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Lessons for a New Native Gardener

By Courtney Masterson

This pandemic has generated a lot of change in our communities – some difficult and some refreshing, even healing. It has been rewarding for me to observe the return to home gardening. While many of us have happily toiled in our private garden spaces for years, a large portion of people had lost their connections to plants and the feeling of the earth under their hands and knees. The Great Isolation of 2020 left many people seeking self-care or self-sustaining hobbies -- interest in gardening exploded. Many national seed companies are so behind in shipping that they’re shutting down their websites. I can’t blame the gardeners – nothing inspires hope like a seed. But I’m going to have to beg a neighbor for zucchini seeds!

The gardening boom has led many in experimenting with new types of gardens: pollinator gardens, rain gardens, xeriscapes, and the like. The foundation of these special gardens is native plants, species perfectly adapted to your region. For those of us in the field of native landscaping, the swell of interest has been uplifting and encouraging. We can help gardeners solve problems with native plants, filling in that shady spot that just won’t grow grass, guiding stormwater into anchored soil or reducing your maintenance time with drought tolerant prairie gardens. There will be new native gardens in Kansas City this spring, supporting important wildlife and providing long-lasting beauty in our communities. I couldn’t be more excited!

Native bumblebee visiting spider milkweed (Asclepias viridis). Photo by Courtney Masterson

If you’re new to native plant gardening you may make a few mistakes. A couple of species may surprise you with their tenacity, or maybe the opposite – their fragility. There are some truly wonderful native plant education organizations in our region, like Deep Roots KC, Grow Native, and your local native plant society (Kansas or Missouri). Don’t be afraid to approach them with your questions, attend free educational events and volunteer to help them with their community service projects (this is the best way to learn!). They’re all excited to work with new gardeners and can help you avoid common challenges.

As you plan your new garden, spend some time adjusting your habits. This style of gardening will be a big change for even the greenest thumbs.

Lesson #1 - Practice patience and laziness. Don’t give in to the urge to clean up your garden in fall or winter. Wait until the pollinators are floating and buzzing through the air. The stems, leaves and soil in your resting garden provide the habitat for our native bees, moths, and butterflies.

Kansas City is no stranger to false starts to our spring season. It feels like every March fools us into packing away our winter coats and starting our spring cleaning. For many gardeners that means breaking out the rakes and lawn bags, cutting back last year's plant material, removing leaves and tilling soil. Unfortunately, these practices have significant impacts on native pollinator populations, destroying living things that sought shelter in your garden. Spend the false spring enjoying the sunshine and let the bees sleep.

Lesson #2 – Nature is resilient. The first year for a young native wildflower or grass is an awkward stage. There may not be a lot happening above ground, and what does grow may appear gangly. That’s because a native plant’s first job is to grow an impressive root system. In order to anchor soil, guide stormwater and survive droughts, a lot of work goes into developing complicated underground structures. Roots give them access to water and nutrients deep underground and the strength to support the stems and leaves blowing in the Midwest wind! Think of it like a baby learning to walk. Don’t give up on your native plant that first year. It will reward you with more mature, attractive growth in year two (or year three – give it a break)!

Lesson #3 - Diversity is strength (in all things). Start simple with native gardening. Try a plant or two that are attractive to you or your favorite wildlife. Then, try more! The greater the diversity of native plants in your yard, the more wildlife you support. Many pollinators (up to 25%) are specialists, only capable of using certain plants for nectar and pollen. Try planting wildflowers that support the pollinators you admire. Beyond supporting your favorite bee (you must have a favorite bee!), it’s important to have something blooming in your garden every season so the less picky pollinators have something to eat and you always have a flower to adore.

Happy (fake) spring, Kansas City! I hope your gardens are full of flowers, pollinators and hope this growing season.


Courtney Masterson is the owner-operator of Native Lands LLC , a native landscape management business for everything from your backyard to multi-acre prairies and forests. They focus on community education to nurture our relationship with nature. Find them on Facebook.

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