(reprint from May/June 2001 Sego Lily Vol. 24 no. 3)
Gardening with Utah Natives: A Beginner's Guide

By Susan E. Meyer and Bitsy Schultz
Utah Native Plant Society

Why garden with native plants? Gardening with native plants will tie your property to a larger regional landscape and will help you feel connected to the place that is your home. And because natives are at home in the region and use resources efficiently, they require very little. Once established, most are long-lived and largely maintenance free. And natives are a natural choice for the waterwise landscaping style of the future, because they often look their best with little or no extra water. A garden with a diversity of native plants creates a year-round haven for wild creatures such as birds and butterflies. Most importantly, the wealth of color, texture, and form found in natives greatly surpasses that found at the traditional nursery. For a yard that looks beautiful and interesting in every season, a native landscape is an excellent choice.

How will a native landscape look? A beautiful native landscape can look as formal or informal as you like. One approach is to use traditional designs, but substitute drought-tolerant natives for water-guzzling exotic plants. Substitute low-growing ground covers for typical bluegrass lawn, and use a variety of native trees, shrubs, and perennials to create your foundation plantings and flower beds. An alternative approach is to imitate the masterful gardening style of nature, with informal groupings of shrubs and trees, rock garden areas, and wildflower meadows. Focusing on structure and texture as well as seasonal color assures that the planting will look good year round.

Will natives thrive in my yard? Any yard can be transformed into an attractive native landscape, if you follow a few simple rules. The fundamental rule is to respect the needs of each kind of plant. Group plants with similar water requirements. Don’t try to plant drought-hardy penstemons in with your petunias, or edge a bluegrass lawn with desert shrubs. Too much water or fertility can be lethal, and for many natives any extra water or fertilizer after establishment is too much. Choose plants carefully for the shady parts of your yard--there are natives that can handle shade, but most cannot. It also helps to consider the soil and topography of your planting site--penstemons and other drought-hardy plants can tolerate some watering if the soil is sandy or gravelly or the site is sloping. Some handsome natives from the southern part of the state may not be cold-hardy along the Wasatch Front, although others, like apache plume and even joshua tree, have been found to be hardy far north of the regions where they grow in the wild. To be safe, though, it is best to use plants that are found growing locally.

How do I get started? If you are landscaping a new property, you can incorporate the native element from the beginning. You can decide what the functions of different parts of your landscape will be. You do not have to go 100% native--there is still a place for bluegrass lawn and English-style shade trees, where they have a function. But pick an area large enough to develop the native theme on its own. Most natives are not lush and ‘cabbagy’ like traditional garden plants, and they can look strange if juxtaposed with such plants. The front yard is an ideal place to start, as lawn there doesn’t usually serve much of a function. If you are retrofitting an older yard, pick an area to devote entirely to the native concept--a hard-to-water city strip or sidewalk edge or a sunny corner beyond the reach of your sprinkler is a good choice. If possible, choose a spot that is sloping or where the soil is coarse, as many natives require good drainage. If your soil is very heavy and your site is flat, you may have to add amendments such as sand or gravel to keep plants like penstemons happy.

Try to pick a site that is not infested with perennial weeds such as quackgrass, field bindweed (wild morning glory) or whitetop. If you are planting into former lawn, make sure the lawn is really dead and gone before you start. And make sure you can control how much extra water the area will receive. Mixing natives into existing landscaping is tricky, because most will not thrive on a traditional high-water regime. If you try a native garden in one area of your yard and are happy with the results, you just may decide to convert the rest of your landscape to natives. This can be accomplished in stages, over a period of months or even years.

What about design? As mentioned above, the design for a native garden can be formal or informal. You can engage the services of a professional designer, or produce a do-it-yourself version. The UNPS website (www.unps.org) will soon have sample native front yard designs as well as a plant information database, to give you some ideas. A good place to start is to make a map of your planting site and to figure out the size of the area. This, along with information on size at maturity for the plants you intend to grow, will help you determine your plant needs.

Remember to group plants with similar water and sun requirements. The north side of your house is a whole different world from the south side--shady, cool, and moist rather than sunny, hot, and dry. You can take advantage of this naturalmicroclimate variation to increase the palette of plants that you can grow successfully.

General gardening principles apply to native garden designs as well. Think about structure and texture as well as color--shrubs and small trees placed with perennials and ornamental grasses, harmonious color combinations, spreading out bloom times across the season, and including plants that are evergreen or have other good winter features. Include some plants that are fast-growing and provide structure and color quickly, as well as slower-growing shrubs and trees for longer-term effect. Be willing to be flexible in your design--if a plant fails to perform, experiment with replacements, until you discover a suite of plants that are well-adapted to your particular site.

