Growing Au Naturel
Beautify your backyard with native plants that are good for you and for pollinators
A new season always stirs our interest in starting fresh. Particularly, the spring sends us on inspired trips to the plant store, calls us into the dirt again and makes us want to rejuvenate the outdoor spaces we inhabit so that we can actually enjoy them for the duration of bearable temperatures. But can we dive deeper into those thoughts this year? With new information and pro tips, can we plant with purpose, tend with intentional thought and let our backyard landscapes reach an untapped potential that’s as life-giving to us as it is to nature?
Isn’t any gardening good? When we start to design a landscape, particularly in our own backyard, often the garden we have in mind is a little toxic. Not on purpose, but they’re usually high-input systems, water-intensive and chemically dependent. They’re not great for the soil, insects, bees or birds. Transitioning your space might seem intimidating—especially if you’re not keen to the look of a native lawn. The good news is, there are small changes you can make that provide a great place to start, and it turns out that creating something that protects biodiversity is actually the secret to making a yard manageable, approachable and, no matter what size yard you have, something that makes a positive impact on the planet.
What to do first
Brandy Hall, permaculture expert and founder and managing director of Shades of Green Permaculture (SOG) likes to start with a conversation. Spend time with your yard, first, simply observing. Where does the sun hit? How do you want to use the space? Where does the water go? A simple chat about what’s happening now and what you want to happen in the future will give you the tools to transition any landscape into “ecologically-sound, healthy works of art that meld the human-built world with the natural one,” she said.
Once you know what’s happening, think about the water. “We’re in this habit, as homeowners, to want to just get rid of the water that comes onto our property,” she explained. “We see it as a nuisance. We want it away from our house and we don’t care where it goes. Aside from Watershed issues, this mindset doesn’t do anything to actually help our yard. But a water plan, figuring out how to capture it and use it rather than send it away does.”
On property at SOG, for example, there’s a giant rain tank that collects the water from the downspouts and saves it for use later through a pump. Hall installed drains to divert rain out into the yard to a rain garden where water can settle into the ground or flood other rain gardens. Other options include changing up the terrain to break up water flow, altering how gravity transports the water and using hardscape materials to send water where it’s needed. With a successful water plan, you can start reviving your soil (the next step).
“We’ve gotten to a place where our soil doesn’t really know what to do anymore,” said Hall. “But helping the soil to hold water, that’s so important. It keeps us from those periods of extreme drought and extreme flooding. Planting native plants with deeper roots helps with that, too. Think about letting leaves and dead plants decompose under your mulch beds, instead of bagging them and throwing them away. That feeds the soil with all that good carbon material it needs to support the ecosystem in your yard.”
The rest is easy. Just plant, tend and let things grow.
2023 Best Pollinator Plants To Buy And Plant
State Botanical Garden of Georgia
Coastal Plain Joe Pye Weed
Blue Wild Indigo
How to pick the right plants
Heather Alley, a horticulture professional at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, suggests starting out by simply buying three pollinating native plants every growing season. You don’t need a lot, because native plants will naturalize, or fill in. In the fall, add more, picking three new native plants to add into your landscape. To keep it very simple, do that every year to fill in your space.
With colleagues across Georgia, the State Botanical Garden of Georgia publishes a list every year of the best pollinator plants to buy and plant. It offers blooms for every season and a guarantee that you’re planting something useful for the environment. This year’s plants are the Wild Bergamot, Blue Wild Indigo, Aromatic Aster and the Georgia native, Coastal Plain Joe Pye Weed. You can also shop with the garden experts on-site during their bi-annual plant sales.
“While making this transition can be easy, there are some mistakes to avoid,” said Alley. “People tend to get in the garden in the spring and summer, but that is not the ideal time to plant perennials. Plants need time for their roots to establish and during that period watering needs are high. Planting in the fall is best for allowing plants to establish before the heat of summer.
“There’s also an inclination to purchase one of each plant that appeals to you,” she added. “But it is better to get five or 10 of one plant and add more diversity over time.”
Alley’s advice also includes planting in multiples of the same plant for a more vibrant look and to better support pollinators. Spend time in your yard and pay attention to the sun before you go out and buy. Georgia has long summer days with intense sunlight, so even four hours of sun per day is plenty for most sun-loving plants. Lastly, pay attention to the moisture in your ground. Choose plants that match the moisture availability of your site. Low-lying sites with some afternoon shade can accommodate water-loving species like Cardinal Flower and Hibiscus. Higher, dryer sites are good for prairie-associated wildflowers like Blazing Star, Liatris sp. and Asters, which will rot with too much moisture.
