Q: I’d like to grow some native plants in my landscape this year. Will they take less water and be easier to care for?
A: As summer quickly approaches the unseasonably warm temperatures and lack of moisture this past winter has most gardeners concerned. The need to be water-wise in the landscape is increasingly important. There is a growing trend in Colorado to incorporate native plants into the landscape. This is a good idea in our arid climate.
Native plants are already adapted to our lean soils, extreme temperatures, and low moisture. Using them creates continuity with our natural surroundings. By planting natives in our gardens we support native plant communities that provide food and shelter for wildlife and help maintain biological diversity.
A common misconception is that native gardens look “weedy” or sparse. They don’t have to if they are given some minimal care and gardens don’t have to be completely native to be water-wise. Native plants can be planted with more traditional garden plants, but there are some general principles that do need to be followed.
Group plants together that have similar needs for water, sunlight, and soil type. Many native plants require very little supplemental irrigation once they are established. Pinon Pines (Pinus edulis) will do poorly and may not survive if they are planted in highly irrigated areas like lawns. Other natives will actually do better with some irrigation, Golden Rod (Solidago spp.), Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla ludoviciana), and Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) are examples.
Native doesn’t mean carefree. While they may not need as much attention as a hybrid tea rose, most native plants will look best with judicious pruning, removing dead flowers and appropriate spring/fall clean-up like cutting back the ornamental grasses. However, because of their suitability to our soils, heavy amending and fertilizing is not usually necessary. Loosening the soil to alleviate compaction at planting gives the roots room and access to oxygen needed to grow and will help plants establish quicker.
Mulching is still a good idea to retain soil moisture and moderate soil temperatures. Some natives like penstemons generally prefer gravel mulch. They will grow in bark mulch, but may not reseed and can be short-lived.
Native plants, like all plants, need supplemental irrigation while they become established in your garden. Most perennials will need consistent irrigation for the first season and periodically after that. Woody shrubs and trees may need supplemental irrigation for two or more years. Your local nursery or the El Paso County Extension Master Gardeners can advise you on your specific plant.
If you do choose to grow some of our great native plants, please be responsible. Purchase plants and seeds from reputable sources. Don’t collect from the wild. Native plants rarely survive if taken from the wild and seeds can require special treatment to encourage germination. Irresponsible collecting of native plants species from the wild depletes natural communities and endangers natural habitats.
Most of our local nurseries offer some native plants either in seed form or as container grown plants. There are also mail-order nurseries that offer a rich variety of native plants and seeds that are not commonly available locally. The website www.plantnative.org/nd_cotohi.htm provides a list of sources for native plants and seeds in Colorado.
The El Paso County Extension office has information about using native plants in the landscape. Call the Master Gardener Help Desk and ask for fact sheets 7.232, 7.233, 7.242 7.421, and 7.422.
Harding Nursery, Colorado Springs
Homestake Nursery and Landscape Materials, Colorado Springs
Phelan Gardens, Colorado Springs
Plants for Natural Gardens; Judith Phillips; Museum of New Mexico Press; 1995
Natural by Design; Judith Phillips; Museum of New Mexico Press; 1995
High and Dry Gardening with Cold-Hardy Dryland Plants; Robert Nold; Timber Press; 2008
Cutting Edge Gardening in the Intermountain West; Marcia Tatroe; Johnson Books; 2007
Native Plant Master Manual, El Paso County; Colorado State University; 2008
Contributed by Lisa Bird, Colorado Master Gardener. For answers to your horticultural questions, contact the Master Gardener Help Desk at 636.8921 or CSUmg2@elpasoco.com. Access fact sheets and seasonal information on the El Paso County Horticulture Website http://elpasoco.colostate.edu/horticulture/. (A version of this article appeared in The Gazette on 4/11/09.)