are cleaned up is very unlike a forest ecosystem with varying seasonal shade and composted plant debris. We plant natives for their better resilience, their contributions to the ecosystem (including needing fewer resources), and their embodiment of nourishment and beauty. We plant non-natives for many of the same reasons, although they do not contribute to the ecosystem in the same ways and often require more than their fair share of water and maintenance.

Both natives and non-natives can be invasive so, it is up to you to research that. A native plant might be great for the ecosystem, but problematic for humans. (Poison Ivy is a great food source for birds, but we know the human drawbacks.) Remember, too, that certain plants native to other parts of the country will grow just fine here; others will not. You need to need to know the difference.

Many people want to know exactly which plants are native to Chicago and which of those will grow in sun and shade. These are good questions to start; you must ask more. You also need to know how many hours of sun and shade are recommended, where they come from, and at what time of day. (Generally: full sun = six hours, part-sun or part-shade is four hours, and less than four is shade.)

Are your plants surrounded by others or plant absorbent urban materials that retain or reflect temperature? Do your plants want to live in moist or drier conditions? And, very important: what kind of soil supports your native plants? We all have alkaline soil and water around Chicago, but some of us have clay, some sand, and some have everything in between. Plants grow in community. This means that the more we can group them in conditions they share, the better they will thrive.

If you ask these questions and assess your growing conditions honestly, then you are ready to consult with a trusted garden center, nursery or designer. As in all businesses, there is a range of knowledge, practice and ethics. Especially when it concerns native plants that have sometimes gotten a bad rap by municipalities, companies or individuals that did not have or make the resources to educate themselves.

There is no one particular native plant I would suggest besides some of our native oaks. Oaks attract around 500 insect species that provide a buffet for birds. But most of us city folk hardly have room for a big tree, let alone the supportive environment for growing it. And if you are growing vegetables, you want some of that sunlight for them. Consequently, I would do some research on trusted online sources like midwestern state universities, cooperative extensions and botanic gardens. Then, go to an expert to get feedback or suggestions about what might work in your garden.

The most important thing is to just start. Accept that with planting we all make mistakes or are given good and bad surprises (warm Christmas, cold Polar Vortex, wet and cold Spring = a new combination of weather factors). It’s learning from these that empowers us.

Here are tips for success with gardening in general and natives in particular:

1.) Know your growing conditions and how much time and money you are willing to spend.

2.) Ask and buy your plants from places where you trust their practices and advice.

3.) Get involved with other generous gardeners using natives and with community resources that share knowledge and activities. Our planetary conditions are continually changing. If we partner our individual observations and efforts with those of others, we will have more shared success and stronger connections.