Don’t stress to find green alternatives to pesticides and fertilizers. Choosing NOT to get rid of pests is actually the best choice you can make. Native plants and insects work together, so your yard doesn’t actually need chemical compounding to thrive.
“Only occasionally do plants get a bad case of aphids or caterpillars that temporarily stunt or remove leaves, but this is rarely harmful to the plant,” said Alley. “The biggest issue is aphids on Milkweed, which we recommend blasting off with a stream of water. The aphids may eventually eat all the leaves, but the plants always return.”
To protect your edibles from munching critters, think organic: coffee grounds in the soil, strong-smelling herbs like garlic and thorny or sappy plants will deter bunnies; big scents also steer away deer, so mix in things like lavender or chives to respectfully keep out unwanted fauna.
It seems like a lot to think about, but with a little patience and practice, your thumb can get greener and your yard will be healthier. The plus? A native yard that’s ripe for pollinators can eventually thrive with little or no supplemental water, and you can stick to annual weeding, pruning, cutting back and mulching.
There are also plenty of resources and experts available to make the transformation easier. The State Botanical Garden of Georgia’s Connect to Protect program combines beautiful public displays of native plants with educational materials to foster an understanding of the role that native plants play in maintaining biodiversity in urban and suburban landscapes of Georgia. Shades of Green Permaculture offers The Regenerative Backyard Blueprint, a seven-module online permaculture implementation course and step-by-step guide to transforming your outdoor space into an eco-friendly paradise. You can also visit your local nursery and get to know the pros there.
Mostly, channel Alley’s advice to keep it simple; and then, start growing.
New Ideas for Natural Gardens
Brandy Hall loves to use the word “useful” when it comes to planting a garden. Useful plants give back, bear fruit, nourish soil and serve a greater purpose in the yard.
Here are her ideas to introduce them into your own.
Love boxwoods? Try pineapple guava.
This small evergreen perennial grows in shade or sun, bares delicious fruit and makes an awesome foundation hedge or privacy screen.
Love crape myrtle? Try pomegranate.
It can take harsh conditions, requires little input and has a beautiful papery orange flower in addition to its sweet, edible fruit full of health benefits.
Love pampas grass? Try muhly grass.
With the same seasonal interest, it has deeper roots to withstand flooding and drought, which means it’s perfect for rain gardens. It’s native to our region and helps beneficial insects throughout winter.
Love cut flowers like fox glove? Try liatris.
It’s a beautiful summer-blooming perennial with grassy foliage and fuzzy, bottle-brush flowers. They provide pollinators with a nectar source, too.
Love hydrangea? Try native dwarf oakleaf hydrangea.
It grows big beautiful clusters of white flowers that turn red in the fall and it has deeper roots that are more drought resistant. Plus, it provides winter forage for birds.
Love Japanese azalea? Try native flame azalea.
It has a beautiful florescent orange flower in the spring, and it’s much more adapted to our acidic soils and disease resistant.
Love ajuga? Try salvia lyrata.
This great ground cover alternative grows in similar conditions, but thrives with less input and provides a nectar source for beneficial insects and attracts butterflies. Extra perk: With a mild mint flavor, it’s great in salads.
Love liriope? Try Pennsylvania sedge.
It’s a low-growing understory plant great for paths and borders. It doesn’t spread and snuff out biodiversity.
It’s (Compost) Tea Time
Fertilizers with harsh chemicals threaten the good vibes you’re creating with natural, native planting. Instead, treat your yard to its own afternoon delight with a homemade mixture that feeds and flourishes. Compost Tea is a liquid produced by extracting microbes like bacteria, fungi, micro arthropods and others from compost using a brewing process.
Just grab an old stocking or paint strainer bag, then stuff it with deep brown-to-black compost, reminiscent of what you’d see on a rich forest floor. Hook the bag to a five-gallon bucket and fill it to the top, letting the bag float in the bucket. Add two aquarium bubbler stones to help aerate the water, then let it “steep” for one to three days at room temperature. Use your “tea” immediately, either loaded in a backpack sprayer to cover the whole yard or in a watering can to drench roots directly.