Where do I get the plants? The answer to the question of native plant availability is constantly changing. Right now in Utah, your choices are limited, but that could change very quickly as people become educated about the advantages of native plant landscaping and demand begins to climb. If enough people go to a favorite traditional nursery and ask for native plants, availability will increase. A few natives are widely available in traditional nurseries, but these are mostly streamside or mountain plants that can tolerate overwatering--plants like golden currant, river birch, red osier dogwood, quaking aspen, and blue spruce. Drought-tolerant natives are conspicuously absent.

We do have native plant nurseries in the state that deserve your patronage. These nurseries will be able to provide high quality native stock wholesale to traditional retailers along the Wasatch Front, as soon as demand warrants the entry of retail nurseries into this market. In the meantime, you can buy direct from these nurseries:

Wildland Nursery: Joseph, UT

Janett Warner, www.wildlandnursery.com; 435-527-1234

Great Basin Natives: Holden, UT Merrill/Robert Johnson, www.grownative.com;


High Desert Gardens: Moab, UT

Janis Adkins, 435-259-4531

Utah Wildflower Seeds: SLC UT

Virginia Markham, 801-972-3910

Utah Native Seeds: Eureka UT

Paul Ames, 435-433-6924

There are also a number of good mail-order nurseries in surrounding states that sell plants appropriate for Utah native gardens. These include High Country Gardens (www.highcountrygardens.com) and Plants of the Southwest (www.plantsofthesouthwest.com). For more information and contact information for these and other out-of-state nurseries, see: hort.usu.edu/natives/natives.htm

Zero-scaping? Not! Xeriscape is probably the most misunderstood garden word in Utah. People hear it as zero-scape, and immediately conclude two things. First, they think the zero-scape is going to LOOK like zero, gravel and a couple of scraggly cacti--nothing could be further from the truth. But perhaps even worse, they conclude that the zero-scape is going to REQUIRE zero--plant it and walk away. Alas, this idea is equally erroneous. It is true that a xeriscape, a landcape that includes drought-tolerant plants and where plants are grouped according to their water requirements, requires less material input-- less water, fertilizer, pesticide, lawn mower fuel, and annual bedding plant investment--than a traditional high-water-use home landscape. But the old saying that the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow is as true for native gardens as for any other. Native garden maintenance is not zero maintenance.

The first maintenance task for the native plant gardener is to water appropriately the first season after planting. Even plants that are drought hardy need to be watered until their roots grow into the soil. How often? It depends---but for late spring and summer plantings, watering once a week for the first month, once every two weeks for the second month, and then once a month until cool weather arrives should be more than adequate. When you water, water deeply to encourage deep root growth. For filling in an established garden, it is best to plant in very early spring, so that the plants have naturally moist soil for rooting in. This obviates the problem of too-frequent watering for already established plants. Most natives are very cold-hardy and can be planted out as early as peas are planted. Fall planting is another option for filling in or establishing new gardens--but be sure to mulch well for the first winter to avoid frost-heaving if you plant later than the end of September.

The biggest maintenance job in a native garden is undoubtedly weeding. Most natives do not compete well against weeds, especially perennial weeds, and must be given a leg up through hand-weeding, especially the first year. This job gradually tapers off. Depending on what natives were planted, they themselves may need to be restrained to keep them from taking over--this includes clipping or stripping seeds before they shatter as well as pulling out volunteers in the wrong places (the hard part).

Clipping off spent flower stalks and lightly pruning shrubs and trees may also be necessary to keep the garden looking its best. And although most of the flowers and grasses are perennial and can live many years, they are not immortal, and replanting is an ongoing process each year. Sometimes one of those mis-located volunteers can be gently moved with a shovel to take its deceased mother’s place.

Plants for Every Setting. There are literally hundreds of Utah native plants that have potential as landscape ornamentals. Some can grow in the middle of a traditional bluegrass lawn or in the shade of preexisting trees, but many more require the lean, sunny conditions described above in order to prosper, those same lean conditions that save on water and other resources. Visit the websites listed above to learn more about some of these plants and their uses.

The Utah Heritage Garden Program. We founded the Utah Heritage Garden Program three years ago to provide public demonstration gardens where people could go to see native plants growing in a garden setting. There are now ten Utah Heritage Gardens, with several more in the works for this summer, at various locations around the state. To get a taste of native plant gardening, visit one of these gardens, or better yet, volunteer to be a ‘gardenin’ angel’ and help care for a native plant garden. Check our website for locations and current contact people for each garden, or request a Utah Heritage Garden information brochure by mail from: UNPS, PO Box 520041, Salt Lake City, Utah 84152-0041.

Copyright 2001 Utah Native Plant Society