Garden Maintenance for Native Gardens is Not Complicated!
Here are a few tips to help you along.
Watering new plants is critical during their first season of establishment. If they are matched to the right site, new plants should not need extra watering or ongoing irrigation after a year in the ground.
How much watering you need to do will depend on the amount of rain, as well as the type of soil you have. Well-draining soils will need more watering than clay soils. Water enough to prevent the soil from drying out – but don’t water if the soil is already wet! Overwatering can be as fatal to plants as underwatering. The symptoms of over-watering look the same, too — wilting!
If a plant is wilting, check the soil moisture before you water. Stick your finger several inches down into the soil. If it feels cool and moist, its probably OK. If it is dry, water slowly and deeply. The water should penetrate 2″-3” into the root zone and surrounding soil. This will encourage well established root systems.
Always keep water near the root zone, not on the leaves. Water in the morning, if possible. Use rainwater rather than well or municipal water if you can. Avoid watering with ‘softened’ water – this can cause burning in sensitive species.
A weed is a plant out of place. We encourage a gardening style where plants occupy as many niches as possible. Nature abhors a vacuum and something will fill in almost any bare spot you have in your garden. Until your established plants fill out, use mulch to cover bare spots.
The tricky part with native plant garden maintenance is that we want the plants to spread by seed. But sometimes it’s hard to know which little seedling is a weed and which will grow up into a beautiful native plant. If you aren’t sure, leave it until it flowers. Once it flowers, you will be able to tell and if it is not a plant you want, be sure to pull it before it spreads more seed. Weeds of the Northeast, by Richard Hue is a great ID book. Be careful though! Some of our favorite plants are considered weeds in this book. But the ID tool is useful. You can also use a field guide, such as Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb.
Native plants do not require fertilization if sited properly. Many have evolved in poor soils and will become overgrown and floppy if you fertilize. Lush, extra growth is more appealing to garden pests, too!
A soil test can help when selecting plants. Existing healthy vegetation can help indicate soil type/condition. The best thing to do is to ‘plant to the site’, rather than amending soils to suit a plant species. Choose species that will thrive in your soil, and you will do far less ‘fussing’ to get your garden looking good.
An exception to this is acid-loving plants (ex. Blueberries, mountain laurel, rhododendrons, azaleas). Many of us need to lower the pH a bit to grow these successfully. Try an acidic fertilizer such as Mir-acid or Holly Tone.
We offer Penn State Soil Test kits for sale in the nursery which will tell you the pH of your soil.
Mulch helps conserve soil moisture and temporarily suppresses weeds. If you allow your plants to occupy all the niches and spread throughout (via roots or seeds) this will reduce the need for mulching. It also provides greater plant diversity and needs less maintenance.
We prefer hardwood, cedar, or bark mulches to dyed mulches. They have better water holding and soil-cooling properties, and are artillery fungus-free (Sphaerobolus stellatus). Fallen leaves also make excellent mulch. They are ideal in areas where strong winds won’t blow them away.
Mulch should not exceed 2″; thicker mulch can harbor pest populations. Don’t cover the crowns of perennial plants or the root flare of trees with mulch. This is an obsolete landscaping practice! Google ‘mulch volcano’ to learn more about that.
Taking care of your native garden should be fun, not a chore. Use the opportunity to observe what your plants are doing and how they are interacting with birds and insects. Your ‘up close and personal’ time with your plants will lead to interesting observations: Do you see signs of birds? What leaves are being nibbled on? (That’s usually a GOOD thing!). Enjoy the unique scent of each plant. As you work with them, pick a leaf now and then, crush it in your had and smell. You will soon learn to be able to identify some plants by their scent.