I didn't start out planting a naturalistic or Prairie style garden. The lush ferns and fragrant Tea Olives of previous gardens struggled to grow on my dry, windy hilltop in the Ozark Mountains. Ornamental grasses on the other hand thrived. Selecting and planting native perennials and grasses form a garden that looks good through several seasons. This type of planting can be very low maintenance and drought tolerant once established. Beneficial insects and birds will also appreciate the food and nectar many of these plants provide.
Choosing a Site
Most ornamental grasses and flowering perennials will prefer a site in full sun. Some native plants, Joe Pye Weed and Veronicastrum for example, can take light shade. Watch the plants through a season or two and they will tell you what they want. Knowing where a plant originates will provide insight to recreate the growing conditions in you own garden. Most perennials and grasses prefer soil that is lean and without a lot of added nutrients. Thought many of these plants are drought tolerant, moisture levels should be monitored while the plants establish.
Choosing the Plants
A natural style garden can have a very casual appearance It is important to choose plants with strong form to keep the planting from looking chasotic. This is a short list of plants that add structure, form and color to beds. Native plants can grow in a wide range of garden situations. Find what works for your garden and plant a lot of it.
Amsonia- Arkansas Bluestar
Two varieties of Arkansas Bluestar, Amsonia hubrichtii and Amsonia tabernaemontana are great additions to the garden. Both varieties are covered in small blue star shaped flower in late spring and have excellent fall color. Amsonia tabernaemontana or Willow Leaf Bluestar is my faborite in the garden. The dark green foliage of an established clump adds a bold form to counterbalance soft grasses and perennials.
Eupatorium- Joe Pye Weed
Joe Pye Weed likes moist soil and can be found along creek edges and streams. This is one of the last perennials to bloom and adds color to the garden through late fall. Joe Pye Weed grows tall and is useful at the back of the border. Deep green foliage will provide a backdrop for earlier blooming plants. Joe Pye flowers are a favorite for pollinators and butterflies. Plant Eupatorium in a low area to reduce the need for supplemental watering.
Echinacea will fill the garden with color through summer. When happy, Coneflowers will reseed around the garden. Echinacea purpurea is the easiest to grow and comes in a wide range of colors. Don't be afraid to try a few of the lesser known varieties. I have had great sucess with Echinacea tennesseensis which has a more graceful appearance. Leaving the flower stalks in place after bloom extends the interest and provides seed for small birds. Echinacea can be grown from seed and is a good choice when there are large areas to fill.
Baptisia- False Indigo
Native Baptisia will form a sizeable clump in the garden. The blue pea like foliage is almost shrub like and adds definition to beds. There are several varieties with blooms in blue, yellow, and white. This is a very care free plant to grow. It is best to find a permanent place in the garden as Baptisia resents being moved.
Rudbeckia- Black Eye Susan
Several varieties of Rudbeckia will provide a long season of color in the garden. My favorite is the little used Rudbeckia maxima which can grow flower stalks over feet tall. The best part- no staking required! 'Goldsturm' (pictured) is always a winner with bright yellow blooms from late summer into fall. Leaving the flower stalks in place provides another season of interest as well as food for the birds.
Panicum, also known as Switchgrass, varieties work well in a natural style planting. Most varieties of Panicum have a very upright form. These do not reseed as readily as Miscanthus varieties. Heavy Metal and Northwind are two excellent grasses. Short Stipa grass or Mexican Feather Grass is a great weaver between established plantings. This delicate blonde grass looks great combined with flowering plants and adds movement to the garden.
Most of these plants are well suited to traditional landscapes. If garden space is limited, try incorporating a few of these plants in an established garden. Adding a few of these plants to even a small urban plat will add color and benefit the wildlife.